Recent English Studies in Travel Literature

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James Cowan's novel, A Mapmaker's Dream, (1) pretends to be a translation of a recently discovered journal by Fra Mauro, the sixteenth-century Venetian cartographer. This absorbing, beautifully written fantasy, which includes plausible but bogus footnotes, is also a brooding treatise on early cartography as a kind of alchemy. Into the crucible of Fra Mauro's mind go the maps of his predecessors, the tales of the Venetian travelers who visit him, and the heat of his own fertile imagination: the result is his mappa mundi. recent, and with a greater claim to truth, is Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, (2) a searching meditation on the relationship between travel and the self. De Botton is as concerned with travelers of the past, such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Ruskin, Wordsworth, and van Gogh, as he is with his own travels; and he is less concerned with other places than with the desire to go there. The wide appeal of such books has made some of the most difficult subjects--memory, identity, the exotic--accessible in the most transparent, unacademic prose. One wonders if this has anything to do with what has happened in the academic sector, which in recent years has seen a great proliferation of books about travel and travel literature. It would be impossible, in these few pages, to provide an adequate review of all the hodoeporical studies that have appeared over the last half-dozen years or so. What follows, therefore, is a mainly descriptive survey of a representative selection, arranged more or less chronologically according to periods.

With regard to the early period, among the most practical books to appear recently is Travel Knowledge. (3) Edited by Ivo Kamps and Jyotsna Singh, it is a collection of primary documents--excerpts from accounts of the Middle East, India, and Africa--each accompanied by a critical essay (nine scholars have contributed to this book). In their introduction, Kamps and Singh stress that their aim is not "to read these travel narratives as expressions of a unified Eurocentrism," that to do so would be to "erase" the particularities of the English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch expansionist enterprises, not to mention those of individual travelers; but early modern travel was inescapably political, and each essay acknowledges, as it must, what the editors call "the long, retrospective reach of the colonial imaginary" (4).

Examining the travels of George Sandys and William Lithgow, Daniel Vitkus argues that, during the seventeenth century, English travelers began to develop a collective identity. When they visited the Holy Land, they went as "anti-pilgrims," wanting "to express their skepticism and testify to the false 'idolatry' or 'superstition' of the other Christians who continued to uphold the importance of pilgrimage and the cult of saints" (41). Mary C. Fuller, in "English Turks and Resistant Travelers" carries out a more intimate study. In Thomas Dallam's diary and in the travels of John Rawlins she sees the politics of sex and religion at work. "Voluntary conversion," she says, "of Christian Englishmen to Islam was not uncommon," but "at the center" of these narratives is "resistance," be it "passive or active" (72), and it is out of this resistance that identity is born. Gerard Maclean, studying the travels of Henry Blount and a poem dedicated to him by Bishop Henry King, shows how the English admired the Turks' own resistence and their model of empire. A quite different, if not opposite, point of view, is found in the excerpts from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Travels of an English Lady in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In an essay which turns on the question of whether and to what extent Montagu disrobed among other women in a Turkish bath, Rebecca Chung shows how resistance, in this case, "registered through aesthetic means" (122). The bath, said Montagu, was like Milton's Eden, and the women there "moved with the same majestic grace which Milton describes of our General Mother" (100). …