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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.

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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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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