Travel and Travel Writing Research Paper

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Modern notions of travel have their roots in a diverse history of developments; groups of people have moved across landscapes for the purposes of migration, pilgrimage, trade, exploration, and colonization. For example, humans have migrated for resettlement for a million years, and for agricultural reasons for tens of thousands of years. Similarly, pilgrimages have been the cornerstone of most major religions: Just as the ancient Greeks sought the oracle at Delphi, Buddhists travel to the city of Buddha’s birth, Muslims make the hajj to Mecca, and Christians visit Jerusalem. In another parallel flow of travel, trade routes flourished between Europe and China from the rise of Greek civilization to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Modes Of Travel Through History

The Mediterranean, which served as a vast network of people and places enriching communities for centuries, spurred commerce and exploration as twin historical processes—climaxing in the Age of Exploration between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. New technologies of cartography, navigation, warfare, and shipbuilding allowed travelers and traders to extend their reach beyond the Mediterranean—notably, Christopher Columbus’s (1451-1506) arrival in the New World in 1492 and Vasco da Gama’s (c. 1469-1524) trip around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. Just as religion compelled pilgrimages, it has also inspired exploration and colonialism, either through evangelism or through groups fleeing religious persecution.

One of the first organized forms of travel that was neither explicitly religious nor commercial was the “grand tour.” Beginning in the mid-1600s, it became fashionable for young British elites to take an expedition, as both a rite of passage and a duty. The grand tour was an extended journey through Europe, wherein a young man would travel in order to become more cultured and educated. Because of its courtly manners, high fashion, rich history, and sophisticated language, Paris was a common stop, but Italy, Switzerland, and Germany were also preferred destinations.

Industrialization, however, brought this trend to an end and ushered in a new era. Travel in the modern age can be traced to Thomas Cook (1808-1892), who would transport up to five hundred people at a time on train trips across England beginning in 1841. While tours from the ancient age through the grand tour tended to be a privilege of the rich, Cook’s standardized tours aimed at mass appeal. Shadowing the ancient tradition, but also forecasting the powerhouse industry to come, Cook packaged trips to Egypt that followed the exact route the Romans traveled in 19 CE. Mass production of travelogues and improved transportation sparked the collective imagination and made travel more accessible to the masses.

The rise of cities brought about a newfound curiosity in urban life that also echoed more ancient times. Just like the Romans, nineteenth-century New Yorkers regularly toured their own city for entertainment, desiring brief, controlled exposure to “the other half,” with its commoner struggles, immigrant communities, and what was seen as deviant sexual practices (which inspired slumming parties, wherein people would pay to rub elbows with Lower East Side homosexuals). Similarly, international visitors like Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), and Frances Milton Trollope (1779-1863) were coming as early as the end of the American Revolution (1775-1783) to write travelogues of the national social experiment—with its racial and cultural mix, class inequalities, and vast geography.

Originally the purview of the elite, diplomats, and rugged explorers, travel since the 1960s has become widely available to working and middle-class people. By 2000, tourism and travel had become the world’s largest industry, which, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, produces up to 10 percent of the world’s economic output and employment.

Travel Writing

Along with travel comes the parallel cultural production of travel writing. While Petrarch’s (1304-1374) description of his ascent of Mount Ventoux in 1336 is often traced as a progenitor of travel writing, the practice blossomed with the consolidation of British hegemony in the 1800s, when expansion and empire matched eager public fascination as stories of Native Americans and the Opium Wars with China were produced for the masses. The impact of travel writing as a newfound form of nonfiction valorizing British economic and political values can be found in the works of writers such as Dickens, William Thackeray (1811-1863), Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

Perhaps no writing of that era was more dramatic, popular, and controversial as that of explorer, writer, poet, and diplomat Sir Richard F. Burton (1821-1890). Stirring public fascination with his adventures, Burton (who made the first English translations of Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra) traveled disguised as an Afghani physician throughout the Middle East. “Passing” well enough to have entered Mecca, the heart of the Muslim world, in 1853, he gave the Western readers their first glimpse into that unknown land. Travel writing has always been particularly keyed toward the cultural translation of “unknowns,” and Burton often displayed his dual roles of explorer and poet as he communicated the connections and differences between disparate cultures to his Victorian readers: “the pigeons of Mecca resemble those of Venice” (Burton [1855] 1964, p. 174).

The notion of cultural translation infuses problems of representation, and cultural theorists, ethnographers, and postcolonial thinkers have questioned the colonizing and misguided gaze of the Western observer (Clifford and Marcus 1986). The dialectic of cross-cultural exchange has been criticized as being imbued with power relations that predominately favor the more dominant cultures. Burton, for example, had to serve the imperialist economic and political needs of the Royal Geographical Society and the British East India Company, as well as his own desires for exploration and translation. Missionaries of the British Empire were similarly wrought with tensions as they wrote of their travels: On the one hand, they attempted to fulfill their religious and moral duties as benevolent evangelicals, and on the other hand they had to maintain the interests of the crown.

Such pressures are found throughout travel writing, as authors aspire for objectivity yet struggle with their own subjective experiences and moral concerns—whether they toured Bali or New York’s Bowery. This perspective is perhaps best evidenced in the scholarly realm by Claude Levi-Strauss’s ambiguous narratives of Tristes Tropiques (1955), a text often used by those wishing to criticize the colonizing power of ethnography and travel. Just as the grand tour served as a form of education and entertainment, those dual functions also play important roles for both the traveler and travel writing, in and out of the scholarly realm.

The contemporary moment is marred for many in the field, as they dread increasing “homogenization,” “commodification,” and “banalization” of culture—what some have called Disneyfication. While making travel and travel writing more accessible, industrialization and mass production have also caused some cultures to be carefully packaged in order to attract visitors, as tourism and culture scholars like Dean MacCannell (1976) have noted. Mass travel and travel writing, it is feared, summarizes culture and cities into “sets” of a few places and experiences that prejudice the visitor into particular expectations before arrival. This, however, is an ahistorical perspective, as even ancient Romans would feel contented to have seen the world so long as they had gazed upon each of the Seven Wonders—the original “best-of” list devised by an unknown scholar in the third century BCE. There was also Homer’s Iliad, another form of writing that established a path around which a travel infrastructure could sprout: hotels and restaurants to fill basic needs, and droves of guides ready for hire to present the alleged armor of Trojan War heroes, the beach where Greek ships landed, or where Achilles and Ajax were buried. These antiquarians kept close to the beaten path, seeking out the perceived cornerstones of their own cultures (Casson 1974).

It is, perhaps, because of this juggernaut tourism and travel industry that travel writing has returned to the journeys of earlier epochs. Several popular press books trace the paths of Captain James Cook (1728-1779), antiquarian tourists, the Indian god Rama, and a Buddhist monk’s seventh-century journey down the Silk Road. These travel writings match up contemporary journeys with those of their ancient forebears. Such a trend is evident in the social sciences as well: Indian anthropologist Amitav Ghosh (1993), for example, blends a contemporary narrative as he attends school in Alexandria, Egypt, with the story of a twelfth-century Jewish merchant and his Indian slave.


  1. Burton, Richard F. [1855] 1964. Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Meccah. Vol. 1. New York: Dover.
  2. Casson, Lionel. 1974. Travel in the Ancient World. London: Allen & Unwin.
  3. Clifford, James, and George Marcus, eds. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Ghosh, Amitav. 1993. In an Antique Land. New York: Knopf. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. [1955] 1961. Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John Russell. New York: Criterion.
  5. MacCannell, Dean. 1976. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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