- Old Worlds, New TravelsJack London’s People of the Abyss, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and the Cultural Politics of Travel
Although we may not immediately think of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway as travel writers, like many well-to-do Americans of their respective eras, they were travelling much more than their parents’ generation had, and their writing is indelibly marked by these experiences away from home. London’s forays, especially north to Alaska and the Yukon, but also to ports of call in the Pacific, were undertaken at the height of the American imperial era, and his writing sometimes echoes the discourses of empire. A generation younger than London, Hemingway’s famous expatriate cosmopolitanism is marked by what Ford Maddox Ford dubbed the “habit of flux,” the quintessentially modernist mode whereby the artist seeks the shock of exile to see one’s own culture more clearly.1 In this essay, I argue that by reading London and Hemingway together as travel writers, we can elucidate the rapidly shifting cultural politics of travel and tourism, as well as their respective impacts on the way Americans would come to think of travel in the twentieth century and beyond.
In many ways, London and Hemingway offer a study in contrasts. This is perhaps most obvious in their outward political stances, as London’s avowed socialism could easily be juxtaposed to Hemingway’s calculated apoliticism. Despite their obvious differences, however, when it comes to engaging with the cultural politics of travel of their respective eras, the two famous authors share much in common. Notably, I will suggest, both London and Hemingway travel with what we might call class anxiety. While their avocation as writers was not necessarily recognized as working class labor, they both nevertheless emphasize their links to the workers they encounter on their travels, going to great lengths to both establish a writerly ethos in which they connect with local labor culture and to justify writing itself as work. Through readings of London’s The People of the Abyss [End Page 43] (1903), his treatise on poverty among the laboring classes of London’s East End, and Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), I suggest they offer important and timely interventions in the way the nascent leisure travel industry and Americans in general framed their experiences abroad.
These might seem like odd texts to choose when thinking about London and Hemingway’s respective impacts on travel, given the authors’ famous globetrotting. Despite travelling to exotic lands—London sails his 55-foot ketch the Snark across the Pacific, for example, while Hemingway follows in Teddy Roosevelt’s imperial footsteps and goes on two big-game hunting safaris to Africa—their interventions in the travel narrative genre happen most dramatically when they are writing about Old World experiences. Because American travel conventions were (and frequently remain) inextricably tied to forays to Europe, focusing on London and Hemingway’s critiques of the social class politics inherent to standard Grand Tour narratives perhaps best reveals their respective impacts on broader national perceptions of travel.2
As Judith Hamera and Alfred Bendixen note in their introduction to the Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing, Americanness is intricately tied to mobility. For example, popular conceptions hold that we are at once a nation of immigrants and a restless population on the move. On the one hand, the American democratic experiment is tied to a radical openness to immigration, as the lines from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet inscribed on the Statue of Liberty suggest: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Despite contemporary xenophobic political rhetoric to the contrary, these ideas form core components of our national identity. On the other hand, travel lies at the heart of another core American ideology, that of Manifest Destiny. Mobility is essential to the idea that settlers should exercise their divine right to spread American institutions Westward and beyond. We continue to see American travel ideals replicated in more commonplace advertising rhetoric about cars, in various migration narratives, even on the license plates of my home state, which declare Alaska to be “The Last Frontier.” In...