Jeannie Z. Taylor
06 December 2007
An Exploration of Humanity and the Self
The Western world has long been fascinated with the “other”—the exotic lives of unfamiliar peoples, their customs, rituals, and mores. For millennia, adventurers have journeyed away from their homes and brought back their stories, often fusing fact and fiction into amazing tales of savagery, heroism, and wondrous landscapes. In the twenty-first century, though there are few lands and peoples left to be discovered, we find ourselves absorbed with the modern incarnations of travel writing: the chronicles of war correspondents, the global soul-searching of newly divorced women, or the trials and self-discovery of people in such far-ranging places as Kabul, Rome, and the Alaskan wilderness. The lines between fact and fiction, memoir and novel are often blurred but, to the reader, it’s all a fascinating adventure. (The term travel writing refers to personal narratives, diaries, and essays about observations made while traveling and should not be confused with travel guidebooks such as Eyewitness or Frommer’s.)
Author Nicholas Delbanco argues that all writing is travel writing, saying:
In the Western tradition of literature, the common denominator of the Odyssey and Pilgrim’s Progress, The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy—not to mention Don Quixote or Moby-Dick or Faust—is near-constant motion.…This holds just as true for those who—like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson—remain inside the house. (91)
He contends that the best books are an “act of exploration” (96). The evolution of travel writing—from allegorical explorations of exotic lands and creatures to an internal exploration of the self and our connection to the rest of humanity—has paralleled the evolution of other genres of literature, including poetry, essays, and the novel. During the Age of Reason, all of these forms of writing were greatly influenced by the rise of the scientific revolution and its emphasis on observation and knowledge gained through experience.
The earliest days of the Enlightenment in England were marked by scientific exploration—especially the exploration of man’s place in the universe. Isaac Newton sought to discover the natural laws responsible for the movement of the stars and planets and for keeping us from being jettisoned off into space. John Locke turned Newton’s form of empirical observation inward to explore the development of the human mind and the basis of human identity. The rise of the literary genres of newspapers, journals, biographies, and travel writing during the period was a natural extension of this exploration. Discussion expanded from what makes the self or soul and where God and morality fit in the picture (i.e., what it means to be human) to self-absorbed studies of the minutiae of private lives (i.e., where “I” personally fit in the greater scheme of things or, as they say on the evening news, “What does this mean for you?”). From the comfort of their armchairs, readers could explore other cultures, lifestyles, observations, and opinions for the purpose of being both entertained and enlightened, and ultimately to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human on a personal level.
In his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argued that “Personal identity consists, not in the identity of substance, but, as I have said, in the identity of consciousness” (2801, Locke’s emphasis). According to his theory, human identity is formed first by taking in data through the senses and then by reflecting on that data to form ideas and gain understanding of the world. This new philosophy created a lot of questions about man’s purpose on Earth and God’s role in the process. If all babies’ minds started as a blank slate, or tabula rosa, what did that say about established hierarchies and social stratification? Did God put us intentionally in our place (be it king, lord, or slave), or are all humans born with the ability to define their own purpose and achieve greater heights, no matter what their race, parentage, or gender?
As people explored these questions, travel writers brought back their impressions of faraway civilizations, especially of customs and mores, and compared them to the customs and mores of English society. Travel writing allowed readers to explore other cultures and look for hints of the similarities and differences between faraway peoples and themselves, often with the preconception that they would find themselves superior. As Samuel Johnson wrote in the Idler, a series of periodical essays:
One part of mankind is naturally curious to learn the sentiments, manners, and condition of the rest; and every mind that has leisure or power to extend its views, must be desirous of knowing in what proportion Providence has distributed the blessings of nature or the advantages of art, among the several nations of the earth. (2894)
Johnson cautioned modern travel writers to keep in mind that “the great object of remark is human life” (2895). In other words, focus on the people, not the landscape.
As wife of the Ambassador to Turkey, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was in an ideal position to provide unique insight into the exotic customs of the Turkish people and especially into the previously unexamined (by the English) lives of Turkish women. Through her Turkish Embassy Letters, Montagu provides a vibrantly colorful description of everyday life, punctuated with keen observations on the culture’s morality and commonality with British culture. In a letter to her sister, Montagu infuses a painstakingly detailed description of her Turkish clothing with commentary on English, as well as Turkish, mores. Whether her commentary is subtle (her drawers “conceal the legs more modestly than your petticoats” ) or overt (“Turkish ladies don’t commit one sin the less [than English women] for not being Christians” ), Montagu is able to make a pointed comparison of the two cultures under the guise of describing what she’s wearing. At the end of the essay, she concludes that “the manners of mankind do not differ so widely as our voyage writers would make us believe” (2711). Whereas Montagu hints that previous travel writers exaggerated the exploits of savages or infidels in the wilderness, she explores other cultures with an Enlightenment-era fascination with the commonality and value of all humanity.
While Montagu was clearly an opinionated and passionate writer, her writings primarily served to explore the customs and humanity of the places she visited and to entertain readers through her colorful language and observations. James Boswell’s travel writings take a much more self-promoting and self-aggrandizing tone. In his A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Dr. Samuel Johnson, Boswell combines a meticulously detailed account of their travels (down to their toileting habits and the particulars of daily conversations) with cultural observations that paint him and his companions as superior to the native peoples they encounter (in this case, Scottish Highlanders). Boswell provides patronizing accounts about how the Highlanders—whom he compares to a “tribe of Indians” and describes as “black and wild,” “common,” and “ignorant” (2959-60)—benefit more from his presence than he from theirs. Reflecting on a break in their travels, during which they stopped at a house to rest and ended up handing out pennies to the children, Boswell says, “The people were very much pleased, gave us many blessings, and said they had not had such a day since the old Laird of Macleod’s time” (2960). In Boswell’s exploration of humanity and the self, he attempts to demonstrate (as his mentor Johnson recommends) that Providence has distributed a greater proportion of blessings on him and his companions.
Both Montagu’s and Boswell’s writings fulfill (although in different ways) Johnson’s requirement that the travel writer deliver “something by which his country may be benefited; who procures some supply of want or some mitigation of evil, which may enable his readers to compare their condition with that of others, to improve it whenever it is worse, and whenever it is better to enjoy it” (2895). By extension, this emergent style of travel writing allowed readers to expand their view of humanity by reflecting on other lives to form, in the words of Locke, a “complex idea of an immaterial spirit” (2800); readers could essentially examine other lives under a microscope and discover souls that were not so different from theirs. Today, in the twenty-first century, we continue to be fascinated with the adventures, travails, and observations of people as they journey through life and encounter the “other.” Then and now, detailed observation of and reflection on other cultures and lives provides readers with evidence of both their individuality (or what Locke called, the “separate spirits”) and their common humanity.
Boswell, James. A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Dr. Samuel Johnson. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. 3rd ed. Vol. 1C of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stuart Sherman. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 2957-62.
Delbanco, Nicholas. “Anywhere Out of This World: On Why All Writing Is Travel Writing.” Harper’s Sept. 2004: 91-96.
Johnson, Samuel. “Idler No. 97.” The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. 3rd ed. Vol. 1C of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stuart Sherman. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 2894-5.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. 3rd ed. Vol. 1C of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stuart Sherman. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 2798-2802.
Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley. Turkish Embassy Letters. The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. 3rd ed. Vol. 1C of The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stuart Sherman. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 2707-11.
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