Thursday, November 3, 2016

English 810, Paper 4: Common Theories and Methods in Travel Writing

As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, studying travel writing requires scholars to first contextualize the writing to understand concepts such as genre, authorship, veracity, etc. This can be incredibly difficult as writing with travel themes overlaps across genres. Despite the division among travel writing scholars’ perspectives, the two overwhelmingly dominant theoretical frameworks to view travel literature are postcolonial and feminist criticism.
Postcolonial Framework
Foundational postcolonial critic, Edward Said borrows Michel Foucault’s theory of discourse to explore the term “orientalism” as a “system of knowledge” (73) the West (namely America, France and Britain) uses to explain, think / write about the Middle East and India. Said affirms that this discourse not only perpetuates cultural, social, imperialistic expectations of the the Orient, but it also helps shape Western identity (68). As this discourse exists, “European culture was able to . . . produce . . . the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” in an effort to simultaneously dominate the Orient and define itself as superior (70).
Studying this discourse requires Said to survey a wide variety of writers and works: “Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories” (69). While he admits how problematic it can be to study such an expansive range of genres, Said’s loyalty to a cultural studies and postcolonial lens demands this inclusion.
The varying types of writers- journalists, missionaries, tourists, scientists, novelists- perpetuates “positional superiority” over the Orient, providing “a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the upper hand” (73). Moreover, Said argues that Orientalism is produced by agents involved “in his own circumstances” (77); in other words, there are no pure individuals studying a the Orient- there are “Americans”, “Europeans”, etc., who bring with them all the traditional and preconceived expectations of the Orient, but most importantly, they bring positions of dominance. It is because of this framework that Said insists that Orientalism has “less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world,” reaffirming power roles (79).
Orientalism asks theoretical questions like: “How did philology, lexicography, history,. . . political . . . theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism’s broadly imperialist view of the world?...How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another” (81)?  
To answer such questions, Said uses what he calls “strategic location” to study an “author’s position in a text with regard to the Oriental material he writes about” (86) in order to understand how an author uses translations, “narrative voice,” or other literary and rhetorical choices to connect with other works which guarantee the author’s perspectives. Said is careful to point out that the results are only representations of audience expectations of the Orient: “the audience is watching a highly artificial enactment of what a non-Oriental has made into a symbol for the whole Orient” (87).
Feminist Framework
For travel writing scholars, the work of feminist historians is invaluable.  For example, The 1970s movements in feminism saw a resurgence of interest in women’s travel writing that had long been “superficially ... strongly associated with men” (Thompson 3), namely the travel writing from the 19th-century American West; the discourse of the frontier (both in fiction and nonfiction) provides feminist historians a plethora of first person narrative accounts of a time of great mobility, cultural exchange, warfare and political and global restructuring.
In this short news report, it becomes quickly obvious how difficult using diaries as objects of study can be, but with 21st century digitization technology, diaries and travel logs are more accessible to a wider audience.

The majority of the hundreds of diaries of the 1800s in America document the experience of The Overland Trail, linking the east with California or Oregon. John M. Faragher, author of Women and Men on The Overland Trail, estimates that from 1840 through 1870 as many as “half a million individuals traveled the overland route to the Pacific Coast and other parts of the West” (11), and Lillian Schlissel, author of Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, describes how “Over 800 diaries and day journals kept by those who made the overland journey have been published or cataloged in archives, and many more are still in family collections” (11).
These diaries became important objects of study for feminist historians like Armitage and Jameson who conclude that despite the dailiness that overwhelms female frontier diaries, they are still relevant and perhaps can divulge more authentic information about life on the frontier, exchange with natives and non-white peoples, allowing, at times, rare insights.
Actually, this kind of critical theory is what coaxed me into studying travel writing as a sub-discipline, so it is easy for me to see the benefits of these kinds of conversations- shedding a feminist light on a traditionally male-dominated writing space allows readers with cliché assumptions, like myself, to become curious and ask questions which overlap across disciplines.
What these Theories Share
The leading publisher of travel writing studies is certainly Routledge, and a quick look at Routledge’s research in Travel Writing Studies webpage shows how significant feminist and postcolonial theory continues to be to the study of this genre for the past decade; notable works include Women, Travel Writing, and Truth and Travel Writing, Form, and Empire. 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 (works from / about females, workers or the non-elite/ non-military traveler) during times of great movement.  The archival of such travel writings allows students to “read against the grain of what they are now regularly taught to see” (Campbell) and rethink sources that shape knowledge (epistemology). Moreover, Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, a postcolonial study of travel writing, (re)introduced critical vocabulary such as: “contact zones” (7-8), “transculturation” (7), and “autoethnography” (9) in the early 1990s, placing valuable significance on the “other” in travel writing while simultaneously adding to debates on how English scholars “shape-re-member-[an alternative] rhetorical presence" (Glenn 8). With that in mind, both postcolonial and feminist frameworks allow travel writing to highlight themes of power, exploitation, “other” and control.
Works Cited
Armitage, Susan, and Elizabeth Jameson, eds.  Introduction. The Women’s West. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987. pp. 3-6.
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.
Faragher, John M. Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven : Yale UP, 1979.
Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold : Regendering The Tradition From Antiquity Through The Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
Riley, Glenda. Women and Indians on the Frontier, 1825-1915. U of New Mexico P, 1984. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). http://search.ebscohost.com.ezhost.utrgv.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=22748&site=ehost-live
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” The Edward Said Reader, edited by Moustafa Bayoumi & Andrew Rubin, Vintage Books, 2000. pp.63-113.

Schlissel, Lillian, ed. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken, 1982.

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