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– Jayati Gupta

In early travel writing establishing the identity or authenticity of the eye-witness/observer, vouching for the reliability of the witness, corroborating one account by referring to another,

became standard practices for verifying the non-fictional character of the travel-text. The travelogue is part of popular rather than literary culture and it views landscapes and peoples, represents places and records encounters, often validating itself by referring to other kinds of texts. (literary, factual, anthropological, geographical) Travel focuses on themes of displacement, mobility and migration, which invariably rakes up paradoxical issues of home and belonging, of other, self and identity. Historically viewed, travel texts, though claiming to be objective, have perpetuated unequal, exploitative and hegemonic perspectives that are part of colonial and imperial agency. “At its best, travel writing not only inspires a desire to travel and experience cultures and lands different from our own, but it also provokes the reader to reflect on his or her own inner landscapes.” i This is the metaphorical journey which is inextricably linked to the real itinerary. “What is not a journey?”, asks Todorov in The Morals of History, and goes on to add that “the journey in space symbolizes the passing of time, physical movement symbolizes interior change; everything is a journey, but as a result this “everything” has no specific identity.” ii

The early phases of American travel writing begin with the grand narratives of adventure, discovery and exploration. It is pertinent to point out here that the America that most people talk about today is essentially the US, not Central and South America. Late seventeenth and eighteenth century travel accounts charted out the topography, the naturalistic, even geographical details and almost simultaneously structured the future of a new colony in descriptive terms that would attract future migrants. Several eighteenth century travel journals capture the social realities, the varied human and physical landscapes, thereby creating the natural landscape of the colonial periphery which was distinct from the metropolitan space dominated by the cultural authority of the centre.

During the 1750s and 1760s when the British and the French contended with each other to establish their empire, travel accounts were part of military movements and exploits. For example, The Journal of Major George Washington (1754) recounts his mission as a volunteer from Virginia to the Ohio valley, to deliver an ultimatum to the French commandant to withdraw troops. This was a travel narrative that had political and cultural significance interspersed with pertinent observations about Native American tribes inhabiting the region. Set along the Appalachian frontier spaces, the journal captures the dramatic intrigues and alliances that rendered the idea of belonging and identity entirely ambivalent as the situation on the ground was in a state of flux.

Throughout the decade of the later 1760s (after the Seven Years War) travel journals created a body of geological, enthnographical, zoological, botanical knowledge that fulfilled speculative curiosity with wide-ranging political and entrepreneurial designs. The spaces being created by such travel writing ( Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, 1778, William Stork’s An Account of East Florida, 1766) were specifically conceptualized as territories for future settlers, read colonizers. The identity of the writer is as a heroic individual but also as a loyal subject of the Crown. Whether it is the settler narratives, the captivity narratives, the frontier travel narratives, the Quaker accounts, the preoccupation with the Native Americans, their culture and society largely translated into a concerted effort to assimilate the strange and the alien into Eurocentric categories of meaning. (John Bartram Observations, 1751)

The questions of American national identity emerge in the pre-revolution period and a characteristic text would be Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, 1771. Though it is the success story of an individual, it encapsulates the theme of opportunity and entrepreneurship that forms the core of early travel writing about America. Early myths of American national identity in its formative period have focused on travel as discovery, settlement, transportation and migration. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, intra-national travel accounts had a role in charting cartographic space, tracking culture as a dynamic enterprise and shaping cultural and individual identities.


I would like to focus on two later veteran American travelers, who left their shores for multitudes of destinations – there were perhaps many others like them who are not just travelers but tourists, diplomats, financiers, expatriates and residents, all fulfilling their different roles. These travellers provide more contemporary perspectives on their surroundings, landscapes and peoples wherever they have travelled. What we have in these two cases are discrete texts that handle textual effects without actually mapping cartographic space or forging new identities. Here again I have narrowed down my observations to how these travelers encounter India and the fictions of the self and the construction of the other that operate in that specific context. These are travel texts that are important vehicles for expressing rather than constituting identity, for the texts record impressions and evaluate the social circumstances experienced.

What are the cultural and literary legacies that these later travelogues inherit? Usually travel writing is based on the encounter with difference, is characterized by a spatial distance between the self/narrator and object and a temporal distance between the author and the reader in the specific context of cross cultural relations.

Mark Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, 1897 is a quasi-autobiographical, non-fictional text where Twain as narrator and commentator creates a persona that traverses physical terrain as well as humorously explores the human psyche while constructing difference. Place or topography, in the context of India, its sights and sounds assume a textuality that constitute more than a mere geographical location. Reading the physical as a text inscribed with layers of meaning is typical of Mark Twain. For example, he deciphers an imaginative meaning, a symbolic core in the River Mississippi that he navigates literally and metaphorically. In his panoramic survey, Life on the Mississippi (1876/1883 section 1 and then the combined writing) he wrote:

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There was never so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed by every re-perusal. (Chapter 9, Digireads.com, 2007. P.37)

Twain revisited the river in his fiction The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , first published in England in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Similarly then for India, he confronts a country to which he came conditioned by European travel and fictional narratives so that the imagined shadowed its physical counterpart.

“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Chapter XXXVIII

The dichotomies brought into play here are characteristic of Orientalist discourses but strangely enough the accompanying discourses of colonial power and authority are not visible. Twain’s effort is to write his own text of India as he is conscious of his identity as an American, viewing British imperialism at its height with witty humour and insight. His travelogue is anecdotal and more about figures, characters, peoples through whom he sketches the sense of wonder that the country evokes – constructing not landscaped but peopled spaces. While he is constantly referring back to the romance of India, the stuff that childhood dreams are made of, he tries to de-romanticize his perceptions by referring to aspects of the real rather than virtual India. Yet there are the recurrent Orientalist tropes like the nautch and zenana, thugee and casteism richness and poverty, that form the staple of the European textualization and stereotyping of the Orient. The tensions between the imagined and the observed in the text are dramatically counterpointed to discover the necessary space for the real and factual. He writes:

“You soon find your long-ago dreams of India rising in a sort of vague and luscious moonlight above the horizon-rim of your opaque consciousness, and softly lighting up a thousand forgotten details which were parts of a vision that had once been vivid to you when you were a boy, and steeped your spirit in tales of the East.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Chapter XXXIX

While the ‘opaque consciousness’ is cleared up by correspondences there are other spaces that become visible – other illusions that assert the logic of material and moral superiority, akin to the colonial vision.

“India does not consist of cities. There are no cities in India—to speak of. Its stupendous population consists of farm-laborers. India is one vast farm—one almost interminable stretch of fields with mud fences between. . . Think of the above facts; and consider what an incredible aggregate of poverty they place before you.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Chapter XXXIX

Twain was an ardent supporter of the American South during the Civil War. He was not a racist and is a widely travelled liberal who subscribes to the idea of freedom and multiculturalism that the Americans stand for. In fact Article 4 of the Articles of Confederation states that the right to travel among the various states is one of the first individual freedoms established. It was only in the case of slaves, bondsmen and criminals that the right was suspended with the additional threat of being controlled. iii Thus travel was in America constitutive of freedom and identity, the rights of the citizen.

Twain has a curious passage that refers to complexion and colour that formed the basis of racism wherever it has been practiced. Talking of the white complexion he writes:

“It is not an unbearably unpleasant complexion when it keeps to itself, but when it comes into competition with masses of brown and black the fact is betrayed that it is endurable only because we are used to it. Nearly all black and brown skins are beautiful, but a beautiful white skin is rare. How rare, one may learn by walking down a street in Paris, New York, or London on a week-day—particularly an unfashionable street—and keeping count of the satisfactory complexions encountered in the course of a mile. Where dark complexions are massed, they make the whites look bleached-out, unwholesome, and sometimes frankly ghastly. I could notice this as a boy, down South in the slavery days before the war. The splendid black satin skin of the South African Zulus of Durban seemed to me to come very close to perfection.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897, Chapter XLI

Even as Twain travelled across the country from Bombay to Calcutta, he read India as a grand spectacle that presented a tableau of scenes from the Arabian Nights or a Philip Meadows-Taylor Thug tale or a quest narrative like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It was the mystery and mystique that overawed the American. He tries to reconstruct India through his childhood reading but the intrusion of the real India complicates that vision.

“There is only one India! It is the only country that has a monopoly of grand and imposing specialties. When another country has a remarkable thing, it cannot have it all to itself—some other country has a duplicate. But India—that is different. Its marvels are its own; the patents cannot be infringed; imitations are not possible. And think of the size of them, the majesty of them, the weird and outlandish character of the most of them!

There is the Plague, the Black Death: India invented it; India is the cradle of that mighty birth.

The Car of Juggernaut was India’s invention.

So was the Suttee; and within the time of men still living eight hundred widows willingly, and, in fact, rejoicingly, burned themselves to death on the bodies of their dead husbands in a single year. Eight hundred would do it this year if the British government would let them.

Famine is India’s specialty. Elsewhere famines are inconsequential incidents—in India they are devastating cataclysms; in one case they annihilate hundreds; in the other, millions.

India has 2,000,000 gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.

With her everything is on a giant scale—even her poverty; no other country can show anything to compare with it. And she has been used to wealth on so vast a scale that she has to shorten to single words the expressions describing great sums. She describes 100,000 with one word—a ‘lahk’; she describes ten millions with one word—a ‘crore’.

In the bowels of the granite mountains she has patiently carved out dozens of vast temples, and made them glorious with sculptured colonnades and stately groups of statuary, and has adorned the eternal walls with noble paintings. She has built fortresses of such magnitude that the show-strongholds of the rest of the world are but modest little things by comparison; palaces that are wonders for rarity of materials, delicacy and beauty of workmanship, and for cost; and one tomb which men go around the globe to see. It takes eighty nations, speaking eighty languages, to people her, and they number three hundred millions.

On top of all this she is the mother and home of that wonder of wonders—caste—and of that mystery of mysteries, the satanic brotherhood of the Thugs.

India had the start of the whole world in the beginning of things. She had the first civilization; she had the first accumulation of material wealth; she was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellects; she had mines, and woods, and a fruitful soil. It would seem as if she should have kept the lead, and should be to-day not the meek dependent of an alien master, but mistress of the world, and delivering law and command to every tribe and nation in it. But, in truth, there was never any possibility of such supremacy for her. If there had been but one India and one language—but there were eighty of them! Where there are eighty nations and several hundred governments, fighting and quarreling must be the common business of life; unity of purpose and policy are impossible; out of such elements supremacy in the world cannot come. Even caste itself could have had the defeating effect of a multiplicity of tongues, no doubt; for it separates a people into layers, and layers, and still other layers, that have no community of feeling with each other; and in such a condition of things as that, patriotism can have no healthy growth.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, Chapter XLIII

Twain’s portrayal of India is an effort to create a textual space that incorporates the fiction of the Other. It is also a space that seeks to articulate a critique of India where the identity of the traveller-persona that he forges controls the perspective.

‘The story seems to be arriving nowhere. But that is because I have not finished.’ Facts unfold as fiction and the fiction like life lacks closure. Twain’s Indian sojourn ended at Southampton where he began. In the writing, the fine borderlines between fact and fiction intermingle, creating a factual account that reads like enjoyable fiction.


Separated from Twain’s travel book by almost eight decades is Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazar : By Train Through Asia, written in 1975 iv that marks what has been called the modern renaissance of travel writing. For Theroux, journeying is the goal as he progresses from the familiar to the strange, remote and foreign that arouses curiosity and interest. Travel for him begins and ends in the book and in a self-reflexive mode he writes:

“[T]he difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy-how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction. It would have had … such a pleasing shape if I had artfully distributed light and shadow and played with the grammar of delay…. It did not happen that way… I had worked every day, bent over my rocking notebook like Trollope scribbling between postal assignments, remembering to put it all in the past tense.” (354)

The textual space of travel created in this travel text reflects the effect of a collective American identity and a cumulative culture of home. So the textual space creates the fiction of the other and though actual travel intervenes in the interval between reading and writing, the travel writer seeks to displace other books to situate his own. Theroux depends on the rhetoric of immediacy, observing things as they are, the privilege of the Kantian noumenal (the thing as it is) as distinct from phenomenal (the thing as it appears to the observer). This rhetoric displaces the site of knowledge and cultural authority about indigenous civilizations and peoples to the tourist-traveller-observer. The fault lies with the indigenous people who are indifferent to antiquities and ignorant of traditions and history and willing to have European aesthetic standards imposed on them.

Theroux writes on his visit to Jaipur:

“It had been my intention to stay on the train, without bothering about arriving anywhere; sightseeing was a way of passing the time, but as I had concluded in Istanbul, it was activity very largely based on imaginative invention, like rehearsing your own play in stage sets from which all the actors had fled.” (130)

Theroux displaces the idea of a destination and the itinerary is the telos, the idea of being rather that arriving. He begins his narrative by referring to the ‘bewitchment’ he felt with trains.

“railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape…you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to…” (1)

The Great Railway Bazaar ends where it began, creating a circular movement rather than a linear one – a parabolic structure where the sojourner apparently moves homeward. Yet the enigma of arrival points to a textual labyrinth that permits no escape, and the “I” unlike the persona in Twain does not see what the imagination could but fails to conjure. The fiction/ truth dichotomy still remains problematic and what Paul Theroux sees in India is only the poverty and the squalor, the decrepitude and the dirt repeated in many forms. The wonder is not in the fantastic, the mysterious and the marvelous but in the constant persistence of the ugly and familiar, the tedious and the monotonous.

Theroux uses literary texts from the Anglo-American canon as fictional authorities to securely locate his text. He projects himself as a literary traveller rather than an uninitiated tourist or an illiterate local. He quotes a passage from Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit to underline the Dickensian character of Calcutta and then makes his own observations about the crowds, the stink, the unplanned chaos, the vulgar crudeness of what he saw. There are chance references to the maps and guidebooks that help him chart his itinerary or learn about local history, but his strategy is to distance himself from the common tourist. The train window acts as a frame through which he views ‘difference’ – his view is circumscribed, deliberately withdrawn, unfavourable. He perpetuates a colonial vision, creates a vantage point and space for himself and the physical movement through Asiatic territories is contained by the physical space that he occupies and his encounters with difference are judgemental and do not translate into cosmopolitanism.

Significantly, contemporary travel writing from the Anglo-American Occident has not come to terms with a post-colonial reality and continues to represent a dominant Western gaze to document other cultures and peoples. Simplistically speaking, the colonial vision consists of tropes of power, control and exclusion at work in the text. Late twentieth century globalization however contests the simple logic of dominance and subordination by structuring the anxieties and insecurities between colonial and cosmopolitan visions. The colonial vision is one that is intolerant of heterogeneity and difference and structures alterity into a hierarchical order of the superior subject vis-à-vis an inferior other. The cosmopolitan vision accommodates cultural difference and attempts to come to terms with it but operates in a contested terrain.

I have tried to link Twain and Theroux as I find Twain’s vision of India more positive as he reads India like a complex book—he may not have understood all of it, but he respects what he does not understand. Theroux is conditioned by a fantasy of Asia, is disturbed by the intrusions of modernity and attempts to critique the change and transformation through the anxiety of loss. What we have in these two travel texts are two distinct American identities and the Indias of their minds reflected through an incessant juggling of fact and fiction.

End Notes:

i William G. Tierney. “Review: Travels in Academe”, The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 76, No. 3 (May – June, 2005). Ohio: State U P, pp. 354-358. Web: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3838802, accessed: 18/09/2010.

ii Tzvetan Todorov. The Morals of History ( trans. Alyson Waters). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, p 60.

iii Article IV of the American Constitution reads: “The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different States in this Union, the free inhabitants of each of these States, paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several States; and the people of each State shall free ingress and regress to and from any other State, and shall enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions, and restrictions as the inhabitants thereof respectively, provided that such restrictions shall not extend so far as to prevent the removal of property imported into any State, to any other State, of which the owner is an inhabitant; provided also that no imposition, duties or restriction shall be laid by any State, on the property of the United States, or either of them.” Web: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/artconf.asp, accessed: 20/9/2010.

iv Paul Theroux. The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia. London: Penguin pbk, 2008. Page numbers of extracts refer to this edition.

Mark Twain. Following the Equator: A Journey Around The World. All Chapter numbers are to the Web edition, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2895 , accessed: March, 2010.

Works Cited

Bendixen, Alfred and Hamera, Judith ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing. Cambridge: CUP, 2009. Print.

Lisle, Debbie. The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. Print.

Theroux, Paul. The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia. London: Penguin pbk, 2008. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Morals of History ( trans. Alyson Waters). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Print.

Twain, Mark. Following the Equator: A Journey Around The World. Web: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2895