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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.

Westward Ha! or Around the World in Eighty Cliches

Westward Ha! or Around the World in Eighty Clichés
By S. J. Perelman. Drawings by Hirschfeld. Simon and Schuster, 1947, 1948, 159 pp.

Travel provides rich material for satire. From the misinformed plans, to the mishaps en route, to the boring photographic record foisted on friends, journeys offer boundless scope for mockery—of oneself (the traveler), of others, of the ways of the world, and of travel itself.

S. J. Perelman takes all of these on in his wild romp Westward Ha!, the story of the world tour he and his friend Hirschfeld— theatrical caricaturist for the New York Times—undertook for Holiday magazine in the 40s. In 9 months, they visited 27 countries, “all the areas celebrated by Kipling, Conrad, and Maugham,” including Shanghai, Hongkong, Thailand—Siam at the time—Malaya, India, Egpyt, Italy, France, and England.

Everywhere, they suffer, and always extremely: from seasickness, heat, wretched food, horrid lodgings, rude bureaucrats, greedy vendors, and even homesickness that has them craving hot pastrami sandwiches and strawberry cheesecake. All this suffering, of course, is described with lively humor that is captured in Hirschfeld’s delightful drawings: one of my favorites shows our heroes boarding their ship “ingloriously,” crawling on hands and knees across a gangplank.

Perelman does find (a few) places he likes—but I can’t imagine reading this book as a guide. You’d read it for the depictions of the awful experiences—the author slithering through the tunnels of the pyramids, “enriching every medical concept of claustrophobia,” and dragging behind him the deadweight of another terrified tourist who is clutching his ankles; or racing through Naples, Pompeii, Rome, Siena, Florence, Pisa, and Genoa in 4 days, an expedition that the guide himself considers “unmitigated lunar idiocy” and that leaves the author so zonked that only when his mouth is “pried open with a sharp stick and a shakerful of martinis introduced” does he revive.

This is broad humor—slapstick, really—but Perelman handles it cleverly. If some of the comedy seems dated, much remains funny, and the author’s astute critique of tourism—the inanities of our travels, the exaggerations of our stories—remains pertinent today. We seem to think that all the rushing about, the seeing and doing is self-improving. Is it? Back home in New York, sitting with Hirschfeld one year later, the two reflect on their journey:

“Looking at the whole thing in retrospect, we saw with incredulity that we had come through our adventure absolutely unscathed. In our faces was none of that rich harvest of serenity and wisdom, that fund of mellow philosophy to lighten the daily burden, and that broad tolerance for human frailty guaranteed to shine forth from the countenance of the returned traveler. If anything, we were more crabbed, pettifogging, and ornery than before we had set off.”

So much for the idealized virtues of touristic travel—but after all, there is always the human comedy it provides.

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