The above quote was taken from a travel website, it was made by a photojournalist of the site and sums up the theory I have on travel writing. This essay will set out to prove that although there are those pieces of travel literature that have dubious factual relevance and foundation, notably the works of Ernest Hemmingway could be put into this group, Ernest Hemingway was one of the world’s ultimate Literary Travellers. He was a writer that we associate with many places around the globe. When we think of Hemingway we might think of Paris and The Sun Also Rises or Spain and For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Italy and A Farewell to Arms.
Maybe we see him on Kilimanjaro or in Cuba or maybe as a young man in the northern woods of Michigan. Some great literature legends have written travel books, Mark Twain was a great traveller and he wrote A Tramp Abroad and The Innocents Abroad, which both have been labelled travel books, Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote books concerning travel, Stevenson’s first regularly-published book is a graceful account of a canoe-trip he had made in 1876 in Belgium and Northern France with Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson. Even political extremist Che Guevara wrote a travel book entitled The Motorcycle Dairies: A Journey Around South America
The bulk of travel writers that I have read seem to be using their experiences in life to describe their feelings when travelling. You could say that travel writing is perhaps one of the major users of the signifiers and the signified, which are more commonly seen in poetry.
We have to ask ourselves what travel writing actually is; I feel that it could be best described as the use of the writer’s personal experiences, other anecdotes and quotations that add life to the piece. Travel writing is unique to the experiences of that writer, a caricature of the people, or a detailed fresco of the place, is often all we get from the writer/traveller. For the lazy traveller/reader, it is a start at a comprehension between them and us, there and here. But even this is a fruitless exercise.
Because of this, travel literature takes on an almost fictional aura. The reader is introduced to real people who may never be met, and transported to places at the turn of a page.
One of the most successful travel writers of the last couple of decades, American Bill Bryson has found world wide acclaim for his books which include Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk In The Woods, Bizarre World, Neither Here Our There: Travels Around Europe , Notes from a Small Island and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. There have been audio recounts of his work on tape and C.D. and even a television series following his book about Britain. Bryson’s own self – deprecating sense of humour, followed by acute and witty observations of the situations he finds himself in, the people he meets and the places he visits, are what makes him so successful, leading to some of his fans to comment:
“I want to congratulate you on the kind of books that make me laugh in public or private and the kind that I have not found before.”2
“Like your stuff, it has a real warmth to it & makes me want to visit places I’ve never had the slightest interest in.”3
“Without you, literature would have a gaping hole. Thank you.”4
Pretty strong praises I’m sure you’d agree Bryson himself accredits his success to the ability to tell events in an old-fashioned story telling way.
“It’s just like when you hear a great story in a bar, an anecdote that you want to rush right home and relate to other people. You want to spread the word.”5
Throughout Bryson’s books the reader is transported into the work of the Appalachian Trail, looking out from the mountaintops at the surrounding countryside. That’s what you appreciate, similarly the reader can also to Bryson’s account and remember something that they have done – admittedly it might not be an exact true memory that you are able to share with Bryson’s – but I for one can relate to my own friends that become like Stephen Katz in A Walk In The Woods, we’ve all stayed in dodgy B & B’s as in Notes From A Small Island, and even though not everyone has eaten in a Bowling Alley restaurant – we’ve all had to deal with nightmare waitresses.
The feeling that you get that Bryson is on a trip of self discovery comes from his accounts. In The Lost Continent he travels from his small hometown to retrace the route his dad took to get to his grandparents through several towns. The route was etched into his mind, as was the old car, and memories of long road trips taken by his family in his youth. In fact it is quite emotional to hear Bryson’s account of how strange it was to see his grandparents house, knowing that it wouldn’t be the same and that they wouldn’t be there to meet him at the gates and what starts out as an amusing road trip accounts ends in a social commentary concerning change.
Michael Palin is undoubtedly Britain’s foremost travel writer with journeys such as his Around the World in Eighty Days, his Pole-To-Pole trip and the Hemmingway Adventure. Palin is another travel writer that equates his experience travelling with memories and experiences he already has whether it’s recounting stories of travelling on trains on his father, the feelings evoked when first reading Hemmingway and the problems he accounted when flying in his Monty Python days.
“The Germans kept to themselves and hogged the best seats, the most food, and with an instinct for invasion went up and down the ship, claiming the prime areas for themselves.”6
“This building was so inappropriate it had to have been a result of foreign aid – one of those self-serving boondoggles in which a western country gives money in the form of a contract to one of its own builders to put up an expensive structure no one really needs.”7
The previous quotes are by Paul Theroux on observations made on his Oceanic journey. Theroux is a prolific writer: he has written more than forty books and has published articles and short stories in a variety of major newspapers and magazines Theroux describes things wonderfully and I feel epitomises the work that is undertaken by travel writers.
It’s very interesting to read about places that the reader is usually unlikely ever to go, or circumstances under which they’re unlikely to see them. The challenge is to write descriptive passages in a fresh way. Too often they sound like something you’d write on a postcard: “Mum, it’s breathtaking. It was stupendous.”
Paul Theroux manages to describe a landscape in a very original and novel way. The work of a travel writer is not supposed to be treated as gospel, their personal memories and accounts of places and people they have seen written in novel form much later after returning. They are not supposed to be treated as travel guides more a travel companion, a piece of literature that encapsulates the author self discovering journey through life’s many highways and allows us as the audience to commence our own journey of self discovery, be it by undertaking our own journey or simply by sitting at home, work or in a cafï¿½ reading someone’s accounts of travel.
Everyone in the world has done travel writing after a fashion, because everyone who has gone on vacation has written somebody a letter or a postcard. And most of those phrases that spring to mind have been used. It’s very hard to describe something that’s particularly beautiful or majestic or whatever in a way that’s fresh and original. To read different writers can often mean transportation to a different place, supposedly the same. If we really want to experience the place, we must get up and go there ourselves.