Travel literature has had three great periods, the last being the 1980s. Now it is finished. Edward Marriott examines his own part in the downfall of the romantic wandererby Edward Marriott / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
In 1946, Evelyn Waugh, like so many others before and since, predicted the end of travel writing. “I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future,” he wrote. Shocked and embittered by a war that had laid waste to Europe and produced technological innovations such as the jet engine, he lamented the imminent demise of the “old” kind of travel. In the new world of “displaced persons,” light-hearted journeys now seemed anomalous. “Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with a letter of credit and passport and feel the world wide open before us.”
Yet despite this prognosis from Waugh-every bit as distinguished a travel writer as he was a novelist-travel literature would rise from the grave once more. If the first boom came in the Victorian era, during the height of the British empire, and the second occurred during the 1930s pomp of Waugh and contemporaries such as Robert Byron, Gerald Brenan and Peter Fleming, the 1970s and 1980s saw the genre reach new heights of popularity with the emergence of Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban.
Now, though, all the paths ahead seem to have disappeared. With many younger writers of travel turning to history, biography or fiction, the genre has never felt so redundant. True, there is still a market for the lightweight entertainments tossed off by Pete McCarthy and Tony Hawks, but writers of the literary form seem to be staying at home. It is too early to declare its final death, but in bookstores across the country “travel literature” shelves are dwindling, publishing reps are finding accounts of journeys increasingly hard to place and sales are falling.
This, of course, relies on quite a narrow publishers’ definition of the genre. Paul Fussell, in Abroad, his book about British travel writing during the 1920s and 1930s, gives a broader definition of travel books as “a sub-species of memoir in which the autobiographical narrative arises from the speaker’s encounter with distant or unfamiliar data, and in which the narrative-unlike that in a novel or a romance-claims literal validity by constant reference to actuality.” And for others, like Thubron, even that autobiographical element is dispensible: “Travel writing,” he has said, “is one culture reporting on another.”
Redmond O’Hanlon, author of such classics as Congo Journey, widens its reach still further. “The perfect travel book,” he writes in…