Writing About Writing About Travel

Work on the first section of the fellowship has been proceeding nicely over the last few months. Travel literature on Dumfriesshire and Galloway in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a rich subject that could easily sustain an entire project in its own right. It’s a really useful case-study in widespread patterns of Romantic travel – from statistical analysis to aesthetic tourism – as well as a unique body of writing that can help to challenge our understanding of the subject. I’m increasingly interested in the ways in which this literature both foregrounds and elides the category of the local. Frameworks of tourism, whether scientific, pleasurable or otherwise, provide ways of looking at place that can act to obscure as much as shape the actual subject matter. D&G seems a particularly interesting context for such patterns, since it can appear overfamiliar and yet foreign to tourists, specific in unexpected ways, lacking existing frames of reference.

As things stand, this material will be approached in a dedicated chapter in the monograph that will be the major output of the project, which I am now beginning to draft. That said, the project has been designed to have a cumulative order and the travel literature material will recur in and inform much of what follows.

There is a critical moment in developing this kind of research at which the material is sufficiently accumulated and digested, and writing has to begin. When to make a start on the writing proper is always a tricky decision. Drafting will inevitably cause the overall picture to develop and it is a mistake to see the research and writing process as entirely separate phases – deferring too long risks paralysis when handling a large body of source material. Then again, it is of course key to remain patient in forming the knowledge base for a lengthy piece of work, and mistakes made in forming the basic architecture of an argument may be hard to overcome further down the line.

Welcome to Dumfries and Galloway

It’s difficult to avoid parallels between this research process and the practice of travel writing, which in the Romantic period indeed very often had scholarly overtones. As a traveller like John Keats, for example, moves across the south-western Scottish landscape, primed with a body of critical information (on Robert Burns, on picturesque aesthetics and so forth) gathering new insights, he is engaged in what feels like a familiar process. The ‘thesis’ of Keats’s 1818 pedestrian tour, I would suggest, surrounds the Scottish national character, for which Burns becomes a lightning rod, with the younger poets’ ideas about Scotland receiving a series of challenges and revisions. ‘My head is sometimes in such a whirl in considering the million likings and antipathies of our Moments–that I can get no settled strain in my Letters’, he complains in one of the dispatches that form his tour journal, developing an intriguing sense of subjectivity and contingency.

Shortly after, Keats finds himself exasperated by the fashionable modes of picturesque tourism: ‘I cannot write about scenery and visitings’, he reflects. But it’s not simply the content of this kind of travel writing that he objects to, but the fact that it gets in the way of authentic, direct experience:

‘Fancy is indeed less than a present palpable reality, but it is greater than remembrance––you would lift your eyes from Homer only to see close before you the real Isle of Tenedos. –– You would rather read Homer afterwards than remember yourself.’

In other words, present experience trumps everything, with imagination an altogether superior substitute for it than memory. It is this subtle sense of what is involved in the practice of travel writing that makes an account like Keats’s so interesting. And if, as Keats suggests, both imagination and memory are poor echoes of experience, then what happens to the local itself in the act of recording?

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