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  • Travels Into the Land of LitCrit
  • Harvey Levenstein (bio)
William W. Stowe. Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xv + 295 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $24.95.

We have all had that sinking feeling. The cover page of the fax from a friend peeling off the machine read, “Isn’t this the book you are working on?” There followed a Washington Post review of a book subtitled European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Gulp. I am working on a social history of American tourists to France. A frantic look through the review calmed some of my nerves. The book’s author, William Stowe, was not a historian but a professor of English (at Wesleyan in Connecticut.) Phew. It did not deal with the experience of European travel itself so much as the literature about it. Another sigh of relief. Moreover, the reviewer, Jonathan Yardley, a Post staff writer, was offended by its attempts to be “Correct.” Stowe, he said, had plumbed the travel literature and “found in it not merely Meaning, but Correct Meaning.” It was “riddled with the stale rhetoric of chic scholarship,” tried to be “more feminist than the queen,” and reading it was “a vexing if not inf uriating task.” 1 Drinks all around.

But wait a minute: there were also references to Stowe’s “intelligent mind” and how he “shows how Americans sought, consciously or not, to improve and redefine themselves in the Old Worlds.” Yardley went on to complain that “just about every time he write s something sensible, he follows it with indigestible prattle,” but the “something sensible” piqued my interest. So did the quotations from the book, which Yardley used as negative examples, in which Stowe emphasized the importance of “race, class, gender and nationality.” I too think that they are crucial to understanding the history of tourism. Moreover, while it is understandable that a layperson such as Yardley would find LitCrit “theory” off-putting, was I, a card-carrying member of the Academy, justified in dismissing it so cavalierly?

Well, I can report that, for historians such as I who are not, shall we say, theoretically inclined, the book offers a mixed bag. Its main argument is that travel writing provided a useful medium for many kinds of writers to express their ideas. This seems to be because it is basically a second-rate genre, or at [End Page 271] least one that second-rate writers can easily master. Much of the book is thus spent explicating how travel writing lends itself to a wide variety of purposes. Of course it is not said that simply. Instead, Stowe uses the kinds of references to “voices,” “discourses” and “constructions” which offend laypeople such as Yardley, who for some reason expect scholarship to be intelligible to them. Nevertheless, this kind of question—of the relationship between the form a literary work takes and its intended message—is a perfectly legitimate one for literary scholars to raise. It is analogous to musicologists exploring the possibilities and limitations of the sonata form. But, just as my interest in the sonata form is hardly enough to carry me through more than the first few bars of an otherwise dreadful piece of music, so I hardly find considerations of this kind riveting. Nor was I mesmerized by the chapter on “Travel as Ritual,” in which the author’s apparent commitment to “post-structuralism” comes to the fore. This means that the “texts” are not regarded as reflecting any objective reality, but only as revealing the biases of those who wrote them. Not surprisingly, many of the authors subsequently examined come out as racist, sexist, classist, and chauvinist—hardly startling news. The real surprise is that so little space is devoted to this, and when it is, the evidence is often stretched, on the rack of “theory,” to fit authors into these categories.

Part of the author’s problem derives from the paucity of relevant theorizing on this particular topic. Although it is now the world’s largest source of international exchange, only in the past fifteen or twenty years has tourism stimulated much scholarly, let alone theoretical interest. There...

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pp. 271-276
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