Campbell, Mary Baine. “Travel Writing and its Theory.” The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. edited by Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, Kindle ed., Cambridge UP, 2006.
Campbell briefly pinpoints the fundamental moments in modern travel writing studies, a very quiet corner of English Studies in general. Travel writing touches “across a wide political spectrum” such as anthropology, geography, and of course, postcolonial theory, as it relates to the aftermath of imperial powers’ traveling and settling. Campbell’s chapter mostly concerns itself with modern interest in travel writing studies, post World War Two. Because travel writing helps make sense of the imputed meanings of historical events and movements, historians value travel writing as pieces of reception histories. However, early modern readings of travel literature in non-historical emphases were “often laughed out of court” by scholars because of their non-literary feel and “their apparently paranoid encoding of imperialist rhetoric and its key tropes.” It was not until mostly French theoretical models, especially those from Foucault emerged within the 1960s- 1980s that interest in travel writing studies bloomed.
Campbell acknowledges how Foucault’s influence on discourse analysis combined with the New Historicist movement in the 1980s opened discussions and focused “not at the individual productions of a single canonical author, but at the collectively produced ‘discourse’ surrounding and constituting a particular matter of social interest or action (and not necessarily limited to written or even verbal texts)”.
Campbell attributes perhaps the most scholarly credit to postcolonial literary critic Edward Said whose 1978 work Orientalism produced a straightforward thesis regarding the need to study the East as “discourse” as it is a “enormously systematic discipline” that has been controlled and manufactured by imperialist powers. Because of Said’s traditionally literary approach to non-fiction travel writing and archival material, critical interest of such works piqued, and this scholarly attention helped foster the focus of travel writing as a true sub-discipline.
In this interview by Media Education Foundation, Edward Said expounds on his controversial yet widely read book, Orientalism.
Campbell also comments on the modern problem of displaced peoples, immigrants, refugees, and exiles, for example, as a catalyst for interest in travel writing studies and its role in understanding varying discourses (political, ethnographic, etc.), but especially in imperialists’ pursuit of “power and wealth”. Literary Marxists such as Michael Nerlich, New Historicists Stephen Greenblatt (whose work with the Berkeley publication Representations also provided rich work on travel studies in the 1980s and 90s) and Louis Montrose are such writers who take interests in travel writing’s post-colonial spin.
The obvious effect that travel writing studies has on the academy is the varying historical, social and political perspectives divulged in, often, private travel diaries of people during times of great movement. In fact, Campbell points out that feminist critics and historians are leaders in providing critical value to once forgotten travel texts: works from females, workers or the non-elite/ non-military traveler. The archival of such travel writings allow students to “read against the grain of what they are now regularly taught to see, at least at the post-secondary level, as situated and ideological texts, and they are also enabled to study a wider range of texts, produced by a wider range of authors and ‘cultures’, than they had before”.
The study of travel writing as a sub-discipline is young, as it has only been in MLA bibliographical material for a few decades; therefore the history of the study is even more unmapped, making Campbell’s work fresh and necessary.
Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. Print.
While Thompson’s work is not a focused look at travel writing studies or theory; it does provide a helpful overview of the major shifts and changes in the genre itself, allowing travel writing scholars, as myself to contextualize this subdiscipline within larger theoretical and historical movements. This comprehensive work begins by neatly defining travel writing as writing “underpinned by, and emerg[ing] from, an encounter between self and other precipitated by movement” (10). His efforts for terseness combats against the sub-disciplines’ “complex and confusing relationship with any number of closely related (indeed often overlapping) genres” (21).
Indeed, “travel writing” can hardly be compartmentalized, as many schools are interested in its rhetorical, historical, cultural, environmental and sociological narratives. Thompson points out that the 18th and 19th centuries saw travel writing as a privileged genre, as it focused on information that was new and necessary to the world: geography, anthropology and biology. The travel writing that circulated during this time was heavily scientific and observational.
During the mid and late 19th century, travel writing shifted to reveal both the personal (inward) and geographical (outward) journey (109): “More specifically, it is chiefly a product of those larger literary and cultural movements that we now call sentimentalism and Romanticism” (110).
From the 19th century onward, it may be argued that the outward travel dims and the reader is relieved that “this traveller has at least made some important self-discoveries, even if he has not made the great discoveries about the wider world that are perhaps more traditional travel writing” (97).
The 19th century American Western travel diary, a specific travel writing interest of mine, seems to fall into the “alternative critical idiom” described by Thompson: “many travelogues seek to combine Enlightenment and Romantic discourses, and so maintain an agenda that is both scientific/ intellectual and literary/ autobiographical” (118). In other words, “...the travel account does not just offer a larger history of the self, it is also plotted as a developmental narrative of growing self-knowledge and self-realisation” (114).
For Thompson, modern travel writing only continues the double journey of space and psyche in more intentional and often, unfortunately for the reader, contrived ways in an effort to reach the “conclusive, climactic scene, in which the traveller seemingly gains an epiphanic insight into him- or herself” (115).
The 1970s movements in feminism saw a resurgence of interest in women’s travel writing that had long been “superficially ... strongly associated with men” (3). This decade also saw a rich amount of literary, feminist and historical criticism dealing with the female American western travel diary, as they were plentiful and a rather ignored collection of artifacts.
Additionally, the Cambridge University literary journal, Granta helped play a role in travel writing’s recent interest. The journal ran several travel-themed issues in the 1980s and 90s, and developed the “assumption that travel writing is a genre especially reflective of, and responsive to, the modern condition” (2).
While Thompson’s work is a nice introduction to the genre, it fails to dedicate any serious space to theory or history of the study, and in a comprehensive work such as this and in an area that is increasing in scholarly interest, that would be helpful.