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20 April 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 8:16am

From the NS archive: The writer as a traveller

16 June 1956: The writers who turn their travels into their topic.

By VS Pritchett

The distinguished writer and literary critic VS Pritchett was also a former literary editor of the New Statesman. After leaving the magazine he remained a regular contributor to its books pages, which is where this tour d’horizon of the art of travel writing appeared. Pritchett, as the author of books about Spain (“Marching Spain”, 1928) and Ireland (“Clare Drummer”, 1929), knew what he was talking about. In the piece he draws a distinction between British and American writer-travellers and, in particular, contrasts the different styles and motivations of Aldous Huxley and Edmund Wilson.

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I distinguish first of all between the traveller who writes – Bates or Waterton on the Amazon, Doughty on Arabia – and the professional writer, the novelist, the critic, the poet who travels. And amonghe difference in nationality when we compare Hemingway and Edmund Wilson with Aldous Huxley. In Edmund Wilson we have, in any case, the kind of travelling writer who is weightier than the man of letters, broader than the critic, which England does not now produce. He is – all American writers are – a Continental. He is an alert voluminous American, in the rational fundamentalist tradition of William James. I do not put him among the travellers impelled from within, but among those who will themselves into movement with a strategic purpose, which is partly professional, partly temperamental.

The impelled writing-travellers are spasmodic in their appearances. Byronism was one impulse and we can see its roots in the Napoleonic war. There were the same motives in the neo-Byronism of the Thirties. There was Clough’s travel-poem-notebook in 1848. Revolt against the modern cerebral world was DH Lawrence’s case; and since his time, the travelling writers have broken out because the world has broken in. The modern educational journey is not the Grand Tour but the territories of the Grand Débâcle: Orwell in Spain, Auden and Isherwood in China. To have the talent of a Hardy or a Jane Austen and remain in one place would now require strength not to say obduracy of character; yet, in fact, if such writers could be found now they would probably be more “contemporary” and show as much fidelity to the realities of modern life as those made restless by the guilt of ignorance or the dread of being disengaged. For some it is proper to be restless in a restless world; it is not improper for others to record that there is no such person as “modern man” aware of all the tragedies of his time. We are also affected by what we are unaware of. It is a characteristic of our life that the imagination must fail; that there are insentient places called Buchenwald, Korea, Cyprus, the labour camps and – as Mr Edmund Wilson was astonished to notice on his way to Haiti – the kind of thing that goes on in Miami: a scar grows over these things in our hardened minds. 

Yet to be on the move is the dominant charateristic of our civilisation. If they have done nothing more, millions of ordinary people have travelled out of their class or their forecastable lives; they have crossed frontiers in their own countries, and the appetite grows with eating. Lawrence’s journey from Nottingham to Germany, Italy, Ceylon, Australia and New Mexico, springs from the dramatic loss of any faith to be found in his locality; it was a pilgrimage in search of a shrine which kept moving on. Perhaps too much has been made of that pilgrimage. British imperialism was one result of people breaking out from the claustrophobia and the littleness of this exquisite island which is over-endowed with the taste for authority and law. Again and again, the English travellers are the English rebels, the disestablishers, who have fought hard against the charm of conservative eccentricity and who have feared not to know the world. It is too odd not to have been continentalised at some period of one’s life: today that means to accept a non-provincial training, to be considerably Russianised, Africanised, Americanised, or Asiaticised. All the same, it is a safe bet that any English village is packed with more people who have direct experience of other continents than any of the villages of the new, standardised mass societies which have, indeed, been carefully cut off from knowledge. In the long run, English madness has had its points. 

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The impelled-traveller depends as much upon the equipment that he takes with him as upon what he sees. To Africa, from Livingstone to Gide and Graham Greene, have gone the sin-eaters; in the tropics, the gross outrages of nature, the cannibal pools of stacked-up crocodile bellies, the poisonous tree, the whirligig of insect murder, have been matched by the outrages of man upon man. Conrad wrote of “the heart of darkness”; Graham Greene speaks of “the past from which one has emerged”. We are back among the horrors of the womb. Africa, he says in Journey Without Maps, is astonishing in that it is not strange: “Freud has made us conscious, as we have never been before, of those ancestral threads which still exist in our unconscious minds to lead us back. The need, of course, has always been felt, to go back and begin again. Mungo Park, Livingstone, Stanley, Rimbaud, Conrad represented only another method to Freud’s, a more costly, less easy method, calling for physical as well as mental strength.”

Did the explorers know “the nature of the fascination which worked on them, in the dirt, the disease, the barbarity and familiarity of Africa?” Greene’s own real fascination is that of any writer: he idealises and wishes not to idealise the man of action. Writing stands between him and pilgrimage as a way of life. He is Hamlet, the reporter. From our point of view, these speculations of his, like the outcries of Lawrence, are chiefly important for what they provoke. Countries are well-described when they have become an intense experience in private life. He may be quite wrong, but the wrongness of human beings is their vivid distinction. We can be glad that Lawrence got the Mexicans wrong. 

These impulses tell us more, of course, about the kind of country a man comes from than about the country he visits. What a burden has been lifted off man, Edmund Wilson felt, when he left the Zuñi Indians, with their collective life and their fulfilling of purgative religion, by simple, conscious, friendly American individuality. The American variant becomes clearer in Ernest Hemingway. Romantic, of course; liable to conversion; a seeker of alien people who know how to live; a Childe Harold of the bottle. We cannot doubt the effect of Spain on him. Yet his equipment is the technician’s. He has the American instinct for being quick to seize the way things are done and marvels when he sees what they are done for. Hemingway, like many Americans, has been a user of countries. He travels to collect “know-hows”. He used Spain to teach him the technique of bull-fighting and the utility of death; Africa to teach him how to hunt big game and the utility of the finer senses; the Caribbean to teach him how to fish and be idle. Practical action leads him to intimate experience of these places and, in his thoroughness, there is a sort of innocence and single-minded faith. It owes nothing to contemplation. He is not the spectator; he gravely participates. In this, he strangely approaches the naturalists, like Bates or Hudson. He has, unlike most travellers, something to do; and has, or affects to have, few opinions. One does not feel that there is the guilty shadow of the writer lying between him and his subject. He is relaxed. A natural traveller, he is thinking of more places 

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He points to a fundamental difference between the European and the American travelling writer, which is brought out most strongly by the contrasting cases of Aldous Huxley and Edmund Wilson. They are educated men, impelled by the new encyclopaedic impulse. They are novelists, critics, historians, scholars, thinkers – whether original or not – their fields are wide. They are exceptional in being compendious and in this resemble Victorian writes who found no knowledge alien. But the Englishman is intense, effervescent, speculative, changeable, sweeping, individual and ego-centric; he has read up the Mexican cities, the population questions, the genetic questions, everything, in advance, and arrives on the scene assuming we must know what he knows and are as ready to speculate and assert as he is. He has capital enough to afford levity. He is even vulgar. He is inexhaustible, and when he sits down, it is to think of places where there is new knowledge to acquire.

Turn to Edmund Wilson’s Red, Black, Blond and Olive, four long accounts of the Zuñi Indians (New Mexico) in 1947, Haiti in 1949, Russia in 1935, Israel 1954 and we have a clear, deliberate, unemphatic, impersonal narrative. There is no intensity. Relaxed and with the care of the learned technician, Mr Wilson takes one through the anthropological detail of the Zuñi religion, through the complexities of the life without colour bar in Haiti; in Russia he has the serious, documented fidelity of a phlegmatic diarist who tells precisely how things were done or were said, as close to fact as a Hogarth engraving the Industrious Apprentice. Critics have often complained – I do myself – that Mr Wilson is careless about his style. This, I suspect, to be the pose of an extremely sensitive man, but it is also the habit of one whose great gift is for thinking, laying foundations, for the accumulating of evidence and for putting his finger sharply and dramatically on the important facts and issues. To the Finland Station and The Wound and the Bow are imaginative and expository works. Part of their exceptional effect comes from the disclosure, line by line, of the means of working. And there is intensity; but it is in the choice of subject and in the feeling behind the choice.

When Huxley the traveller assumes we know, Wilson is seen in the process of clearing ground, finding out minutely, shrewdly and working up to his massive effect. A note of disparagement in his voice sharpens the edges; it is that note one has heard so often in the voice of the technician; but in his case it has another authority. It is the authority of his continuous impulse as a traveller and a writer, his concern with the growth of the idea of a collective society (Marx) and with the human disaster (Freud). He is the positive, rational, travelling-writer whose travels are not a search, but a statement of the excitement of the cumulative importance of research and the collecting of evidence. As time goes by, he has become the Johnsonian figure of Anglo-American letters. He is the only living critic with a sense of history. To travel with him is to see what will and method can do; to stoically dispense with the inspiration of personal distress.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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