Why travel writing?

Travel writing has never been overly appealing to me. As an avid journal-writer myself, I tend to avoid re-reading even my own entries about places I have explored. Descriptions of locations or societal structures often don’t have the thrust of writings about specific people, especially people that one knows intimately. In modern travel writing the narrative gets so broad, so quickly impregnated with “facts” perhaps, that the story itself often seems to get lost.

Harriet Martineau’s conception of travel writing, though, gave me pause because she focuses on the concept of sympathy. In How to Observe Manners and Morals she writes, “if a man have not sympathy, there is no point of the universe…where he can meet with his fellow” (31). Sympathy here implies the deep, thorough understanding of another person, as if in looking into another’s eyes the traveler should find commonality; the traveler’s sympathy is indeed to be “untrammelled and unreserved” (31). But this same treatise goes on to suggest “the grand secret into wise inquiry…is to begin with the study of things, using the discourse of persons as a commentary upon them” (44, emphasis original). “Things” designates the systems of society—the governmental, family, and societal structures of organization—as being more important than individual people in travel writing. So, naturally, I began to wonder about how these two ideas work together. If one is to focus on the “things” or “structures” of society above all, how is sympathy for the individual involved if at all?

Martineau answers in Society in America, her published travel writing. In her section on “Morals of Slavery,” especially, she derides slavery’s structure while upholding sympathy for individuals she met while traveling. For example, one paragraph opens with a broad statement about slavery as a system: “the personal oppression of the negroes is the grossest vice which strikes a stranger in the country. It can never be otherwise when human beings are wholly subjected to the will of other human beings.” But Martineau follows this broad statement, which functions almost like an argument, with a specific anecdote in which a severely mistreated slave is directly quoted. The principles of travel writing—of focusing on the broader structures over individual people—allow Martineau to expand the concept of sympathy through the authority that she gains in the process. She does look into the eyes of those she meets—at times she looks deeply and thoroughly—but she makes strong statements about the structures undergirding their everyday lives in her writings. This allows her to advocate for change rather than merely record observations.

Her Autobiography is undoubtedly more interesting—at least in a narrative sense. It includes secretive characters like Dr. Julius who has a “ghastly countenance” as he questions her involvement in the abolition movement, and it includes her personal hurts over what others, like Margaret Fuller, choose to write about her (340). But, if we are to take travel writing seriously, we must acknowledge the possible limitations of journalistic narratives, despite the important glimpses they allow us into her personal character. In the quest to understand what can truthfully be said about a society, we are left asking what role analysis—the rumination on observations—should have? Is it possible that travel writing, though more distanced, actually expands the concept of sympathy in that it works to discern what should be said and what should not?

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