My aim on TraveLit is to introduce readers who share my love of travel literature to good books they may not know about. Mostly classics, some new, the books cover travel in its many forms, from exploration to tourism. Along with reviews, TraveLit also brings together provocative, entertaining travel quotations and reader recommendations. I welcome comments on the readings, the reviews, the quotations, or the fascinating enterprise of travel itself.

TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Rudyard Kipling's Bad Trip

March 13, 2018

American Notes.
By Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1891. Kindle Edition.

Having read Charles Dickens’s American Notes, I decided to try Rudyard Kipling’s identically titled book, an account of a trip he made in 1889, some 50 years after Dickens’s excursion. What a letdown!

I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. The introduction to the edition I read observes that these “Notes…are considered so far beneath Mr. Kipling’s real work that they have been nearly suppressed and are rarely found in a list of his writings.” Curious, I plowed on--I was interested in yet another view of America’s earlier days, and the book is only 48 pages long.

Kipling begins his journey in San Francisco, heads up to the northwest, visits Salt Lake City, Yellowstone, Chicago, Buffalo, and ends up in Niagara, though this last place isn’t described. He finds little that he likes, apart from salmon fishing in Oregon and young women in general. Many of his criticisms seem valid: the American emphasis on money, the boastfulness, even in church, the “grimy reality” of politics, the personal invasiveness of the press, the violence of firearms are all still with us today.

But there’s a lack of counterbalance, and the tone is absurdly supercilious throughout—“super-sarcastic,” as the introduction remarks. Perhaps Kipling intended his narrative to be humorous. But the prose is strained, the observations about people nasty, and I found nothing to laugh about and not a touch of wit.

What truly sinks the book though is the pervasive racism and bigotry, particularly of course against blacks. I don’t think any book should be “suppressed,” but I’d leave this one on the shelf.

Selected Works

Travel Memoir
"Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir."--Barbara Beckwith, author of What Was I Thinking?: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism,
"It is undoubtedly the best written account of, and reflection on, fieldwork I have read, and --perhaps -- the best book on fieldwork (period) I have come across. --Joel Savishinsky, Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus), Ithaca College, author of Trail of the Hare.
“An impressively insightful, deftly written, accessibly articulate, expertly knowledgeable, and decidedly analytical survey of…book reviewing today.”
Midwest Book Review
“Captivating stories in an anthology of epistolary fiction from the last 50 years.”

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