Since its inclusion in MLA bibliographic material in the 1980s, the broad scope of "travel literature" forces scholars to perpetually (re)define the genre; yet, perhaps an even more frustrating puzzle is: what is a traveler?
Critics such as Edwin Fussell, claim that not every person who has moved about and encountered new people and places has traveled: “Explorers learn the contours of undiscovered shorelines and mountains, tourists learn exchange rates and where to go in Paris for the best hamburgers, and travelers learn. . . not just foreign customs and curious cuisines and unfamiliar beliefs and novel forms of government. They learn. . . humility” (13). On the other hand, Dr. Joe Cosco, scholar and associate professor of English Studies at ODU, argues against this kind of compartmentalization: “I don’t see any value in narrowly defining travel literature or excluding certain types of travel or travelers.” What is most helpful to scholars like Cosco and Travel Writing author Carl Thompson is for the researcher to be mindful of the writer's cultural milieu (27), and I am learning that this is the scholarly mindset of those engaged in Cultural Studies (Elias).
Fussell’s classification system leaves out those whose movement creates guidebooks, maps, or even the online reviews that 21st century movers depend on: “Guidebooks belong to the world of journalism, and they date; travel books belong to the literature, and they last. Guidebooks are not autobiographical but travel books are, and if the personality they reveal is too commonplace and un-eccentric, they will not be very readable” (15). Through passively elitist terms, Fussell explains how true travelers, “realize their provincialism and recognize their ignorance” (13) to learn "moral" life lessons through their travel and write about those experiences through fascinating literature (15); in other words, travelers come to “understanding by a process of intellectual kinesis, of the mind in motion” (17). At the same time Fussell demands morality, he also leaves room for travelers to falsify their narratives in their accounts to gain an audience (16).
The travel writer then faces an ethical and rhetorical dilemma: do I paint myself honestly, even if I am seen as a “tourist;” or do I fabricate my travel experience in an effort to show growth and earn my “traveler” label?
Post-colonial critic, Mary Louise Pratt seems to respond to this dilemma by calling out the “experiential un-hero,” or the travel writer who leans on patterns of fiction to create a story worth selling (75). As an example, Pratt offers critical insights of the travel writings of Scottish explorer Mungo Park: Travels into the Interiors of Africa (1799), who spent 3 years within Africa aiming to discover the course of Niger River. Park's writings focus on his own personal adventures in Africa, and he leaves out the taciturn observation- focus of science and geography of most of his contemporaries, he is able to develop a narrative similar to fiction, with all necessary literary ingredients, including a hero (73).
To speak to Pratt’s point, Margo Culley, a feminist historian who has worked extensively with female travel diaries, warns readers that even in the most seemingly transparent writings, “all diarists are involved in a process, even if largely unconscious, of selecting details to create a persona” (12). Thus, travel writers have the opportunity to place themselves at the center of their saga in order to actualize their experience as intrepid (in an effort for financial gain, fame, cultural capital) instead of gaining deeper insight from the experience itself. Their writing then appropriates places and people as experiences which can be sold through literature or plane tickets.
It's worth noting that both Fussell and Pratt's definitions reject the imaginary traveler altogether. I agree with Cosco who argues for a legitimate inclusion of the poetic and fictional traveler: "Why exclude an internal traveler such as Emily Dickinson or a perhaps more cosmic traveler like Whitman from the travel literature umbrella? Does a traveler have to physically move through physical space? I think not." Moreover, if non-fiction travel writing has troubling veracity, there is difficulty in separating nonfiction and fiction in this genre.
This short clip from CNN's Parts Unknown, demonstrates the difficulty of categorizing someone like Bourdain as "traveler" or "tourist".Still, there's an obvious effort in modern travel writing for the author to be far-removed from the label of “tourist;” thus, reaffirming divisions like those Fussell provides. Popular culture travelers are notoriously questing for their "off-the-beaten-path" persona, tasting, speaking, noticing the culture in ways which authenticate the experience for their audiences. For example, Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, seems to lean, and even more now in recent seasons, on local food and cooking to validate the journey. Often, Bourdain (who writes the narrative of the show and has been described as the modern Mark Twain) handles touchy topics (politics, war, colonization, gender) over a bowl of local street food, bridging the cultural gaps with slurps and "wow, now that's good". Bourdain’s work sometimes steps into problematic territory of emphasizing cultural expectations and stereotypes but often through post-modern self-referential terms; and this writing (and the success of the show) perhaps only legitimizes, like it or not, the rigid, dividing lines which Fussell proposes in regard to travel identity.
Bourdain, Anthony. "Iran: Not What I Expected." YouTube, uploaded by CNN, 28 Oct. 2014, https://youtu.be/ysYGCtGYGdc.
Cosco, Joe P. Personal Interview. 22 Sep. 2016.
Culley, Margo. Introduction. A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to the Present, edited by Culley. The Feminist Press, 1985. pp. 3-26.
Elias, Amy. “Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline, edited by Bruce McComiskey, NCTE, 2006, pp. 223-274.
Fussell, Edwin. Introduction. The Norton Book of Travel, by Fussel. Norton, 1987. pp. 13-17.
Pratt, Mary Louise. "Anti-conquest II: The Mystique of Reciprocity." Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1992. pp. 67-83.
Thompson, Carl. Travel Writing: The New Critical Idiom. Routledge, 2011.