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Tuesday, 04 March 2008

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James Wallace

Written by Erin Kuschner
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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.

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James WallaceJames 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.

INTRAVEL: Aside from England, have you lived anywhere abroad?

JW: The one semester in Italy, when I was teaching there.

INTRAVEL: How was teaching in England different than in America?

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James WallaceJW: It’s not fair to compare exactly because it’s American students, so it’s not like I was teaching English students. Although, during the fall semester I taught in Bath, I was teaching Romantic poetry – they needed someone to teach English Romantic poetry. So I did that and it was really nice to be teaching poetry in a place where you could go to Tintern Abbey. I took my class to Tintern Abbey in the rain, of course, under the tree and read Wordsworth…

INTRAVEL: Who are some of your favorite travel writers and why?

JW: Well, because I do concentrate on 19th century writing a lot, some of my favorites are 19th century writers. Hawthorne I like very much. He wrote a book about England, and then a novel set in Italy, in Rome, because he was living there at the time. I really do love Hawthorne. He kept a journal the whole time he was there, so his journal has also been published… quite a bit of travel writing by Hawthorne. Irving – kind of a minor, but very enjoyable, travel writer. Melville, who kept a journal that was published when he took a trip to the Holy Land, and then wrote a long poem about that. And then of course, in a way, all of Melville’s writing. And Twain, he’s a great favorite. I love Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator – he did quite a lot of travel writing.

INTRAVEL: Anyone contemporary?

JW: Bill Bryson! Notes from a Small Island. I read that because of going to England and back, but he’s also written books about Australia and Europe, he traveled in Europe.

INTRAVEL: Didn’t he also write A Walk in the Woods?

JW: Yes, it’s about walking the Appalachian Trail. He’s done quite a lot of travel writing. And Gopnik is really great – Paris to the Moon is really wonderful, a book about living in Paris. There are a lot of really wonderful travel writers, it’s true, and I really enjoy doing this area of research.

INTRAVEL: Do you subscribe to any travel magazines?

JW: No, I don’t. We subscribe to Gourmet, which is a kind of travel. They have special issue from time to time on Paris, or Rome. So recipes, but also recommendations for restaurants or hotels.

INTRAVEL: Do you think the appeal of travel for early authors has changed at all? I know when we read [Alain de] Botton, he talked about how traveling before there was all this literature about a place made the traveler see things through fresh eyes. How do you think this has affected travel writing?

JW: I think by the time you are in the 19th century travel is already tourism. There’s not much more “exploration” left to do. And there’s always… an effect that we call “always already.” You go back to find the origin of something and no matter how far back you go, it seems that it always already has turned into a commodified, impure thing somehow. You are looking for just a pure, exploring experience. I think, you know, Cooper went to Europe for pretty much the same reason we do. It’s the cultural capital; it’s a different way of life, different manners…he wanted his children to be educated in a wider world than Cooperstown, New York. That was a major impulse for him: to go abroad and to stay abroad for as long as he did, to put his kids into school in Europe. For my wife and I, taking the kids to England and France and Spain - that was one of the things we really wanted to do. My son has been to China a couple of times, in Xian, which is kind of out in the middle, west of Beijing. It’s where the clay warriors are, the terracotta warriors. They’re giant, a whole army that some emperor had made…

When Twain is Your Travel Guide: an Interview with James WallaceINTRAVEL: Do you do any travel writing yourself?

JW: Not really. I’ve always kept a journal in England, France, and Italy, but I haven’t ever done anything with it; I haven’t tried to do any real “writing” per se.

INTRAVEL: Do you think the practice of keeping a journal and writing more novels about travel has dwindled off with all the types of travel magazines that are popping up?

JW: Well, when I go to the bookstore, to the travel literature section – of course, there’s an enormous travel section, mostly guidebooks – it looks to me like people are still cranking out those travel books, and apparently they are selling pretty much as they always did. The audience for reading is not the same as it used to be – reading in general. Everyone complains about the disappearance of bookstores and things like that. Of course, that’s not so much because people aren’t reading anymore, it’s because you get your books from And I do too! There’s a local bookstore in Coolidge Corner [near Boston] that I go to all the time – it’s a great store, a Brookline institution, and people go in there all the time. But when I want a book that I know is not going to be there because it’s too obscure I just get it from It’s too easy now to get books that way.

INTRAVEL: I was disappointed when we read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which talked about that wonderful bookstore in Paris, Shakespeare & Co. If only I had known it was there before I went!

JW: Yeah, it’s a very cool place. It’s kind of like somebody’s house filled with shelves and shelves of books, and then chairs, and cots, and beds. You go in and people are sitting there reading or sleeping. It’s still the case that young, aspiring writers show up there and plan to crash: Here I am in Paris, where can I sleep?

INTRAVEL: What do you think makes a good travel book? Because a lot of people think they can write about travel – they go to a place and think; I’m the first one who has seen this.

JW: Good writing, plain and simple. Gopnik and Bryson and people like that. They’re wonderful stylists. They have a really sharp eye for detail, but also an ability to create metaphors and express themselves in a way that help you to see things in a way that are new and fresh, as if you’ve been there for the first time. And also to appreciate the tiny details that most people would overlook. The ability to create a sense of differentness, along with the sameness, of a culture—those are important things. And, as that implies, a good travel writer, like any good writer, sees more than you and I. They are more acutely tuned to small differences, to detail. They’re able to see below the surface in a way that most of us don’t bother to at the time. So that’s what makes reading them a real experience. They create another world, and that’s the pleasure of it.

© Erin Kuschner

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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