Travel writers, historically, are adventurers who roam the earth out of a craving to experience that which the stay-at-home world would never even lay eyes on. Today there is not a place on earth that the readers of travel writing cannot themselves see firsthand—from the Mayan ruins to the Serengeti to aboriginal Australia, there’s a guided tour heading out every hour, on the hour—but the contemporary travel writer still promises to experience all these places as the tourist never can. Not only does he—it is almost always a he—tramp repeatedly across Europe, Australia, India, China, Russia, the Himalayas; he stays longer, explores more deeply, on occasion even goes native.
The tone and perspective of the individual traveler is crucial to the work; among English speakers alone we have the world of foreign travel through the eyes of an enchanted golden boy (Bruce Chatwin), a questing mystic (Peter Matthiessen), a scorning cynic (Paul Theroux), a gleeful self-satirist (Geoff Dyer). Yet one character trait is common to them all and, very nearly, it subsumes the differences among them.
In the nineteenth century the travel writer often masqueraded as an adventurer with a mission—he was commissioned to unearth buried treasure, arrive at the mouth of the Nile, find Dr. Livingstone—but in emotional reality, he was a person who felt compelled to leave home, live among strangers, put behind him the tedium of domestic life; and while this compulsion risked permanent estrangement from hearth and home, it was nonetheless irresistible. Any amount of risk, it seems, was worth taking, if only one could, once again, head out, and, I might add, become openly the outsider these men inevitably felt themselves to be.
Today’s travel writer is a professional outsider. He has made a persona out of the self that feels nowhere at home, and has legitimized that persona’s travel addiction by getting paid to turn the impressions of the solitary wanderer into publishable prose. “Solitary” is a key word here. The solitary state is essential to the whole enterprise. As Jonathan Raban has observed, “Loneliness makes things happen. It’s when you haven’t spoken to a soul for days, when your whole being feels possessed by the rage for company,” that “you start risking things you wouldn’t dare at home…make that call…go over to the stranger’s table…accept the dubious invitation. This,” he tells us, “is how adventures begin” and “why people find themselves waking up in strange beds and don’t go home again.”
Raban is an English jack of all literary trades—travel writer, book critic, political observer—who in the spring of 1990, at 47, packed his London life into four tea chests and took up permanent residence in Seattle. I think I am safe in saying that while Raban’s literary criticism, as well as his political observations, are a pleasure to encounter—the prose is transparent, the opinions informed, the voice without edge—he is best known in this country as a classy English traveler who has made himself an intimate of a part of America that is still considered the last place on the continent to pioneer a new life. An ideal prospect for the professional outsider: “More than in any place I’d ever lived, it felt all right to be a stranger…. I was happy in the Northwest not because I felt at home but because no one else much seemed to be entirely at home either.” (Only an Englishman would have inserted “entirely.”)