Charles Dickens: The First Great Travel Writer?

Travel Books: Frank Bures digs into the legendary author's travel writing and finds some surprises

05.25.10 | 11:18 AM ET

Back when the world wasn’t so known, travel writing wasn’t so much about being entertaining, or about letting the writer’s persona run wild. The point was to describe the world rather than to dance upon its stage. The purpose was to transport people to another part of the world in an edifiying, Victorian kind of way. It was something to make readers who couldn’t see the world become more worldly. It was more education than entertainment or art.

That’s certainly the type of writing I expected when I opened this new compilation of Charles Dickens’ travel writing, which dates from the mid-1800s. But to my surprise, I found something else—something that makes me think Charles Dickens may have been the first great modern travel writer.

Sure, there were a few long, dry descriptive passages. In other parts, though, it was anything but the quasi-anthropological reportage of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta. There was warmth and dialogue and humor. Suddenly I found myself chuckling along with the author as he sailed on a steamer across the Atlantic, or rode the rails into Paris, or traveled around Italy, or simply observed the chicanery of London’s cab drivers, many of whom would be shipped off to Australia. It felt real. It felt like life. The people spoke and were flawed, and I could feel the paradoxes in their lives.

This was not just Dickens traveling and reporting back to civilization. This was Dickens bringing us along as he and the people around him felt their way through the world. For example, when he traveled by ship from England to America, he noticed “a mysterious, runaway kind of couple,” of whom the gentleman “carried more guns with him than Robinson Crusoe.”

“I remember,” Dickens writes, “that he tried hot roast pig and bottled ale as a cure for seasickness; and that he took these remedies (usually in bed) day after day, with astonishing perseverance. I may add, for the information of the curious, that they decidedly failed.”

These droll passages make Dickens’ travel writing feel lively and modern. He is not merely talking about places. He is bending his ear for the absurd. He is reflecting on beauty and aging. He is turning his eye to the dynamics between people.

“And now,” he writes as his train rolls farther into France, “I find that all the French people on board begin to grow, and all the English people begin to shrink. The French are nearing home, and shaking off a disadvantage, whereas we are shaking it on.”

It’s a small sketch of a feeling that remains as true now as it was then. This layering of imagination on reality make his tales feel rich and real. In reading this book, I was reminded of something I’d forgotten I knew.

Years ago, when I first started writing, I thought I wanted to be a nature writer. I liked nature. I liked writing. And it was in vogue. It seemed perfect.

Then I realized that nature writing was kind of ... boring. If I had to keep reading landscape descriptions, never mind write them, I was going to have to shove hot needles under my fingernails to stay awake.

But I did notice that my interest was piqued whenever there were people on the page: Edward Abbey’s lively dealing with the Indians in Havasu; Terry Tempest Williams’ recounting of her mother’s battle with cancer; Barry Lopez’s interludes with ranchers and hunters.

It seems remedial now, and it is, but it’s something Dickens seemed to realize long ago: Travel is not that interesting. People are. Stories come alive only when there are people in them. Travel and nature writing both purport to be about physical things. But they are really about us, and to the extent that they aren’t, they are simply bad, or boring, writing.

This slim selection of Dickens’ travel writing is anything but that. In it, he is much more concerned about the people who he meets on his way than with the places themselves. And that, to me, is what makes any travel writing worth reading.

“The more man knows of man,” Dickens writes, “the better for the common brotherhood among men.”


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


19 Comments for Charles Dickens: The First Great Travel Writer?

Richard Trillo 05.25.10 | 12:41 PM ET

So true. I remember cycling to work a few years ago, earphones plugged in, listening to the radio and as I dodged along the King’s Road, this reading came on. It was Dickens’ account of his train journey from London to Paris (using a steamer to cross the channel). It made the Kent countryside sound remote and Paris an almost intimidatingly exotic destination.

You have to look far and travel intrepidly to get those impressions anywhere on earth these days.

Spud Hilton 05.25.10 | 12:50 PM ET

When you include other great authors who wrote about their travels—including Twain with “Roughing It” and Robert Louis Stevenson with “Silverado Squatters”—they form a good reminder of the difference between writers who dabble in travel and travelers who dabble in writing. I’ll take the former every time.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 05.26.10 | 10:27 AM ET

Charles Dickens, the travel writer, who knew?  “Dickens seemed to realize long ago: Travel is not that interesting.  People are.”  This is so true.  When you travel to foreign lands, you get the “real story,” not the one the media blasts all over the TV and radio or in newspapers and magazines.  You get to know the heart of the country, it’s people and culture.  You get to decide if what you’ve been told is truth or a lie.  Traveling and travel writing can set you free.

Roger 05.26.10 | 11:29 AM ET

Yes, Dickens account of his first visit to America in 1840 is absolutely de Tocquevillesque. Read it sometime. And his notes on his travels in Italy are every bit as good as Twain.

Randolph Eustace-Walden 05.26.10 | 9:38 PM ET

And let us not forget Evelyn Waugh’s “When The Going Was Good” - still the best (alright… MY favourite) travel book ever.  And what did authors such as Dickens, Waugh, Stevenson and Twain write about?  People, of course.  It would seem they all cut their journalistic teeth on the road and eventually turned that expertise to the fictional page.  We’re all the richer for it.

REW

Dina 05.29.10 | 4:11 AM ET

Laurence Sterne’s “A Sentimental Journey” is very funny and very modern too.  It was published in 1768, and is full of empathy,  humour and fun.    Dickens refers to it, and admired Sterne as a writer, very much.
It’s quite short,  and very different from the rather strange, rambling, but also very funny,  Tristram Shandy, Sterne’s more famous, earlier novel.

You might also like The Golden Ass, from the 2nd century AD, and written by a priest of Isis.  An “upper class twit”  sees a witch turn herself into a bird and tries to copy her, but turns himself into a donkey by mistake.  He travels far,  escapes a few times and is bought,  sold, and stolen, treated kindly and treated brutally and learns fellow feeling with beasts of burden in general, including slaves, prostitutes and other low people he used badly himself, in his previous incarnation as an idle rich man.  It’s rollicking, and also quite moving. I read it when I was 10, although the explicit sex isn’t really for children - and I was a bit mystified by some of the romps until I reread it as an adult, when I had a few “aha! ” moments.

The writers who last all wrote about the stuff of being human.

belwebb 05.29.10 | 7:22 AM ET

Interesting piece, but Dickens can hardly be called the first great travel writer - what about Defoe and Mary Wollstonecraft?

Randolph Eustace-Walden 05.29.10 | 9:18 AM ET

Belwebb is right, of course.  But so is everyone else here (so far).  The list of ‘travel writers’ who made their name in fiction after (sometimes long after) their perambulations were put to paper is long and diverse.  Their names are famous, but not necessarily for their travel writing.

However, even the Bronte sisters managed to imbue their most well-known books with a definitive sense of place and no one today would consider them travel writers. Fiction can and does influence tourism and travelers in ways never imagined by the author; the non-vampiric populace of the small town of Forks in Washington State can attest to that.

And going in the opposite direction, what about Herodotus?  His descriptions of the people, places and events surrounding his primary narrative in “The Histories” could well be anointed as the first true example of travel writing.  And then there’s the Bible, and Sidney Sheldon… okay - strike Sidney.

REW

Rob T, 05.30.10 | 5:51 PM ET

“Dickens seemed to realize long ago: Travel is not that interesting. People are.”

It’s a matter of perspective. The best thing about travel writing is that it enlarges one’s perspective. To be taken outside the human aquarium, in particular, is most fascinating to some of us. Those who are content to remain in the human aquarium are welcome to their preferences, but please do not presume to speak for everyone. For some, people are not especially interesting, at all, and, for all their pretensions otherwise, they are far from being the most interesting things in the world, or the universe,

Tim Bowden 05.30.10 | 8:00 PM ET

One travel report which had no people in it became quite influential in the annals of human history regardless.

The Hastings Guide was devised by a Lansford Hastings to inspire emigrants to come to California in the 1840ís rather than taking the Oregon Trail.  He owned land in the former state and wished to sell plenty of it to settlers, which he could not do were they to head north of his holdings.  The Guide promised a shortcut of some three or four hundred miles were the weary traveler to take a southern route pioneered by Fremont, called the Hastings Cut-Off, leaving the Ft Hall road south and west of the Great Salt Lake.

This became maybe the most influential and historically significant travel guide since Marco Polo, as you can judge by the name given to the pioneers who took the advice of Mr Lansford Hastings, the Donner Party.

Randolph Eustace-Walden 05.30.10 | 11:43 PM ET

@Tim Bowden

Bwa ha ha!  And road side picnics would never be the same!

I collect old travel books - the older the better.  And one of my prized possessions is an original California travel book published in 1858.  It is, in a word, fascinating.  Long before there was a Hollywood, and only a few short years after the end of the Gold Rush, the book was written as part of a PR campaign to entice ‘settlers’ and “...travelers of a particular persuasion…” (whatever that means) to, essentially, ‘make it California this year’.

It is filled with colourful prose about the region - areas to spend time in, and interestingly, places to avoid because of the continuing ‘Indian problem’.  A true classic of the genre.

I also have several original Baedekers.  Politically incorrect travel advice for the masses!

REW

Tim Bowden 05.31.10 | 12:05 PM ET

@Randolph Eustace-Walden

The book you hold may be the very item used by one Samuel L Clemens to plot his escape west from that terrible war. Missouri lost one private, and the world gained Roughing It and all ensuing.

I am reminded of other writers with fascinating travel experiences, like Robert L Stevenson. He and his wife were shopping for a healthy climate, and landed briefly in Marin County, a settlement called Calistoga. He observed one evening a gent approach his cabin with suspicious intent, and accosted him. He was marveling, said the perp, at a silver maple by the Stevenson door, the tallest he had ever seen. Robert L wrote, `I helped him measure the maple, although there were three or four taller ones in sight.’

Not everyone agreed moving to foreign shores enhanced writing. Oscar Wilde noted a dispute in the letters to the editor section of the Times wherein that same RLS was arguing with certain citizens of Berlin `A writer should never move to exotic locales. When Stevenson lived in the Kensington Street, he wrote Kidnapped and Treasure Island; now that he’s in the South Seas, he writes letters to newspapers about Germans.’

All quotes reconstructed from memory.

Jack 06.01.10 | 11:08 AM ET

I agree with other commenters that Dickens can hardly be the first great travel writer. Primarily known as a poet, Heinrich Heine wrote some of the most insightful and engaging travel writing out there. His claim to “first” would be the fact that he was writing just before Dickens, and to “great” by the fact that Nietzsche considered Heine the greatest writer in the German language, second only to himself.

Jason 06.02.10 | 12:56 AM ET

Travel is a frame for interactions.  The best travel anecdotes, in my opinion, are the ones that describe the kind of culturo-logistical disaster one can never imagine experiencing at home:

http://thomasthethinkengine.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/travel-disasters/
http://thomasthethinkengine.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/travel-disasters-the-rat/

One can always make friends and discover charming new aspects to one’s own homeland.  But you generally have to go a few thousand miles to be able to really get into a mess.

Tim Bowden 06.02.10 | 11:50 AM ET

Let’s not forget one great traveler from the land of Apocyrphia, a tropical equatorial wonderland, sent by his king to the far north, for it had occurrred to the monarch that they had ever been homebound and lacked sufficient knowledge of far countries, and perhaps there was something to be learned elsewhere.

In years the pioneer returned, and regaled the locals with stories of wonder and awe. Do you know, he said, that in that far north country they ride their horses on rivers?

He was thrown into the dungeon for wasting resources to bring back such nonsense.

Slingsby 06.02.10 | 2:25 PM ET

For the Americans, N. P. Willis would count as one of the first “great” travel writers. Certainly travel writing was a genre that he mastered & was known for doing well in the 1830-1860 period. FWIW

Florida Keys Hotel 06.03.10 | 12:42 PM ET

I am agree with the slings , N. P. Willis is really would count as one of the first great travel writers. And Charles Dickens is also a great writers I read his book too. :)

Amanda 06.07.10 | 11:45 AM ET

Mr Charles Dickens was a notoroius bylly to his wife and family.  Yes his writing is sublime but we must never lose sight of the real Charles Dickens

Arthur E. Perkins Jr. 07.03.10 | 7:53 AM ET

I do not think Charles dickens’ body of novels qualifies him as a great traveler. However, I can think of one of his contemporaries who was. That is Sir Richard Burton, whose travel books were:
  * Goa and the Blue Mountains (1851)
  * Scinde or the Unhappy Valley (1851)
  * Sindh and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (1851)
  * Falconry in the Valley of the Indus (1852)
  * A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise (1853)
  * Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah 3 Vols. (1855-6). See also PDF facsimile
  * First Footsteps in East Africa (1856). See also PDF Facsimile .
  * The Lake Regions of Central Equatorial Africa (1859)
  * The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860)
  * The City of the Saints, Among the Mormons and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861)
  * Wanderings in West Africa (1863)
  * Abeokuta and the Cameroon Mountains (1863)
  * A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahomé (1864)
  * The Nile Basin (1864) With James McQueen.
  * Wit and Wisdom From West Africa (1865)
  * Stone Talk (1865)
  * The Guide-book. A Pictorial Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina (1865).
  * Explorations of the Highlands of Brazil (1869)
  * Letters From the Battlefields of Paraguay (1870)
  * Vikram and the Vampire or Tales of Hindu Devilry (1870). See also PDF Facsimile.
  * Unexplored Syria (1872)
  * Zanzibar (1872)
  * Ultima Thule (1872)
  * The Lands of Cazembe. Lacerda’s Journey to Cazembe in 1798 (1873). Edited and translated by Burton.
  * The Captivity of Hans Stade of Hesse, in A.D. 1547-1555, Among the Wild Tribes of Eastern Brazil. Translated by Albert Tootal and annotated by Richard F. Burton.
  * A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry (1876)
  * Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo (1876) See also PDF Facsimile.
  * Etruscan Bologna (1876)
  * Sind Revisited (1877)
  * The Gold Mines of Midian (1878)
  * The Land of Midian (revisited) (1879)
  * Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads) (two volumes 1880)
  * The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi (1880). See also PDF Facsimile.
  * A Glance at the Passion-Play (1881).
  * To the Gold Coast for Gold 2 Vols. (1883). See also PDF Facsimile.
  * The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana (1883) (with F. F. Arbuthnot).
  * Camoens: His Life and His Lusiads (1883)
  * Camoens. The Lyricks 2 Vols (1884)
  * The Book of the Sword (1884)
  * The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (ten volumes 1885)
  * The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi (1886)
  * The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night (six volumes 1886 – 1888)

He also was the first non-Muslim European to penetrate the forbidden holy cities. He led an expedition with John Hanning Speke in search of the source of the Nile River; stricken with malaria, he turned back after becoming the first European to reach Lake Tanganyika. His travels resulted in a total of 43 accounts of such subjects as Mormons, West African peoples, the Brazilian highlands, Iceland, and Etruscan Bologna. He learned 25 languages and numerous dialects and among his 30 volumes of translations were ancient Eastern manuals on the art of love.

A few of his books are available on-line as e-books@Adelaide for those interested:
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (Alf laylah wa laylah)
Personal narrative of a pilgrimage to Al-Madinah & Meccah [1855]
First footsteps in East Africa; or, An Exploration of Harar [1856]
The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi (18—)
Two Trips to Gorilla Land [1876]
The Land of Midian [1879]
The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana [1884]
The Book of The Thousand Nights And A Night [1885-88]
Vikram and the Vampire (18—)

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