Literature has always been a portal into the foreign. The exploration of lives that do not belong to you in a place you have never been is what a reader hopes to encounter page after page, from beginning to end. And for those who can only discover a new country from the seat of an armchair, travel literature is the holy grail of experiencing the unfamiliar.
James Wallace, an English professor at Boston College, has dedicated an entire course to traveling through books. After attending graduate school at Columbia University, Wallace went on to teach at Middlebury and St. Lawrence University prior to accepting a more permanent position at BC, where he has now taught for 22 years. While on sabbatical in Bath, England, he began an American Travel Writing course, which includes the works of Mark Twain, David Dorr, James Baldwin and Bill Bryson, among others. His students discover England, France, Greece, Turkey and more through the words of explorers who travel for the same reason all of us do: to experience what we cannot at home, and to bring back stories to share with others.
As one of Professor Wallace’s students – and a member of his American Travel Writing class - I was fortunate enough to sit down with him and find out just how far travel literature can take you.
INTRAVEL: How long have you been teaching the travel-writing course?
JW: Three years. It’s a new interest, and I can tell you why I decided to go that way.
INTRAVEL: That’s what I was going to ask!
JW: As somebody who works in American literature, and especially American literature before 1865, I was always going to conferences in Boston or Oneonta, New York – that’s where the James Fenimore Cooper conference is every year. My colleagues were all flying off to Paris, and London, and things like that, and I thought: How can I get to do that, too? And the answer was – Travel Writing! I’ll specialize in travel writing so I can get to go to Paris, too, because so many American writers lived there and worked there. So that was really the motive.