Pico Iyer Journeys

Travel Writing in America

Does such random anecdotage count as “American travel writing” (especially when it comes from someone born in Oxford, England, to Indian parents, and living in Japan) ? Probably not. But as someone born in Oxford, England, to Indian parents, and living in Japan, I’ve long been interested in what constitutes the distinctly “American” component of American travel writing. Travel writing anywhere involves an extension of the passing into something more durable, and the elaboration of an incident that would be humdrum at home into something that is revealing both of setting and of self. Yet at a time when America is largey dominant in the fields of the English-language novel and serious non-fiction, we often look across the Atlantic when we’re in search of classic travel-writing. This is in part, no doubt, because the English, living in the national equivalent of a small town, have to go abroad to see the world; an American can sample most of the world’s landscapes, both cultural and natural, without leaving his own country (nearly all the world’s climatic zones can be found in Hawaii). But more than that, it speaks to some sense that the English, among others, have long been able to take the world as their backyard, even their private property; Americans are still more innocent abroad.

This perception is doubly curious insofar as America, in its modern form, was founded by travelers (is even named after a traveler)–and travelers with a vengeance, as well as with a mission: from its earliest colonial origins, America has been a country for pilgrims longing to draw closer to their God. The centuries have passed and we may think ourselves now on a different planet from the early settlers, and yet this sense of searching–and a corresponding sense of a vast wilderness ready to overwhelm us, in all directions (“America is a land of wonders,” as de Tocqueville wrote)–has remained to this day the driving impulse of American travel writing.

In 1939, defining American literature as a whole, Philip Rahv devised a famous distinction between the “paleface” and the “redskin,” the one drawn to the high refinements of the Old World he had ostensibly left behind, the other attracted to the boisterous vitality of the frontier. Though the distinction was aimed at poetry and fiction, it applies most pungently, I think, to American travel writing, which even now seems, with one foot, to be wandering off in the direction of Henry James (or Frances Mayes), and with the other towards Mark Twain (or P.J. O’Rourke). Open almost any travel magazine in America today and you will find elegant paeans to Paris, say, or Kyoto, cheek by jowl with much rowdier stuff about getting drunk in Costa Rica or busted in Bangkok. Often the most interesting pieces, in which you can hear a truly distinctive American voice, are those in which someone combines the extremes, to come up with what might be called an anarchic voyage of the soul: Henry Miller, for example, in his exuberant, and often radiant travel-classic about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi.

This is all a huge simplification, of course, and yet it does help to lay down a cartography for what is the distinctively American contribution to this global form. Restlessness is part of the American way–it’s part of what brought many of the rest of us to America, in fact–and it’s no coincidence that the U.S. is the place that invented the car culture, in a way, flies more passenger miles than the rest of the world combined and put its people on the moon. Even in the early days of the republic, Abigail Adams, wife of John, was referring to her fellow citizens, wittily, as “the mobility.” And at almost the same time, one of the first official American travel writers, William Bartram, traveling around the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida in 1791, was striking the same note his ancestors might have done: the whole world, he wrote, was “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator” and just to transcribe its details was to give voice to a song of praise. When these two impulses coincided, America gave the world Emerson, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, great travelers all, who found “transports” and far-off cultures and even glimpses of Eternity without straying very far from home.

Thus whether of the New England or the Montana school, as you could call them (or whether just a sui generis master such as S.J. Perelman), the American travel writer has at once looked for a kind of light, and been glad to find it near to hand. For decades, while the British were exploring Africa or Afghanistan (or, for that matter, America itself), Americans were charting the vast wilderness around them and, in the process, asking questions of themselves (and making discoveries) that weren’t so common among Victoria’s men and women. From Walt Whitman, who found in the open road a perfect model–and vessel–for the new democracy (and, with Thoreau, among others, began to expound a whole philosophy of vagabondage), to Jack Kerouac, with his sweet reveries, and Annie Dillard, with her hard-won epiphanies, the spiritual component of American travel writing has never been far from the surface; America’s explorations have been metaphysical in a way that travel seldom is for writers from the Old World. American travel writing pushes and prods, you could say, where English often saunters (and French dilates); American travel writing is impatient for a resoluton that older countries may have given up on. The English traveler still carries himelf often at a small distance from the place he’s exploring, and is seldom naked in the way an Edward Hoagland or even a Jon Krakauer might be; there is in American travel writing still, I think, an element of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, and an American in India might not content himself so readily with, say, the whimsical amusements of Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday.

The Englishman, in my experience, is often traveling for a lark, on holiday or just to escape the boredoms of home; the American, in many cases, is on a mission, and is venturing his very being (and those Englishmen who want to undertake such a journey–Christopher Isherwood and D.H. Lawrence, for example–often remove themselves to America). This purposefulness can make for a kind of naivete and an air of self-importance–as well as a frustration–in a world that is seldom eager to give itself over to our plans and projections, but it does confer a sincerity, an urgency on American travel writing that I don’t find so often in the “American travel writing” of a Crevecoeur, say, or a Fanny Trollope.

In real American travel writing, I would hazard, there’s something at stake, inwardly as well as practically; the American traveler is generally looking for something, and it may be as profound, as essential, as himself or his salvation. The result is a prose that is less urbane often, more unguarded, even more credulous than that of the Brit, and yet there is in the air some sense of transformation. In such great American travelers as Paul Bowles (and his descendants, Robert Stone or even Don DeLillo), this leads to a kind of reverse transformation that is annihilation; no one has written with more pitiless clarity about the traveler who is so ready to lose himself abroad that he gets taken in entirely and cannot put  the pieces together at the end.

Even Henry James, whom most of us might place in the other camp, exploring the mysteries of the dinner table and the courtly silence, wrote, in The American Scene, “The il (itals on “il” only) legible word, accordingly, the great inscrutable answer to questions, hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant {itals}, belonging to no known language, and it is under this convenient ensign that he travels and considers and contemplates, and, to the best of his ability, enjoys.” The same James once identified Americans, as Michael Gorra reminds us here, as “passionate pilgrims.”

This all has a particular value today, I think, because the American traveler, in a country that borders on few others and at a time when only one in six of his fellow citizens holds a passport, is the only way some of us can get a living and human sense of the world around us. The major news magazines (for one of which I’ve written for more than twenty years) have cut down their coverage of international affairs by as much as 70% in the last fifteen years; and the TV networks, even as they tell us that we’re living in a global neighborhood, in which the business of one place is the business of everywhere, in practice give us less and less of the most basic information about Burma, say, or the Ivory Coast. A travel writer today cannot get away with describing the wondrous surfaces of Delhi or Cairo, in part because many of his readers may have been there themselves (or might be about to go there tomorrow); instead, in many cases, he’s better advised to take us into some secret aspect of those places, as of a diner in Vermont, or that Chinese mon-and-pop sore in Sao Paulo, that most of his readers lack the time or opportunity to visit. Just six weeks before the planes flew into the World Trade Towers in New York, I happened to be in southern Yemen, traveling around the area where Osama Bin Laden was born (and where, a few months earlier, terrorists had blown up the U.S.S. Cole). When war broke out soon thereafter, I was immeasurably grateful to be able to picture the people and the broken streets we were now describing as a center of evil, and to be able to offer what first-hand reports I could to neighbors who otherwise knew nothing of Yemen except what they saw on screens.

As Thoreau writes in his seminal essay, “Walking,” with a characteristic sense of intensity, “We should go forth on the shortest walk perchance in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return.” You find that spirit today in the likes of Peter Matthiessen and Gary Snyder. And at some point in the last century, soon after the American Empire replaced the British as the leading force in the world, American travel writing seemed to begin to get  its own back on its Old World master; for me some of the most engaging travel books of recent years have been the ones written by Americans in Britain (I’m thinking of Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and Bill Buford, especially), who have done to Britain what the British traditionally did to the rest of the world, traveling around its shores and remarking, often a little witheringly, on the strange ways and odd habitations of the natives.

Part of the fascination of much travel writing everywhere is that what used to be a simple exchange–a European writing of Peru, say–is now a much richer and more complicated dialogue: a woman half-Thai and half-Californian, perhaps, living in Paris, writing of a Peru largely filled with Japanese businessmen and German tourists. Yet even in this most contemporary of forms, the best American travel writing is still lit up, I think, by that spirit of transcendence less visible abroad. “All that is necessary to make any language visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view,” wrote John Muir, “or from the old one with our heads upside down. Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off Holy Land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted.” Muir might have been born in Scotland, but he came to America, I suspect, in part to find that wisdom, and the wilderness that gave rise to it, and in the process offered a rallying cry for American travelers to this day.

When Jason Wilson, with his customary discernment, sifted out 100 pieces from the year just past to give to me–leaving me with the difficult task of singling out just 20 or so–I was looking especially for pieces that leave travel behind, and rise out of the fact of simple movement from A to B to record something deeper and more lasting. Herman Melville, after all, was one of the most celebrated travel writers of his day (using “travel writing” in the lowest sense), and yet his countrymen stopped reading him when he started venturing out on the much wilder and more unusual seas of his memory and consciousness. Now, 150 years later, what we value him for are those inner, and half-mad journeys; many of us can get to the Marquesas, and see the palmy beaches he described in his early books, but few indeed can go out on the stormy expeditions into religion and desecration that he started. Much of Paul Theroux’s most memorable and enduring travel writing, likewise, comes, for me, in his half-invented memoirs, in which he undertakes a highly fearless journey into the interior.

So my criterion, in a simple way, was to find travel pieces that would be interesting to people who have no interest in travel–and to find accounts of Kabul or a Jersey truck-stop that would appeal to people who hadn’t known they’d want to read about those places. There are some travelers, like Tim Cahill in this book, who so excel at passing on their excitement about the road that we will travel anywhere they go with them (Cahill almost persuades me here that the “geographic cure” has validity, and, as he puts it, that “favorite places have the capacity to heal”). And yet, when we join Roger Angell in a car, or Adam Gopnik on the local bus, we see how travel is really a part of even the most sedentary life.

Heather Eliot (whom I’ve never, sad to say, read before) takes me on a transfixing journey here, and never even mentions the place where her transformation unfolds; Michael Byers goes to a place that seems almost impossible to make new–the National Mall–and somehow, through clarity and attention, shows it to us as if we were looking at it for the first time. Travel writing, I come to think, is much more a matter of writing than traveling–the hard part of the journey takes place at the desk–and I realized, making this selection, that I’d much rather read Philip Roth on Newark than most of the rest of us on North Korea. As Thoreau puts it, much too memorably again, “It matters not where or how far you travel, the further commonly the worse,–but how much alive you are.”

On many of these trips, the American traveler, as stereotype suggests, opens out his self for inspection, and lets us see what valuables (or illicit substances) he’s carrying along with him, declared or otherwise; the revelations in this book are often internal ones. Yet at the same time American travel writing has found itself willy-nilly more global than before as we’ve been reminded, often shockingly, how much our destiny is mixed up with that of the Sudan, or Herat. Travel writing is not just foreign correspondency in mufti–war-stories by other means–and yet it has new obligations in an age when we’re persuaded that Kashmir and the Congo are not just places on the far side of the world. The most distinguished writers of place, in my book–from Jan Morris and V.S. Naipaul to Ryzsard Kapuscinski–offer us not just a first draft of history but an early glimpse at tomorrow.

The other hard thing about making the selection here was that all of us are trravel writers when we go on holiday, much as we are all travel photographers when we inflict our slides (or digi-cam images) on the neighbors; unlike the Petrarchan sonnet or the post-modern novel, travel writing is something everyone seems to do, when e-mailing a friend or writing a fifth-grade assignment on “What I did on my summer vacation.” It is hard to do well precisely because it is so easy to do passably. Yet reading some of the pieces in this book, I was reminded that there are many writers around–John McPhee, Peter Hessler, Bill McKibben, to name but three–who can make even a vacant lot come to life. Even if, contrary to my original assertion, they’re not looking for the light at all.

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