Travel Writers and Catholic Writers

In a long essay in The Smart Set (an online cultural magazine based in Philadelphia), Thomas Swick traces his career as a travel writer. In doing so, he also recounts the history of that literary genre in the 20th century. It flourished in the 20s and 30s. then died during and after the war only to pick up again in the 1970s.  Although he never mentions any of Waugh’s travel books as having particularly influenced him, Swick does mention Waugh in the context of the changes within the travel writng genre:

I had long been attracted to, which meant I was heavily influenced by, British writers, not just in the field of travel, where they excelled, but in the realm of succinct, subtle, dryly humorous prose. And this put me at odds with the American penchant for rambling, word-drunk, often overly earnest texts. The British tendency was to hold things back, while the American one – beginning long before the ’60s – was to let it all out. I much preferred the Latinate sentences of Evelyn Waugh to the overstuffed ones of Thomas – and now Tom – Wolfe. Of course, Fitzgerald had written beautifully measured lines, and Hemingway’s had had a revolutionary leanness, but our contemporary writers – from Mailer to Styron to Bellow to Irving – were all enamored of the sound of their own typing. In travel, Bruce Chatwin had a lapidary crispness that Paul Theroux, for all his Anglophilia, lacked. Instead of understatement, the Americans gave me gonzo.

After discussing his various attempts, mostly unsuccessful, to break into travel writing, Swick found his opportunity in the new wave of travel writing inspired by Paul Fussell’s Abroad and an issue of Granta devoted to travel writing as well as the success of Theroux and Chatwin:

Travel writers were no longer retreating from the scene in their books, letting the locals and their environs speak for themselves; they were the main characters in nonfictional picaresques. They took Evelyn Waugh’s first-person junkets to a higher, more plot-driven level. In Old Glory, published in 1981, the British writer Jonathan Raban sailed the length of the Mississippi River, capturing memorable people and moments but also telling of his personal journey – an adult, solitary, immigrant Huck Finn whose downriver progress was momentarily halted by an affair in St. Louis. Like Theroux, he was infusing and enriching the travel book with elements from the novel, not the least of which were narrative arc and engaging protagonist. Readers could eagerly follow the account of the author’s passage while, almost subliminally, learning about the lands he passed through.

Unlike Theroux, Raban brought a foreign eye to familiar places, which was also a feature of some of the new travel writing. In a world that was increasingly being visited by tourists, he went where the tourists lived, in this case, the small towns and prosaic cities along the Mississippi. And using his deft analytical skills – aided by a formidable knowledge of history and literature, geography and religion – he was able to make his readers see them anew. Interpreting a landscape, wresting out its meanings as opposed to simply describing its features, was another aspect of the new travel writing, one that was essential with the growing ubiquity of the camera.

Swick finally reached his goal of establishing himself as a travel writer and the results can be seen in his book The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. Although not mentioned, there is a possible interesting connection between Waugh and Raban. Catherine Waugh, Evelyn’s mother, was from a family named Raban, a less common name even than Waugh. Jonathan Raban seems to be working on an autobiography of some sort, having recently published essays about his parents and childhood in recent LRB articles, but never seems to have explored this question of a relationship with those other novelist-travel writers, the Waughs.  Or perhaps he has and I missed it? Comments invited below.

The TLS in this week’s “NB” column includes a discussion by columnist J.C. of “Catholic scribes”. This was inspired, as are many of the discussions in his column, by the recent acquisition of a book from a bookstall during one of his “perambulations”. In this case it was

…Altar &Pew, edited by John Betjeman, a little anthology in the Pocket Poets series published by Vista Books in the 1950s […] (£1 from a Charing Cross Road barrow). The topic is “Church of England verses”, but you won’t find any more of those nowadays than you will Catholic novels. […]

What happened to all the Catholic writers? Once, they were legion. Graham Greene is probably the most reputable, part of the attraction being that he gloried in the disreputable. Evelyn Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, at the age of twenty-seven, explaining later that he had realized that life was “unintelligible and unendurable without God”. Muriel Spark, a protégé of both Greene and Waugh, left behind her Jewish family background and Edinburgh’s Calvinist air, to embrace the Roman faith in the mid-1950s. These three were converts; Anthony Burgess was a cradle Catholic. Hilaire Belloc converted from having lapsed, if that makes theological sense. […] In our age of brutalist profanity, who will guide us through death’s dark vale? David Lodge and Piers Paul Read are perhaps the closest we have to inheritors of the Catholic strain in literature.[…] It is hard to imagine a successful contemporary writer saying, as Waugh did, that he or she found life unintelligible without God. Much more trendy to say the opposite: that life is unintelligible with Him. Betjeman’s anthology ends with Philip Larkin, the youngest writer in the book (thirty-seven at the time of publication). The poem is “Church Going”:
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Thanks to a reader for sending a link. The full article is behind a paywall.

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