I think when colleagues or friends hear that I study and write about travel writing, they think of those articles in airline magazines tucked into the pockets of plane seats. You know, the luxuriously reported adventures: “Best Places to Eat like a Local in Dubai” or “Greece’s Secret AgroTourism: How to Say ‘Opa!’”
Nope. Not me. And even if I was interested in that kind of travel writing it would most likely be through a postcolonial lens of Marxist rhetoric.
My focus for the last few years has been 19th century American travel diaries, so not exactly Elizabeth Gilbert, and that’s fine with me. Diarists such as Susan Shelby Magoffin, Isabella Lucy Bird and Amelia Stewart Knight produced the kinds of works I study in order to understand the relationship between writing and travel (and the many layers in between). In addition to diaries, travel writing scholars also study maps, charts, journals, letters, advertisements, and (surprising to most), fiction and poetry. Truly, the focus is theme and not genre which I consider a benefit to this inclusive field.
Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library houses some of the rarest, unique manuscripts in existence, and I am fortunate to have worked with their diaries in my travel writing scholarship.
Diaries and Major Questions
One of the major questions in this sub-discipline is “What is a travel writer?”, and critics such as Fussell often leave 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). Obviously, Fussell's point of view, albeit rare in this field, would cut the OOS selection down to fiction and only certain subjectively acceptable diaries and journals.
The Appeal of the Diary as an OOS
Scholars like me are interested in dusty, fragile diaries because they provide unique historical, social and political perspectives often from people outside the scope of conventional authority: works from / about females, workers or the non-elite/ non-military traveler during times of great movement. Within English Studies, around the time of the Civil Rights movement, faculty have been pursuing these kinds of readings with hopes to "bring traditionally marginalized voices into the curriculum" (McDonald 150). 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). 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). 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).
Critical Lenses and Diaries
Because diaries and journals are troubling objects of study for multiple reasons (i.e. unreliable narrators, biased editors and censorship), I have discovered that one solution to approach this problem is to view non-fiction travel writing with the same literary lens I use when studying fiction. For example, my current project views 19th century women’s travel writing and the consistent use of pathetic fallacy to encode messages that, otherwise, they would be unable to communicate. My literary studies background allows me to read these archival texts with an eye for devices commonly associated with fiction- another overlap in English Studies.
In fact, 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.
When I consider travel diaries, which are my primary objects of study, I often see the public and private self in terms of inner and outer journey. In "Women Travel Writers and the Question of Veracity," scholar Maureen Mulligan explains how "emotional or spiritual journeys" allow more “literary” conventions such as poetry, suspense, characterization, symbolism, for example; so while the truth of what happened is questionable, the writing will point out what Mulligan refers to as “inner truth,” or as I like to see it the “inner journey” (171) of the writer. Sometimes that “inner journey” requires some help that comes in the form of exaggerations or outright lies- what I would label "fictionalization".
If diaries are literary constructs and not simply historical, archival material, Culley asks “How, then, do we read a diary, whether an original manuscript or an edited version, with an awareness that it is a verbal construct with important relationships to other forms of literature such as… fiction? “ (16). This is the question I think is overlooked, especially given the often used postcolonial lens with diary work, and even more so with travel diaries.