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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

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

Links of Interest

Article on Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the New York Times Travel Section today, January 5th, 2020.  My husband has collected many old maps of Spitsbergen--this 1728 chart by Gerard van Keulen is one of the most beautiful. 

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Travel Quotation

"I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind."


--G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America

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Review: The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

By Henry Beston.  Introduction by Robert Finch.  First published 1928, Doubleday and Doran.  Reprinted, Henry Holt, 2003, 256 pp.  I read the Kindle Edition.


In 1925, Henry Beston bought around 50 acres on the dunes of Eastham on Cape Cod.  He had a two-room cottage built, which he called the Fo'castle and intended to use only for brief visits.


But arriving there the following year for a two-week stay, he found that he couldn't bring himself to leave.  "The fortnight ending," he writes, "I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go."  He remained for a full year.


The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod is the story of that year.  Read More 

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Review: My First Summer in the Sierra

My First Summer in the Sierra

By John Muir.  Houghton Mifflin, 1911, 272 pp.  Gutenberg Project: The Writings of John Muir, Sierra Edition, Volume II, 1917.  With photographs by Herbert W. Gleason and Charles S. Olcott, and sketches by the author.


Was there ever anyone more exhilarated by nature than John Muir?


"Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days," he writes in My First Summer in the Sierra.  "Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God."


"How deep our sleep last night in the mountain's heart, beneath the trees and stars, hushed by solemn-sounding waterfalls and many small soothing voices in sweet accord whispering peace."


Not that Muir wants to sleep, amidst all this beauty.  "How can I close my eyes on so precious a night?' he asks. 


Indeed, at one point he is so overcome by the glorious landscape that he shouts and gesticulates, frightening off a bear, who seems to view him as dangerous.


All the exuberance might all seem a bit much—if it weren't so authentic. 



 Read More 

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More on American Road Trips!

From Atlas Obscura:


The Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature's Most Epic Road Trips
JULY 20, 2015


Atlas Obscura offers a list of road trip books along with an intricate map that charts the journeys described in the books-- "a painstaking and admittedly quixotic effort," says the author.  This website is definitely worth a visit.

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When the Drive Matters More Than the Destination

When the Drive Matters More Than the Destination:


Brief article in the New York Times about road trips, journeys much written about--by Kerouac, of course, and many others, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, pictured here with Zelda.

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Review: After Hannibal

After Hannibal

By Barry Unsworth. 

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1997.  250 pp.


We tend to think of travel literature as nonfiction—travelogues, guides, histories of countries, memoirs of experiences abroad.  But fiction, whether written by natives or foreigners, can offer equal insight into places and cultures, especially when the author is as intelligent and skillful as Barry Unsworth.


Unsworth's twelfth novel, After Hannibal, revolves around six households that share one of Italy's many strade vicinale, or neighborhood roads.  The setting is Umbria, near Perugia, in the region where Hannibal ambushed and defeated the Romans, and betrayal is a central theme of the book.


Unsworth touches on the history, art, and the gorgeous landscape of the area as he chronicles the doings of his troubled characters: Monti, a historian who is researching Perugia's history—"a chronicle of crimes"—and obsessing about his wife, who has recently left him; Fabio, a former racing driver—now a farmer—whose young partner has not only left him but has also cheated him out of his farm; and Ritter, a German, who as a child lived in Italy with his Nazi father and is still haunted by the fear that he inadvertently betrayed his best friend, Giuseppe.


Through two foreign couples, Unsworth looks at incomers restoring old houses in Italy, a subject adored by many readers that receives some tough treatment here.  Read More 

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Review: The Gentle Art of Tramping

The Gentle Art of Tramping

By Stephen Graham.  Originally published by Robert Holden & Co., Ltd., 1927, 264 pp. (with a dozen blank pages for "Notes by the Wayside").  Re-issued in 2019 by Bloomsbury Reader, foreword by Alastair Humphreys.  Available on Kindle.


First published in 1927 and recently re-issued, The Gentle Art of Tramping, by the British travel writer Stephen Graham (1884-1975) is a terrific and timeless guide, at once practical and spiritual, to tramping. 


And what, you might well ask, is "tramping"?  In his foreword to the new edition, Alastair Humphreys suggests a better word for the modern reader might be "hiking," or "backpacking."  This is true—but for Graham, the activity connotes far more than these neutral words imply.


To tramp, says Graham, is "to liberate yourself from the tacit assumption of your everyday life."  For those who tramp—which includes "all true Bohemians, pilgrims, explorers afoot, walking tourists, and the like"— "there is much to learn, there are illusions to be overcome, …prejudices and habits to be shaken off."  Indeed, "Know how to tramp," says the author, "and you know how to live." Read More 

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Review: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

By James M. McPherson.  Crown Journeys, 2009, 144 pp


"Perhaps no word in the American language has greater historical resonance than Gettysburg," writes the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War historian, James M. McPherson.  "For some people Lexington and Concord, or Bunker Hill, or Yorktown, or Omaha Beach would be close rivals.  But more Americans visit Gettysburg each year than any of these other battlefields—perhaps than all of them combined."


Indeed, nearly 2 million people a year (including around 60,000 foreigners) visit the Gettysburg National Military Park, where the battle took place in the first three days of July 1863.  There were almost 50,000 casualties in this battle, which, the author calls the "costliest" in the Civil War and which, he believes, "turned the tide toward ultimate victory."


McPherson, who says he has visited the Park and given tours so many times it feels almost like a "second home," is a superb guide for readers.  Not only is he knowledgeable, he is a lively writer, with a good sense of character and story.  As he walks, pausing at one of the approximately 1,400 monuments and markers, or at a particular hill or road, he fleshes out the significance of the place with portraits of the players.


At one spot, he tells the story behind the only monument to an individual enlisted man: Amos Humiston, Read More 

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Review: First Fieldwork: The Misadventures of an Anthropologist

First Fieldwork: The Misadventures of an Anthropologist

By Barbara Gallatin Anderson.  Waveland Press, 1990, 150 pp.


What is it like to travel as an anthropologist, living in a foreign culture for a year, as both observer and participant? 


As Barbara Gallatin Anderson says, the traditional anthropological monograph has done little to answer that question.  With some exceptions, most anthropologists writing scholarly monographs about the societies they lived in have revealed little about their personal experience in the field.  Indeed, as Gallatin observes, anthropologists were traditionally trained to suppress "extraneous personal reporting"—precisely the stuff that travel readers and newbie fieldworkers would want to hear about.


Anderson, an anthropologist who has written scholarly works, gives us something altogether different in her delightful book, First Fieldwork.  Setting aside academic theory, fictionalizing names and places to protect privacy, and writing with a nice dose of self-deprecation, she chronicles in personal detail the challenges and mishaps of her first fieldwork in a small Danish fishing village.


As the author explains early on, she had initially hoped to do fieldwork in Ghana.  But when she discovered that she was pregnant, she decided instead to go to Taarnby (not its real name) with her husband Thor, who was also an anthropologist, and their 5-year-old daughter, Katie. 


This was clearly a safer choice, but it was not especially easy.  The accommodations alone were a challenge.  Their small cottage—available only because "no fisherman would live in it"—was equipped with only a potbellied stove to see them through the freezing northern winter, a two-plate burner for cooking, no indoor toilet or bathing facilities, and a very peculiar-sounding loft arrangement for sleeping.


For all that she was an observer, Anderson also knew that she was being closely observed, and that in Taarnby, as in any small town, her errors would be widely known with incredible speed. Read More 

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