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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2019

39 - History


Etymologically, history shares with travel writing ambivalence in its relation to fiction. Its earliest uses include reference to both real and imagined accounts (Williams 1988, 146). Since the fifteenth century, however, its meaning has come to refer exclusively to non-fiction. The fields of history, historiography and classics have informed many important theoretical approaches used in travel writing studies. Hayden White's Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1984), François Hartog's work on Herodotus's The Histories (c. 431–425 BCE) and the New Historicism proposed in the work of Stephen Greenblatt have proved influential, providing models for the analysis of non-fictional representation. Post-structuralist theory also looked to Classical texts such as the Odyssey and the Aeneid to consider questions of nomadism, displacement and space in the work of Gilles Deleuze, Paul Virilio and Michel de Certeau. Much scholarly attention has focused on the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century travel writing by imperial travellers from Western Europe, especially work challenging the ethnographic representation of cultures, such as Johannes Fabian's work on coevalness (1983). Since Joan W. Scott's (1988) outlining of feminist versions of history, or ‘herstories’, feminist scholars in travel writing, such as Adriana Méndez Rodenas (1998), have adopted an exclusive focus on female agency. Cultural historians Jás Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubiés (1999, 4), in their tracing of the role of pilgrimage in travel from a Graeco-Roman tradition, have begun to ‘examine the relationship between modern subjectivity and the ancient and medieval past from, and against, which the modern West has constructed its set of self-definitions’.

Journeys seeking evidence of, or confirming knowledge about, the past have played a significant role in the history of travel. Exploration narratives often included the history of a region, particularly if the place could be assimilated into a Classical or ancient frame of reference, such as the journey north to what had been designated as ‘Ultima Thule’ by Richard Burton (1875) and the expeditions to the Middle East by Constantine de Volney (1788). Volney's work influenced one of the Grand Tour's most famous participants, Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, whose work Rome, Naples, Florence (1817) illustrates his desire to discover Italy through a Classical prism.