Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
For Paul Fussell (1980, 203), travel writing is ‘a sub-species of memoir’. It is a mode of memory-writing dedicated to the recollection of journeys. While critics complicate this definition of travel writing by pointing to its interconnections with other forms such as fiction and ethnography (e.g., Thompson 2011, 26), Fussell importantly identifies the intimate relation between travel and memory. This relation may indeed be even more fundamental than definitions based on generic properties can realize. Memory is both a faculty and an act, and it permeates travel writing as both a function and a subject for representation. All types of travel writing recreate experience through recollection, whether the act of memory is almost immediate – note-taking in a diary, for example – or whether it is knowingly transformed in the act of writing, as in fictionalization. Moreover, even the most quotidian and un-self-conscious forms of travel writing tend to privilege sights and events which the traveller judges to be memorable. Though not connected at the root to ‘memento’, ‘memory’ has been used in that sense since the early fifteenth century, and as a synonym of ‘monument’ since the late fifteenth century (Oxford English Dictionary). Travel texts reveal the close affinity between everyday recollection and the need to record for posterity. For centuries, ships’ logs have made especial room for ‘remarkable occurrences’ at sea, and as the prose genres developed into more self-conscious and artistic forms these special events came to the fore (Cohen 2010).
Although memory is intrinsic to travel writing, its functions and meanings are varied and have been subject to numerous critical interpretations across disciplinary borders. Historians have traditionally interpreted the travel text as an aide-mémoire, suggesting fidelity to the cultural encounter it depicts and thus value as a primary source, especially in contexts where documentary materials are in limited supply. In the light of Edward W. Said's ideological analysis of travel texts and other forms of colonial discourse in Orientalism (1978), this position appeared to be no longer tenable (see colonialism). In the mid-1990s the literary critic Tim Youngs and the historian Roy C. Bridges began a constructive debate on whether the travel text offers a ‘raw record’, or whether the traveller's ideological positioning predetermines not just the written record but even how he or she recalls the journey (Youngs 1994, 5–6).