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The Story of British Travel Writing

by Mark Cocker

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-42242-0
Publisher: Pantheon

 An extended critique of English travel writing from the 19th century to the present day, by British biographer and journalist Cocker. ``The central, unifying principle in travel books,'' according to Cocker, ``is that abroad is always a metaphysical blank sheet on which the traveller could write or rewrite the story, as he or she would wish it to be.'' England has produced a rich array of such work, and Cocker examines some of the more (and less) famous practitioners of the genre. The great Arabists--Burton and Lawrence--have never lost the renown they won during their day, but some of the figures covered here (such as Frederick Bailey) have largely been forgotten. None lacked fame while alive, however: Cocker shows how the English imagination underwent a sea change during the Victorian period that elevated exploration and travel into a national mania and established the great explorers as national heroes. Although many have associated this phenomenon with the rise of colonialism, Cocker claims deeper roots: The stifling insularity of England, he says, forced many of its malcontents and dreamers to further and further extremes that took them farther and farther from home; meanwhile, the unalloyed classicism of upper- class education established a nostalgia for ancient empires in many of the leisure class--who alone had the means to seek out far-flung lands. The anonymity of alien territory also appealed strongly to those whose aesthetic, political, or sexual tastes forced them into double lives at home. The bitter irony, however, is that the example and work of these cultural refugees have often resulted in the destruction of their refuges through massive waves of commercial tourism that they themselves inspired. Good prose and a well-focused narrative are boxed into too small an arena here: Cocker's subject has great appeal, but he covers figures of only marginal interest to American readers. An English export, then, that can't quite manage the crossing. (Photos)