- Early Modernist Travel Writing and Travel Fiction
THE RUSH, the confusions, the mind-jolting thrills, even the dull irritations of travel have often been considered a key influence on the thematic and formal developments of British modernist writing. Robert Burden insightfully highlights several key elements that help to define the parameters of this field of study. With chapters on Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, he focuses most successfully on the well-known but until now underdefined differences between a shallow, mass-market tourism and what he calls the “educated travel of the connoisseur,” the category preferred, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the authors under his critical lens. Of use here is Burden’s analysis of early twentieth-century critiques, in fiction and nonfiction, of tourists who explore foreign lands provided that they can maintain the comforts and securities of home through recent improvements in hotels, trains, and travel guidebooks. Art, architecture, and beautiful landscapes scarcely alter the consciousness of these sightseers who see what they expect to see and quickly move on in a race to return home chock full of experiences the meanings of which they have unintentionally missed. Of still greater use is Burden’s sustained critique of what stood for a more critically conscious form of travel across the globe. Burden divides this travel, generally speaking, into two categories: first, a search for a “real” experience of a predominantly preindustrial culture, be this in India, Africa, rural Italy, or even a lost, pastoral English countryside; and second, a search for critical [End Page 413] understanding mediated by an historically conscious aesthetic “gaze” that informs and transforms immediate cultural landscapes, be they in Italy or Egypt.
Burden provides helpful and sustained critiques of each of these idealized categories of travel. In writings by Conrad, Lawrence, and Forster, the “real” preIndustrial experience remains perpetually just out of reach and the search for it can be a destructive one as modern capitalism seeks to profit by making tourists comfortable and catering to their desires through turning any given culture into a caricature of itself. Meanwhile, as Burden points out, travel mediated by a “literary” or “art gaze” risks slipping into sightseeing itself, a form of highbrow literary tourism. Burden’s chapter on James is particularly insightful with relevant readings of travel writings such as A Little Tour in France and Italian Hours, as well as novels such as The Portrait of a Lady, The American, and The Ambassadors. With these lines of inquiry, Burden extends his study beyond its immediate critical arena to show how travel can inform investigations into atavism in modernist literature, can remind us that a highbrow or elite aesthetic often has uncomfortable and yet frequently profitable parallels with popular culture, and can augment our understanding of an imperial aestheticism.
Burden, indeed, carefully details how travel informed by a Western European aesthetic, despite travelers’ attempts to decenter their socially engrained expectations, can end up reinforcing Western imperialism in its cultural, social, economic, and political permutations. This is not a surprising conclusion, but Burden’s range from Conrad to Wharton in one study attends valuably to the distinctions to be made here regarding the modes and purposes of travel. Conrad’s seafaring narratives remind us that travel is not simply for intellectual pleasure or individual enhancement but a key part of Europe’s economic and racially charged imperialistic heritage. Analogously, Forster’s, James’s, and Wharton’s narratives favoring European art, not-yet-industrialized fields and forests, and preserved ruins across Europe and the Mediterranean can serve as a predatory or fettering form of cultural paternalism when used to critique an American or Americanized identity as materialistic and culturally shallow. Moreover, if Forster, Lawrence, James, or Wharton long for an antiquated aesthetic or literary past in foreign settings such as Europe, Egypt, India, or Mexico, Burden implicitly asks a key question: what are they missing about the complex opportunities of the present? Travel, then, becomes as much an investigation into time [End Page 414] and chronology as a venture into geographical, cultural, and political differences.