My decision to study travel writing was conflicted. As I finished my M.A. coursework, I read my first travel diary written by a woman traveling through Mexico in 1846. I was hooked. As a Literature student, I couldn't help but read her work with my lit/crit glasses on, and I read her journey as a beautiful mix of creativity, non-fiction and whispered truths in a time of patriarchal censorship and editing. While I searched her non-fiction work for traditional literary elements, I became interested in how the 19th century saw travel as a theme for their own tale.
When I selected that 1846 work on which to focus my M.A. thesis, my Chair, who has a PhD in Rhetoric, smiled and nodded excitedly: "You.... you are really stepping into a rhetorical discussion." I recoiled a bit. Rhetoric? No. I am a Literature person!
The divide between Rhetoric and Literature Studies was as clear and emboldened as possible, even as I graduated with an English M.A. I suddenly felt the need to make sense of my (shifting?) focus. I had no background in rhetoric or rhetorical theory. I was ill-prepared. Little did I know my professional career would soon be affected by that same uncertainty as well.
As I defended my thesis, I was confused about my scholarly identity- I used a literary lens to read non-fiction archival material; my Objects of Study and critical perspective didn't seem to match. In my spare time, as I watched Anthony Bourdain eat his way across the world, I analyzed his rhetoric using post-colonial and cultural lenses. But I also read poetry by Whitman and Dickinson, novels by Greene, and their imaginary travels provided the same theme that captivated me in my archival studies. Who was I, dammit?
I was so confused that I didn't take the hint from my Chair's gift of Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction.
Now, I am relieved to come across scholars like Marguerite Helmers and Tilar Mazzeo, who like me, focus on travel as a theme, and not genre, which I consider a benefit to this inclusive field. In addition to diaries, few travel writing scholars also study maps, charts, journals, letters, advertisements, and (surprising to most), fiction and poetry.
A quick look at Routledge’s research in Travel Writing Studies webpage (the leading publisher of travel writing studies) 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.
What is my Contribution to the Field?
I find that most scholarly work I read separates travel writing based on fiction and non-fiction, but I am interested in viewing travel writing inclusively, across sub-disciplines (non-fiction archival material, poetry, novels, etc) through a literary lens in order to show the relationship among self, travel and writing. Travel writing usually contains themes of conquest, subjectivity, and colonialism, so using a postcolonial critical lens is relevant, but a literary studies perspective would allow me to place works like travel diaries in a fresh context and explore the literary devices diarists creatively and purposely used to communicate, perhaps even their postcolonial messages. My past and current research has involved archival travel diaries (the edits and the second thoughts included) in order to show that self-writing is a tool for perpetually creating and re-creating the self. Additionally, I find that I am most interested in travel diaries affected by the notion of Romantic self.
What do I need for my Scholarly Journey?
In addition to building my background in travel writing theory, my endeavors require a post-modern study of "self". Writing the Self by Peter Heehs has provided a rich and concise introduction to this area for me, as it examines the beginning of the English Romantic movement and its influence on self-writing. Writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and of course the esoteric Romantic, William Blake, helped shape what Western romanticism is all about: the individual, nature, the divine creation of imagination and the potential for greatness (genius or "God", really) in the common man. The poet was not only a creator, but to many like Keats, the poet was a creator of self. The possibilities were explosive because suddenly “human beings could change their natures, decide their values, determine their aims. This altered the whole idea of what constituted a self and radically changed the relationship between self and society” (Heehs 112).
If Romantics saw themselves as self-creators, then the modern diary, as we know it (or even the concept of social media, for that matter), is a pretty Romantic notion. Margo Culley argues that diarists portray “not a self in any total sense, but a self which is to some degree a fiction, a construction” (12). Perhaps this is surprising to most, but as Francine Prose reveals, diarists like Anne Frank for example, often revise their work, revision that entails highly literary considerations, especially in the creation of the author as a character- a persona in the text. Culley's scholarship points out the role of the diary author as both creator and literary character in a hybrid of fiction and truth: “It is a paradox that the process whose frequent goal is to establish self-continuity involves at its heart a dislocation from the self, or a turning of subject into object. Even in some of the earliest American women’s diaries we can see this kind of ‘double consciousness,’ as the self stands apart to view the self” (Culley 10).
I value Culley and Prose's perspective because it is rare and insightful: diaries are literary constructs, not simply historical artifacts. Culley's work with diaries written by females, including travel accounts, prompts her to make the case that diarists do not write in a vacuum, and their writing is artfully crafted. While diaries, such as those written by women, are appealing to feminist historians and/ or postcolonial critics for their varying perspectives, I agree with Culley that dairies are also literature: "The process of selection and arrangement of detail in the text raises an array of concerns appropriately 'literary,' including questions of audience (real or implied), narrative, shape and structure, persona, voice, imagistic and thematic repetition, and what James Olney calls 'metaphors of self'" (10).
Additionally, Heehs asserts that in the 19th century, thinkers pondered on the fact that humans are able to construct a self for the masses, and still have a private self in which they are (perhaps) truly themselves. Those like Thomas Merton (Wisdom of the Desert, Zen and the Birds of Appetite) asserted that individuals already have a real self inside, but there is also a “false personality that is the creature of [their] own appetite for esteem” (Merton qtd. in Heehs 205).
When I consider travel diaries, which have been 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.
Lavinia Spalding, editor of The Best Women's Travel Writing, describes the power of travel tales, but I find most people pigeonhole travel writing in this manner. The possibilities are more expansive than this.
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). I am excited about this question because it is overlooked, especially given the often used postcolonial lens with diary work, and even more so with travel diaries.
Roadblocks and Detours: How will I Navigate through the Major Debates?
Personally, this semester's discussions and readings have emphasized the uncertain future of English Studies, namely the sub-disciplines of Literature and Cultural Studies. As English departments dissolve and sub-disciplines create their own academic and department-based identities, I see there is a hard push for Literature to have serviceable meaning to the University and its surrounding communities because money/ power is what matters to higher education administration (Banks). At my own non-English department campus, I work in a Writing Studies department, and I see first-hand how Rhet/ Comp seems to have the angle on marketability. Literature is on life support.
Travel Writing works that Spalding advertises in the above video certainly have meaning- Facebook likes and shares, retweets, study abroad and service learning courses and an impact that will surely inspire readers to write more. There’s nothing bad about that, but my interests in travel writing are somewhat hard to categorize neatly this way.If I want to study/ teach imaginary travel in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, will that draw money students into my classroom? Probably not. But if I teach a Travel Writing course in a Writing Studies Department as an elective for Rhetoric & Composition Studies B.A., then now I am onto something (and I can certainly insert Emily on my syllabus readings). In other words, I can focus my teaching on the rhetoric of travel or travel writing discourse and be able to cast a wide net, encompassing literature, non-fiction, poetry and self-writing. I guess I am learning how marketable my sub-discipline will be in higher education, and while that is a depressing road to go down, it is also realistic and helps me strategize how to best market myself and my courses. Yet I still find myself wondering about students like me, those who see themselves neither "here" nor "there", but a hybrid of English Studies. I have benefited, in my own work, from inclusivity, and I can now confidently say that I am an scholar of English Studies who focuses on themes of travel, and people can take that as they want (at least until I start my post-PhD job search 😉) because like Banks, I wonder: "while decisions to separate [English sub-disciplines] are valid and worth considering, I believe it's also worth considering more fully the important work we do by staying together" (104).
Banks, William P. "Embracing the Conflicts: An Argument Against Separating Writing Studies from English Studies". Transforming English Studies: New Voices in an Emerging Genre." Ed. Claire Oostergaard, Jeff Ludwig & Jim Nugent. Lafayette: Parlor, 2009. pp. 100-21.
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.
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.
Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York: Bloomsbury P, 2013.
Helmers, Marguerite and Tilar J. Mazzeo. "Unraveling the Traveling Self." The Traveling and Writing Self." Ed. Helmers & Mazzeo. Newcastle: Cambridge, 2007. pp.1-18.
Mulligan, Maureen. "Women Travel Writers and the Question of Veracity." Women, Travel Writing, and Truth. Ed. Clare Broome Saunders. New York: Routledge, 2012. pp. 171-184.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1992.Prose, Francine. "Reclaiming Anne Frank's Diary as Literature." YouTube, uploaded by Big Think, 23 Apr. 2012, https://youtu.be/t0VYWndMWTs.