Good Old Travel Literature Revisited


Place: Calabria, Italy

Book: Old Calabria by Norman Douglas (NEW Reissued–2010)

I love to time travel with writers from the 19th or early 20th centuries and even earlier.  I enjoy seeing a place and its people brought to life in an era before antennas sprouted on top of every mud hut and CNN images reached everywhere.  What was their world view before they had automobiles to take them to the next region? What did they enjoy that might be missing in today’s zoom-zoom world?

Actually learning about the traveler can provide as much entertainment as learning about the place traveled to. What are their expectations? Through what lens do they observe?

Palgrave, an imprint of MacMillan, has a great idea. They bring back to life older travel literature in attractive trade paperback editions with lovely covers and readable type. I will be talking about several of their titles.

Norman Douglas’ Old Calabria, first published in 1915, recounts a journey around the southernmost part of Italy, then as now the least visited part of the country. Old Calabria tells us a great deal about Norman Douglas and the aristocratic tradition of European travel in late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, Douglas’ book did little to persuade me to head to this remote land.

Contrary to the worshipful preface and lush back cover notes, I found the book ponderous and unlovable. After attempting to join Douglas on his trip through Calabria,Italy, I have to agree that he is erudite. Almost more an encyclopedia than a travel book, Old Calabria makes me wonder at how large the original reading audience could have been.  How many people in Europe in the early 20th century had an education that prepared them to pick up on threads of history at the mere mention of a name (without explanation)? How many could skim through the untranslated phrases in Italian, French and Latin scattered through the book?

Calabria Procession 1974

Here is a passage near the end of the book.

Calabria is not a land to traverse alone.  It is too wistful and stricken; too deficient in those externals that conduce to comfort.  Its charms do not appeal to the eye of romance, and the man who would perambulate Magna Gracecia as he does the Alps would soon regret his choice.  One needs something of that ‘human element’ which delighted the genteel photographer of Morano–comrades, in short; if only those sages, like old Nola Molisi who have fallen under the spell of its ancient glories.

When Douglas travels, he carries books. As he goes, he reads what others from Greek or Renaissance travelers wrote and he folds their versions of Calabria into his own.

At last we have discovered something that we can agree upon. Reading about the place you are visiting can enhance the journey. Travel literature is good company for travelers.Unfortunately, Douglas’ erudite spills over into the pedantic, and in my opinion loses its value for the 21st century Internetized reader traveling to Italy.

I thank Palgrave MacMillan for providing me with a review copy of Old Calabria. Unfortunately I started with my least favorite of their series of reisussued travel classics–but I still believe publishing these old travel books is a great idea. If you would like to try Old Calabria, you can buy this attractive reprint from Amazon with the link above. Or you can download an e-book.

(Photos are from Flickr, with Creative Commons License. Guissepe Quattrone took the landscape and Fiore S. Barbato  the haunting black & white. As usual, I encourage you to click on the pictures to see more of their work.)

A year ago, I devoted a week to travel classics, writing about Eric Newby, Bill Bryson, V. S. Naipaul,  and Bruce Chatwin.  Have you ever delved into travel books from the past? What value do they have for you? Perhaps someone reading this post has read Norman Douglas and would like to provide a counter view to my opinion?

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “Good Old Travel Literature Revisited

  1. “Erudite but unlovable” nails both this towering figure and the values of his era – ‘lovable’ is key to this genre for modern readers. I am currently two-thirds the way through the Douglas anthology Chatto published in 1955, and it’s a slog. In Douglas’s favour, there are numerous passages which give a deep satisfaction, and he takes you back to a time when knowledge of the ancient world was far more widespread. He is a writer who demands effort from his reader, like a good poet, but it’s often worth it. We have shorter attention spans and it shows. He has feet of clay, but is still a giant. His impact on contemporary fiction and travel writing was enormous. For fellow fans of forgotten travel writers, a near contemporary was Henry Baerlein, who has a quirky semi-erudite style which makes you laugh. Highly recommended and yes, loveable.

    1. Thank you for expanding on (and agreeing with) my thoughts about Douglas and other classical writers. Worth the effort–if you realize going in that there will be an effort.
      I will send you an e-mail, but wanted to publicly state that your web site is amazing and informative, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for information on Ibiza. If that site doesn’t make us desire to go to Ibiza, I don’t know what will. A Traveler’s Library readers will particularly like the book section.

  2. On my “to read” list before heading to Naples in September is H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Southern Italy. His writing has been highly praised by many slow travelers, and his books are always listed in pre-travel reading lists for Italy (and England).

  3. Similar time periods different places: Wilfred Thesigner (Arabian Sands) and Richard Burton. You get that sense of a world apart from the modern era.

  4. i love to read old things, but i have to admit that i mostly skim them. some are timeless, but as you have noted here, some are just plain TOO MUCH.

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