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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.

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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Review: The White Darkness

The White Darkness

By David Grann.  Doubleday, 2018, 143 pp.


Antarctica, an obsession for past explorers, was also an obsession for a contemporary adventurer, Henry Worsley, a military man who served with the British Special Air Service and idolized Ernest Shackleton.  A distantly-related descendant of Frank Worsley, who accompanied Shackleton on the Endurance expedition, Henry read everything he could about the great explorer, collected pertinent memorabilia, and strove to complete Shackleton's two unfinished journeys—to the South Pole and across the Antarctic continent.


In The White Darkness, David Grann offers a profile of Worsley and describes these two treks.  The first took place in 2008, a time, says Grann, when Worsley's career had stalled, allowing him to pursue his Antarctic dreams.  The author follows Worsley and his two companions—also descendants of Shackleton's men—as they struggle with the brutal landscape, visit the huts once occupied by Scott and Shackleton, and ultimately reach the Pole.


Framing the book, though, is the second of these journeys: Worsley's ill-fated effort to cross the continent.  Read More 

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If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?

This New York Times essay offers a climate-change perspective on travel.  I'm wondering how these concerns will affect not only the way we travel but also the way we write, and read, about travel.



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Postscript to Review of Empire Antarctica

The Emperor Penguins have now all but abandoned the colony at Halley Bay described in Empire Antarctica, which I reviewed last month.  Terrible news.



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Review: Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins

Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins

By Gavin Francis.  Counterpoint, 2013, 260 pp.


Emperor penguins are extraordinary animals, the only species to hatch their eggs on the sea ice of Antarctica.  Images of male penguins huddled together, incubating their eggs in the harsh winter—protecting them in their brood pouches, balancing them on their feet as they shuffle about in their huddle, rotating to the warmer spots in the middle—are unforgettable.


It was a fascination with these birds and a desire to live alongside them that led Gavin Francis to apply for a position as doctor at Halley, which is the least accessible of the British research stations in Antarctica and just twenty kilometers from a rookery where some 60,000 emperor penguins breed every autumn.


But there were other reasons as well.  He wanted to experience the solitude and silence the region would offer, a relief from his frenetic life in Edinburgh.  He was drawn to the stories of such legendary polar explorers as Scott, Shackleton, and Byrd.  And he hoped the time and space at Halley would help clarify his own future path: "whether to aim for a life of travel and expeditions, or commit to a profession and put down roots."


A chronicle of Francis's 14 months at Halley, Empire Antarctica is also the story of this personal quest.  He reflects upon the amazing landscape he inhabits, the remarkable light and, in winter, the lack of light.  He Read More 

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Review: Venice is a fish

Venice is a fish: A sensual guide

By Tiziano Scarpa.  Translated by Shaun Whiteside.  Gotham Books, 2008, 160 pp.


Is there any city more written about than Venice?  The city is "encrusted with imagination" writes Tiziano Scarpa.  "There isn't another place in the world that could bear all that visionary tonnage on its shoulders."  Venice, he says, "will sink under the weight of all the visions, fantasies, stories, characters and daydreams it has inspired."


Scarpa nonetheless seems quite happy to add to that "tonnage" in this love letter to his native city.  His "sensual guide" addresses ways the visitor can take Venice in through the senses and is organized around various parts of the body. 


Under "feet," for example, he says: "Feel how your toes turn prehensile on the steps of the bridges, clutching at worn or squared edges as you climb…Wear light shoes, soft-soled…"  Under "legs," he observes, "You're forever going up and down, even in the calli.: Venice is never flat, it's a continuous unevenness, all lumps, bumps, hump-backed bulges, dips, dents, depressions…"  Heart disease is not a problem in Venice, he remarks.


As these quotes suggest, this is a very playful book.  "Heart" leads to a discussion of where, in a city without cars, youngsters can find a place to make love when their parents are home.  Read More 

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Review: Don't Make Me Pull Over!

Don't Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip

By Richard Ratay.  Scribner, 2018, 288 pp.


Most of us who took family road trips as children will instantly recognize Richard Ratay's title and the car scenario he describes: parents up front, kids squabbling in the back, Dad, who is driving, reaching back with one hand to grab a misbehaving youngster while yelling, "Don't make me pull over!"—and nearly taking the car off the road.


It's amazing we survived.


In this entertaining book, Ratay takes readers on a tour of the American family road trip, from its origins to its surge after World War II and finally to its decline in the eighties, when it was largely supplanted by air travel.  Drawing on his own childhood experience of car trips with his parents and three older siblings, he enlivens his narrative with personal anecdotes, while delving into the many factors that made this peculiar form of travel both possible and popular.  Read More 

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Review: A Florida Sketch-Book

A Florida Sketch-Book
By Bradford Torrey. Houghton, Mifflin, 1894. Project Gutenberg.

I was drawn to Bradford Torrey’s account of a ramble in east Florida in 1894 because I now spend nearly half the year in Florida myself—though in the west—and I was curious to see what I might glean about the state of the state more than a century ago.

I had never heard of Torrey, but an article by Kevin E. O’Donnell that appeared in Early American Nature Writers, which I found online, provided a thorough and interesting profile of the man. A popular Boston naturalist and writer in his time, who influenced both nature and travel writing, he was the author of 13 books, mostly collections of essays he produced for the Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a weekly column for the Boston Evening Transcript and was the editor of Thoreau’s journals.

Torrey’s Florida journeys take him to the St. Augustine area, to Daytona Beach, and to New Smyrna, and everywhere his main focus is on birds. Read More 

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Review: By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy

By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
By George Gissing. Project Gutenberg. First published, 1901.

In the late 1890s, the writer George Gissing set off on a trip to Southern Italy, an intensely personal journey into Magna Graecia with its ancient Greek ruins. “The names of Greece and Italy draw me as no others;” he writes; “they make me young again, and restore the keen impressions of that time when every new page of Greek or Latin was a new perception of things beautiful.”

Not everything on this rugged journey was beautiful, but Gissing retains his passion throughout, as he travels south from Naples to Calabria and on to Sicily. In Paola, he reflects on Hannibal and the Visigoths. In Taranto, he finds that the fishermen—“their lithe limbs, their attitudes at work or in repose, their wild, black hair”—remind him of “shapes pictured on a classic vase.”

He searches for the Galaesus, Horace’s “beloved river,” and in Metapontum, he thinks of Pythagoras, said to have died there in 497 BC, “broken-hearted at the failure of his efforts to make mankind gentle and reasonable.” Gissing observes that “In 1897 AD that hope had not come much nearer to its realization.” Nor in 2018, this reader would add. Read More 

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