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.”)
The Seattle that Raban landed in was easy enough for the journalist in him to reduce to the elements that most resemble a western movie. For generations, the city had been the romantic stronghold of men in jeans and plaid shirts who worked the surrounding land as loggers, farmers and miners, and the waters as sailors and fishermen. In the 1990s, it became the equally romantic destination of a few thousand “city people piling into the Northwest because they wanted to rub up against whatever was left of nature.” These people came, mainly, from the East and were like no other settlers the West had ever known. They “arrived as kayakers, hikers, balloonists, birdwatchers, skiers, and mountain bikers who also happened to have degrees in math and marketing and computer science” and, in the brashness of their naïveté, pushed “a strain of radical environmentalism” that aimed, essentially, “to return [the land] to the wild.” For the loggers and miners and fishermen of the Northwest, they were nothing but vile intruders.
Here was a classic cliché come to vibrant new life. Elsewhere, homesteaders and cattlemen once clashed; here it was loggers and dot-commers, but the issues were the same: conflicting fantasies being played out against a universe of natural glories that, for everyone involved, held the primitive allure that goes with the word “freedom.” This is the world Raban has spent twenty years chronicling.
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Driving Home, Raban’s fourteenth book, is a thrown-together collection of essays written over many years that, at first glance, seems to have no unity beyond that of the attractive sound of Raban’s civilized voice: a few pieces of literary criticism, a few on American politics, a few on sailing and the sea. There are, however, more than a few pieces on Seattle that, if read in bulk, are not only instructive insofar as the author’s long love affair with the Pacific Northwest is concerned but informative as well of the generic traveler’s mindset. These are the pieces that, for this reader, were the most absorbing. (In the interests of full disclosure: the writer of this review is a New Yorker born and bred who does not ski, sail or swim, and wouldn’t go into the woods alone.)
For Raban, Seattle remains the dramatic gateway to an America he deems metaphoric. A huge amount of research lies behind each of the Seattle pieces, many of which trace, from one vantage point or another, the historic development of the place, from its muddy frontier beginnings in the 1790s, to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century town that Henry James called a “flower of geography,” to the contemporary city being pushed out of shape by the “giddy affluence” that has come with its newest seekers after enlightenment through nature. In each of its incarnations Seattle, like other American cities of the West, is a place where “the idea of home as a temporary habitation…built into the folk psyche” is made palpable. It embodies a “yearning for elsewhere, for a life beyond the one we’re leading”; America is “unique in giving the idea a specific geographical location in the West,” which is, in the American imagination, “where all utopias belong.”
So what, exactly, are the characteristics of an American utopia for a son of the domesticated English countryside? Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Cascades, the forests; “black bears and cougars…in the suburbs”; salmon jumping in the water; “bald eagles; California sea lions hauled out on docks, beavers, coyotes, opossums, foxes, raccoons.” All within clear view of the wary settlers (outsiders one and all, remember) who remain “civil in the chilly fashion of strangers keeping other strangers at arm’s length,” conducting a social life that is “predictably threadbare”—coffee but not dinner—and, on its bad days, makes the town seem like “the world’s capital of transience and deracination.”
These are stock impressions of the American West—spectacular beauty coupled with the emotional disconnect of its pioneers—but they provide a key to what is absorbing and what is static in Raban’s writing. As they are presented with vividness and conviction, they are a pleasure to experience even if experienced before; as they repeat themselves in piece after piece without any significant variation, they are an indication of writing that, in an odd way, never gets beyond its own beginnings. Perhaps this is because Raban seems not to get beyond his. Here are the opening sentences of a handful of the Northwest pieces:
1994: “I came to live in Seattle in 1990, when I was 47. It was late—very late—in the day for a new start…”
1995: “When I moved from London to Seattle in 1990, my self-esteem was dented by the discovery that…”
2000: “In a few weeks’ time I shall have lived in Seattle for ten years—long enough to qualify as a near native of a city where everyone comes from somewhere else…”
2007: “When I arrived in Seattle in 1990 one had only to look from the streets to the water…”
2008: “When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1990, I felt at a loss…”
Coming on these sentences again and again, I began to realize that it suits Raban to see Seattle as the place he is forever arriving at, in order to—what else?—head out. The town, for him, is an embodiment of heading out, as each and every person in his Seattle is forever doing, if not literally then figuratively. The people in Raban’s stories have no dimension; they are clearly the instrumental creation of the wanderer who needs a human figure on the landscape to make dramatic the panoramic sweep of what must lie before the one who is perpetually outward bound. But to always be heading out is to always be starting out; it is never to arrive. In Raban’s work I saw something about travel writing I’d not seen clearly before: how subordinated the traveler is to the need never to arrive.
The most remarkable piece in Driving Home is the one called “Why Travel?” Here Raban lays it on the line:
A curse of traveling is that one is so often made to supply reasons for doing it…. If you admit the real reason, you’re liable to attract the attention of men in white coats, or the police. For travel is a kind of delinquency, more often rooted in the compulsion to escape the boredom and responsibilities of home than it is in any very serious desire to scale the Great Pyramid of Cheops or walk the length of the Great Wall in China. It’s kinder to say, “I’m going to Surabaya” than just to say “I’m going”…. Travel in its purest form requires no certain destination, no fixed itinerary, no advance reservations, and no return ticket…to encounter whatever chances the journey may throw up. It’s when you miss the one flight of the week, when the expected friend fails to show, when the pre-booked hotel reveals itself as a collection of steel joists stuck into a ravaged hillside, when a stranger asks you to share the cost of a hired car to a town whose name you’ve never heard, that you begin to travel in earnest…. The rougher the travel, the more you value the places where you stop and the people you meet there…. Legendary destinations…derive…from the dangers and miseries of getting to any of them.
There is a psychological vacancy at the heart of these sentences that reminds me of the plight of the nineteenth-century English explorers who were at home hunting lions, crashing through jungles and scaling mountains but were terrified of human tenderness. Those men, I have always thought, pursued a primitive version of adventure in flight from their own lonely-making selves. Raban’s profile of the professional traveler is one, I feel sure, they would endorse.