Book review: Travel - A Literary History

Travel: A Literary History

Taken separately, writing and travel are simple concepts. Taken together, they trigger the question: of what does travel writing consist? Autobiography, memoir, journals, letters and fiction are often aspects of the form. Definition is elusive.

In this landmark book, Peter Whitfield casts his gaze across three millennia of writing rooted in travel, stretching possible definitions in all directions. He takes as his entry point, paradoxically but aptly, the Book of Exodus, and as his end point the 20th century’s “search for identity”, forged by writers in “an age of dislocation”.

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This is the only survey to date of “the entire history of travel literature”, and Whitfield’s dilemma was always what to leave out, especially given space and production cost limitations.

In the end, he produces a marvel of compactness – 200 titles duly considered in just 286 pages – a seamless job of making coherent some sense of development and direction in the genre.

“The book’s perspective is Eurocentric,” he writes, “because the literature of international travel is predominantly European [and] it does at least reflect the historical reality that it was the western European nations who travelled to and observed the lands and peoples of America, Africa and Asia, and not the reverse.”

The book is structured chronologically, its beginning spanning writings across 2,500 years from the ancient world to the 16th century, relating the core concerns of early adventurers, individually or en masse, from the Children of Israel fleeing Egypt to Herodotus’s tales of ancient peoples, from the earliest Roman conquests to the first travel guide to Greece.

Whitfield’s sources – Petrarch, Pliny the Elder, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Catullus and Xenophon among them – attest to travel spurred by conquest, producing descriptions of foreign cultures and savage wars. Polybius’s The Rise of the Roman Empire charts the conflict between Rome and Carthage, and is “the first text in which the reality of travel” – the snow, the crumbling paths and ravines – “is a central feature”.

Most early travel writing concerned itself with action, describing the clashes – religious and cultural – of the Crusades, where the writing’s focus was “the passion and the military glory or the suffering”. Writing that derived from acts of pilgrimage came closer to what we consider to be travel writing today. In describing Hebron, site of the tombs of Isaac and Abraham, the 12th-century writer Benjamin of Tudela notes that “the gentiles are fleeced by the guides and shown false tombs, while the Jews are shown the real ones” – at a price. Mendacious guides have ever been with us.

The Age of Discovery, beginning with the voyages of Magellan and Columbus, and the conquest by the Spanish of the Americas (paralleled by Portugese incursions throughout the Pacific), created new empires and, as Whitfield notes, redrew the map of the globe. “Almost overnight the known world doubled in size, and became immensely more complex.” This had a “seismic” impact upon travel literature.

The ferocity of the oceans and the savagery of nature became new travel themes, and the rhetoric of the writing not infrequently conveyed the “aggressive conviction” of the colonist’s rights to possession, vaunting their moral superiority over the conquered.

One key strand of Whitfield’s survey contends that this hauteur was overtaken by a “new humility in the face of the foreign”, as the reasons for travel evolved from conquest and, later, pilgrimage towards scientific exploration, romance and commerce.

Russia, Muscovy and the Levant soon began to feature in merchant adventurers’ accounts of trade deals and dalliances, and the thrust of the British East India Company led to enriched accounts exploring the exoticism perceived in the Mogul empires, as commerce slowly overtook conquest and travel literature began “to redefine what was significant”.

For the Jesuits, significance lay in the acquisition of converts. Whitfield illustrates the ardour of Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola, quoting their records, bringing to light a new colonial hunger for souls.

He omits the Jesuit missions to Canada, recorded less imperiously in the letters sent home by priests to their families in France, documents seminal to our knowledge of the indigenous tribes of Quebec in the 1630s and 1640s.

But this omission does not knock off kilter Whitfield’s drive in pursuit of the paradigms that governed travel’s development. The quest for knowledge – the desire for scientific understanding – produced much 18th-century writing, including the journals of Joseph Banks, who travelled with Cook aboard the Endeavour. It marked, too, the flood of records that took the Grand Tour of European destinations (principally Italy) as their subject, one which John Ruskin, in his diaries, took to a new aesthetic level of travel descriptive, promoting the 19th century’s ruminative interest in the visual.

As the modern era dawns, Whitfield deals thoroughly with seminal texts and trends, selecting shrewdly – HM Stanley, R L Stevenson, Mark Twain, Edward Lear, Sir Richard Burton – given that his options grow exponentially as the result of the genre’s popularity through Victorian times.

However, one senses the squeeze: as titles proliferate and Whitfield’s space to assess them rapidly shrinks: 40 titles take a bow in 44 pages, with a last hurrah that vaunts Paul Theroux and digs Jan Morris in the ribs.

Without missing a beat, Whitfield grasps the slick essentials of the contemporary scene, with its mounting emphasis on the personal, the confessional, and its “desire to return to something (more) elemental” with varied writers, together, promoting “a spirit of openness, ready to learn from other cultures or alien environments, and in the process to learn about themselves”.

It’s all done with wit and verve and poise, as the story unfolds like a journey in itself, and it leaves you keen to dig out those books – putative “classics” – you meant forever to grab from the shelf, or to find those titles that, until now, have remained undiscovered.

Travel: A Literary History

by Peter Whitfield

Bodleian Library, 303pp, £19.99