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Travel writing not only has the potential to compete with novels on literary merit, but to excel. After all, it’s potentially got everything: exotic locations, true adventure, multiple story lines, peak emotion, honest reflection, and poetic insight… for starters. So why is most of it—in short (magazine) form, anyway—so bad? Follow the money. No other literary genre is expected to sell peripheral products—tickets and tours and gear and (gulp) insurance—in addition to magazines and books. Maybe travel writing should be reserved for non-travel-writers. If I could time-travel, I’d travel back in time and cure Rimbaud of his disease so that he could live out the rest of his life as a travel writer, enlightening us all in the process. Ahhh, time travel… now that’s the best kind…
Fortunately the long narrative form of travel writing is better than the short, so we’ve still got some good options (just make sure they spend as much time in threadbare hovels as they do in fancy resorts). V.S. Naipaul did just that in his “The Middle Passage,” an account of his 1960-ish trip to the Caribbean, first and foremost to his birth home of Trinidad, but also including five societies in the Caribbean region of all different colonial stripe. Given the title of the book and his own Indian heritage, you can bet that slavery and racism are not far from his mind.
I’ve been to all the countries of the book, and I’d say that both his off-the-cuff and well-worn insights are mostly spot-on, even from the distance of fifty years’ elapsed time. He even informed me of something which I hadn’t known before—that Amerindians in Guyana had hunted down escaped slaves for their bounties and eventual return to their colonial masters; so much for inter-minority solidarity. His descriptions can be very detailed and specific, too, something I can appreciate, especially from the vantage point of fifty years of foggy memories and historic reconstructions.
Naipaul’s narrative makes an interesting contrast and comparison to John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” also a 1960-ish account by the great American author. And the two could not be more different. Naipaul was worldly, the multi-cultural ex-pat; Steinbeck was typically American in his proto-RV, in my mind’s eye something like the glorified shell that bolted on to my Dad’s pickup with few amenities and even fewer hook-ups, and in which he drove us all up to the New York World’s Fair from Mississippi in 1966.
Thus Steinbeck clambered up and down the landscape in a vast self-contained loop, chatting up the locals, sipping hooch and finding moments of transcendence in the minutiae of their lives. High drama comes with his dog’s Charley’s illness and emergency treatment. The epiphany comes with his return home to Salinas, CA. As we ex-pats all know, you can’t do that, but you have to try. You go through the motions if nothing else; we know that, too.
Naipaul certainly knows that, and this was a point of intersection between two otherwise very different writers… though not such different writing. Naipaul was at the beginning of his career. Steinbeck was at the end. Naipaul was mixing and mashing-up languages and cultures every day and every mile of an area far smaller than the USA. Steinbeck was probing the single—though divided—soul of an America at the peak of its influence, an influence that overwhelmed even Naipaul’s Trinidad, and a soul that would soon be subjected to its own self-search that is on-going to this day.
Their other point of intersection is racism, that ugly monster that lives inside us, and which was just beginning to be dealt with in America’s own Deep South. Steinbeck ran straight into it, and was rightly disgusted by it, wasting no time to try to feather the edges of its illegitimacy, and wasting no words to try and finesse the question of its timeliness. So he left, back up north, triumphant in his denunciation of it. Little did he know that fifty years later, it wouldn't have changed much...
Naipaul wasn’t so lucky. As a foreign-born Indian, he had no such luxuries. He dealt with it by being more proficient than most of his potential detractors, though not without his own controversies, both personal and professional. He is widely regarded as one of the foremost writers of the English language within the last century, the ultimate poetic justice.
Interestingly, a writer that I personally regard higher than either of these, and whom I had intended to write up with Steinbeck, the ex-pat American Henry Miller, of Tropic of Cancer fame, left me totally in the cold with his Air-Conditioned Nightmare, written on the occasion of his return to America in the 1940’s after many years of expatriation. I couldn’t even finish the book. I tried twice. And I love Miller’s stuff, one of my all-time favorite writers. Weird. Someone, please enlighten me…
See author's blog here.