Emily Wittman’s New Book, Interwar Itineraries: Authenticity in Anglophone and French Travel Writing

Photo of Dr. Emily Wittman by Ornela Vorpsi
Photo by Ornela Vorpsi

Emily Wittman has been a member of UA’s Department of English for 16 years. Her research primarily focuses on self-writing: autobiography, memoir, and travel writing. Her most recent book, Interwar Itineraries: Authenticity in Anglophone and French Travel Writing, examines the notion of “authenticity” in travel writing of the interwar period, a time when new technologies enabled traveling in ways not previously possible. Emily’s book questions these interwar writers’ senses of authentic experience in foreign places as well as how they represent their own self-discovery through tourism. Emily highlights the colonial lens through which these writers view the cultures they encounter, and she interrogates the rhetorical strategies they employ in their representations of non-European cultures. Adam Roberts recently interviewed her to discuss her research.

In the book, you argue that, on the existential level, “tourist” and “traveler” are merely the same. Yet, you point out that writers like Sartre “assign value” to travel as questers of “authenticity.” What is the difference between tourist and traveler? And what, for these writers, qualifies as “authentic”?

This is one of the main goals of my book, to deconstruct the traveler/tourism binary for the interwar period in the French and Anglophone traditions. Sartre, in the epigraph for the introduction, suggests that even the most concerted efforts to be a gritty traveler are ultimately “grand tourism.” Even when one is going off the beaten path or witnessing something risqué like Sartre in a brothel, it is still tourism. Sartre was wise to this, but most of the interwar writers I look at in the book subscribe to the notion of authenticity; they believe that they are getting the “real thing” and have special access to whatever culture or place that they are exploring. I ultimately argue that the two projects, travel and tourism, are in most ways the same. The traveler is a tourist. Both endeavors are characterized by the same conventional tropes (the quest for authenticity through bravery, hardship, and grit for instance) and cognitive biases (fear and exoticizing the other, for instance). On a personal note, this book had part of its origins in my own experience. When I was in my twenties, I thought that I was a traveler rather than a tourist. I spent a year backpacking throughout Europe and the Middle East, thinking for sure that I experienced things that the package tourist would never experience. This is certainly true, but I was still a tourist, a cultural tourist and a tourist of many other kinds.

Why did you choose to narrow your focus to French and Anglophone writing? What characteristics do they share that open up this sort of investigation?

Cover of
Cover of Interwar Itineraries: Authenticity in Anglophone and French Travel Writing

My initial research began in France as a French project and then quickly became a more complex and international project. I like to work with languages that I can read in the original and this helped me, as there is clearly a conversation between Anglophone and French travelers of the interwar period around the topic of travel. The quest for authenticity unites these traditions, even if the terms of that authenticity are sometimes different. Also uniting these traditions is the legacy of the First World War as something that made the writers truly appreciate travel but also created lasting trauma, both for those who fought and those who did not. In addition, most were aware that another war was on the horizon. This makes the interwar period especially fraught and ties together traditions. In both French and Anglophone travel literature of the interwar period there is a sense of liberation but also of doom.

You state that many of the English travel writers you focus on are both “questers” and “anti-questers.” Can you elaborate a bit on the difference?

A tourist like Evelyn Waugh is tongue-in-cheek about the whole experience of travel and this can be seen across all of his travel books, however poorly they have aged. The majority of his travel books are humorous, and he mocks the tropes of travel. He was an anti-quester. On the other hand, equally problematic, is someone like Graham Greene who, following a course of psychoanalysis, went to West Africa to go back to what he saw as the beginning of mankind, the origin of it all. A would-be traveler, he was a cultural tourist on a quest to find answers to questions supplied by psychoanalysis and projected on Africa writ large. The search for answers to existential questions in foreign places makes the traveler a quester in addition to a tourist.

How do you think the privilege of many of these writers affects their perception of foreign culture? How might a less privileged traveler offer a different perspective?

Each of the interwar writers I look at is privileged. A good example is Hemingway who went to see the Spanish corrida in grand style and then, later, went on a very expensive safari in East Africa. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway attempts to paint himself as a thrifty and financially struggling apprentice of the bullfight, but he had the privilege of leisure and the money to take him to Europe, even if he was not necessarily rich at the time. Rich, that is, by certain standards. From a global perspective he was hugely wealthy even when he was “struggling.” His safari was funded, to a large extent, by his wife’s wealthy family. It is certainly a privilege to spend a month hunting in East Africa with an enormous entourage. A less privileged traveler might not get there to begin with, but once she is there, she certainly won’t have the capital to hire a team of hunters and assistants to help her. Hemingway always tried to embrace the culture and the language of every place he visited. But he did not question the fact that the African countries that he visited were colonies or question the cultural implications of being rich and surrounding himself with indigenous peoples to serve him. A less privileged traveler would hopefully think about such things, but I don’t think that there necessarily is an insider’s perspective. How “less privileged” can you be if you can travel at your leisure? It is hard to think of travel in Africa at all without thinking about contemporary migrants trying to come to Europe and what happens to them, if they make it at all. Having an American or European passport is an immense privilege to begin with. As an American in Spain, Hemingway slashed the face of a petty thief with a knife, leaving a very visible scar. He faced no repercussions.

You address the problematics of how writers like Conrad and Greene write of Africa as a homogenous culture and ignore the geographic specificity of where in Africa they actually traveled to and through. In your research, have you come across writers who better avoid this generalization?

The French ethnographer Michel Leiris certainly registers and embraces such heterogeneity during his two-year group journey from Dakar to Djibouti. But the project of his team was a colonial project and, for instance, just as they embraced Ethiopian culture, they also stole artifacts. In fact, they registered different regions and cultures as they traveled across the continent, stealing and bartering as they went, detailing the origins of their “collection” for an ethnographic museum in Paris. So, awareness of heterogeneity is great, but it does not necessarily mean that a better approach was undertaken.

You provide a trigger warning in the book’s introduction that many passages contain racist, homophobic, and transphobic language and views, stating that “racist and homophobic passages alert us to what is problematic about the notion of authenticity” (6). Can you explain a bit more about how engaging with this bigoted history helps us understand more about the writers’ search for authenticity when traveling?

This comes up very often when travelers attempt to capture the privileged knowledge that they associate with authenticity. The gains of travel are seen as the result of grit and hardship. The knowledge that travelers arrogate to themselves so often involves making grotesque generalizations in the interest of proving “knowledge” and creating a good story (in their view). Transphobia, for instance, is found in Hemingway’s (he is guilty of so many unfounded generalizations!) glossary for Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway attempts to put himself in the position of someone who knows everything (hence, a 100-page glossary) and so often this happens at the expense of vulnerable minority groups. Hemingway makes fun of and puts down groups in the interest of propping himself up as the all-knowing “insider.” As being an “insider” is part of the interwar goal for authenticity, cruel generalizations run rampant.

You claim that many of these writers “emphatically insist” on their difference from the reader. Why is this the case

The writer always takes a trip that the reader cannot take. The interwar travelers in the book position themselves as the last authentic travelers. Their insistence on their singularity is what seems to me problematic about a lot of travel writing—to be interesting the travelers must not only take a trip at an important time but also the travelers must represent themselves as people to whom interesting and unique things happen. Thinking about more recent travel writing, I would say that this insistence on personality can be seen in the work of someone like Bruce Chatwin. But the insistence on difference in interwar travel literature is part of what I call “anticipatory nostalgia.” So often, the travelers put themselves in the position of mourning the authenticity of a place, precisely because they have been there. Anticipatory nostalgia works to suggest to the reader that a similar adventure cannot be had. These are travelogues are not travel guides. Even Death in the Afternoon, which Hemingway presents as a treatise for people interested in attending a bullfight, ends with a bout of anticipatory nostalgia and the declaration that the bullfight is in decline because of tourists and that the reader will not even have the opportunity to see the kind of bullfight he describes. He seemingly renders his own book useless.

Are any of the writers you feature tongue-in-cheek about the notion of authenticity?

Both Evelyn Waugh and Louis-Ferdinand Céline are, although in very different ways. For Waugh there is something existentially embarrassing about travel to begin with although certainly not in the way in which I have been characterizing it. Céline is cynical, but I think that Journey to the End of the Night (his autobiographical novel) thematizes, well ahead of its time, what is problematic about travel and quests. Instead of travel, Céline suggests, visit a disadvantaged part of your own country.

You provide many of your own English translations throughout the book. Do you think this is a practice that should be more widespread in comparative studies (when translations aren’t available)? We so often come across articles/books that might cite passages in four or five languages with no translation. Are you combatting this elitism?

Well, I am guilty of using a lot of Latin expressions in my writing but, yes, overall it is key to write something that can be read inclusively, something that can reach a broad and diverse audience. That’s why I published Interwar Itineraries inclusively (open access in addition to print). Interwar Itineraries can be read by those without access to a research library, who cannot afford to buy an academic book. There is a complex conversation right now in comparative studies about translation, with some key scholars rejecting translation overall as imperialist and feeding into the hegemony of Global English. But if we don’t read in translation we miss out on a lot. I do, however, feel that it is essential to include the original for the reader who knows the language. That is why I hope that readers who know French will read the electronic version of the book where moving the cursor over an endnote will cause the French original to pop up (avoiding the annoying problem of having the original language at the end of the book and jumping around). Overall, I think that the move to electronic editions has so many possibilities for comparative studies and inclusivity. So many are decrying the death of the print book. I am more optimistic.

What next project can we look forward to?

I’m currently finishing a book called Translation and Modernism. For my next project, I have begun reading more around the topic of self-writing, this time with a much wider lens. It goes back to the work I did (with my co-editor) on the Cambridge Companion to Autobiography. I want to look across linguistic and temporal lines and contemplate questions about self-writing from antiquity to the present with more geographical representation.

–Adam Roberts