Book Reviews

Małgorzata Rutkowska. In Search of America: The Image of the United States in Travel Writing of the 1980’s and 1990s

Małgorzata Rutkowska. In Search of America: The Image of the United States in Travel Writing of the 1980’s and 1990s. Lublin: UMCS, 2006. ISBN: 82-227-2606-6

Rutkowska’s own travel to and research in America, originating in a research grant trip and Fulbright Polish-US American Studies placement, enables her to present a personally informed account which is critically informed in its evaluation of travel writing from the United States and this is evident her text, In Search of America: The Image of the United States in Travel Writing of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

While travel literature is a vast, varied and perhaps undervalued field of discursive representation, which has traditionally received little critical appreciation, there has been in recent years a proliferation of texts on the topic and there is now ‘a variety of approaches to the travel of discovery today’ (p. 11). Rutkowska’s work and approach is significant in its focus on the non-fictional accounts of the sub-genre of domestic travels, or travelogues, from the1980s and 90s. She argues that:

contemporary domestic travelogue should be treated as a distinct literary sub-genre, characterized by a set of particular strategies and artistic principles, many of which originated in the nineteenth-century American travel writing. (p. 11)

Her reasons for this focus are given the resurgence of interest in and increased sales of travel writing at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century: in this period it is, she suggests:

the necessity to assert oneself as a bona fide traveller and to legitimize one’s understanding as “real” travel as opposed to superficial tourism [which] result[s] in a fascinating variety of approaches to travelling and in an abundance of travel books. (pp. 9-10)

Her work, then, is primarily concerned with nineteenth- and twentieth-century travel writing about provincial America and its attendant contexts, as well as an examination of the travel genre as a whole. Rutkowska contends that the twentieth century changed not only the way in which people travelled, but also the ways they wrote about travelled experiences.

Her texts explores key questions such as ‘who’ travels, ‘how’ do they travel, and ‘why’? Working out from and building onto these questions, she sets in place a complex investigation of travelogues in this time period. Her chosen texts include travel classics and lesser-known, non-canonical works. These narratives cover different topics: national identity; emulation of nineteenth century travellers and travel narratives; the exploration of specific regions. Rutkowska also discusses how pastoralism inflects these American travelogues. Her primary sources are extensive and varied, and include work from journalists as well as professional travel writers, with texts such as William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982); Ian Frazier’s Great Plains (1990); Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America (1989); Howard Frank Mosher’s North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland (1977); Dayton Duncan’s Out West: American Journey Along the Lewis and Clark Trail (1987); Dale Peterson’s Storyville(1999); Brad Herzog’s States of Mind: A Search for Faith, Hope, Inspiration, Harmony, Unity, Friendship, Love, Pride, Wisdom, Honor, Comfort, Joy, Bliss, Freedom, Justice, Glory, Triumph, and Truth or Consequences in America (1999); Gary Ferguson’s The Sylvan Path: A Journey through America’s Forests (1997), and Peter Jenkins’s A Walk Across America (1979).

Rutkowska’s critical work with these texts takes a thematic approach, incorporating them into a larger discussion of travelogues and related sub-themes, rather than chapters focused on a particular text or texts. There are no glossy photographs to illustrate her narrative. The only picture in the book is on the front cover, where an empty road, edged with greenery, snakes endlessly into the distance, an image that, perhaps, stands as a referent for the endless possibilities which arise or can arise from travel and in its associated discourse.

Chapter I, ‘From Exploration to Tourism: Development of American Travel Writing’, is concerned with alternating sub-topics and questions. The first, sub-titled ‘American Travel Writing in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’ starts its discussion with the statement that ‘American history and literature are inseparably connected with travel’ (p. 14). Following this, is a background and genealogy of travel literature, and how history/different epochs have laid down patterns which have reappeared in contemporary American travelogues. Examples include extracts from John Lawson’s A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men (1775), Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1846), which are preoccupied with the wilderness, while Timothy Flint’s The Recollections of the Last Ten Years (1826), and Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes (1843) indicate the role of romantic travel. The importance of transcendentalism is emphasised, evident in the works of Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Walden (1854), “Walking” (1862), and The Maine Woods (1864). Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and John Steinbeck are also considered, as are the theoretical approaches taken to travel writing by Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard. The historical travelogues offer the basis for the later self-reflexive accounts of travel, while the critical theory enables new readings of texts old and new.

?The sub-section of this first chapter, ‘Motivation for Domestic Travels’, illustrates this:

Clearly, the choice of destinations and the aim of the journeys testify to the traveller’s orientation towards the past, or [...] residual culture – the culture of the past that survives into the present but is no longer potent and creative. Because this is so, it is possible to see contemporary travelogues as one more manifestation of the pastoral impulse, well grounded in American literature and culture. (p. 32)

A further sub-section directly questions the role of ‘Contemporary Travel Writers – [as] Tourists or Travellers?’ Rutkowska uses Thoreau as a point of departure, as well as referencing and evaluating contemporary debates and perspectives from Paul Theroux, Eric Leed, Paul Fussell and Mark Cocker, to name but a few. She ends with the assertion that:

Travel writers aim to revive their own and their readers’ interest in the places that would not be normally considered attractive, be presenting them from a fresh, informed perspective, or by questioning the prevailing stereotypes. (p. 42)

The final sub-section of this establishing chapter, ‘ The Art of Travelling in the Age of Tourism’, considers the minutiae of codes and rules for journeys, traditional symbolic gestures, personal rituals, and how they mutate over time, declaring that ‘[o]bserving the code ensures the proper way of travelling and prevents the travellers from turning into tourists.’ (p. 44) Ultimately, ‘the travelogue itself, with an engaging narrative persona and the subjective presentation of events, becomes one more piece of evidence that its author is indeed a bona fide traveller, while the references to other works of the genre indicate the author’s wish to be perceived as belonging in the American tradition of travel writing.’ (p. 45) ?

Chapter II, ‘“Creative Mediation between Fact and Fiction”: Generic Characteristics of the Contemporary Travel Writing’ considers the definition of the travel book, the function of the narrative persona, and the travel book as literature of fact. The comment that ‘[i]n spite of its popularity among readers, travel writing has always been treated with suspicion by literary critics’ (p. 46) lends itself to a discussion of where and in what context travel narratives are mentioned—or not, their generic positioning, narrator’s position, dimensionality, and also how Anglophone constructions of travel are drawn upon in Polish travelogues and so the impact and difficulties posed by translation.

Chapter III, ‘Travel Writers’ Quest for Vales in the Small-Town America: Modes of Encounter’, revolves around notions of emotional response to travel literature. The sub-sections focus on the search of an ideal small town, isolation, listening, learning and initiation – travellers as collectors of stories, as disciples, and as members of the community. The narrative moves from the background/history of travelogue to motivations for travel and writing, to rules and characteristics, to emotional response, feeling and the creativity and practicalities of writing itself.

Chapter IV, ‘“I Had Witnesses Majesty in the Land”: Travel Writers’ Responses to American Landscapes’, presents readings and re-readings of landscape. Such readings morph from experiences of travel seen through ‘windshield’ in the car, moving outwards to close encounters outside of the car, and then pedestrian exploration of the Midwest and the Great Plains.

Rutkowska ends this highly detailed and comprehensive insight into the non-fiction domestic American travel narratives of the 1980s and 1990s with an analysis of the contemporary popular travelogues, placing them between tradition and innovation, and balancing the pastoral vision with the actuality of America.

Rutkowska’s In Search of America comprehensively fills in such gaps as existed the in our knowledge of American travelogues in this period, locating them in the context of the genre and its history, both literary and critical. Her wide-ranging and numerous sources, in conjunction with her own pertinent points and perceptive and persuasive arguments, mean that the long journey of the ‘search’ for knowledge on this specific subject is, by the end of her narrative, definitely over.

Kate Watson
Cardiff University