Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Self’ has a long history in English and its Germanic antecedents. A juxtaposition of two Oxford English Dictionary definitions demonstrates its complexity: (1) ‘[t] hat which in a person is really and intrinsically he (in contradistinction to what is adventitious); the ego (often identified with the soul or mind as opposed to the body); a permanent subject of successive and varying states of consciousness’ and (2) ‘[w]hat one is at a particular time or in a particular aspect or relation; one's nature, character, or (sometimes) physical constitution or appearance, considered as different at different times.’ These definitions signal key questions for travellers, writers and readers: Who travels, and writes about travel: an intrinsic, permanent self, or one that may be transformed by difference or disaster? Can a ‘true self’ be identified, or is the self an ever-changing construct? In responding, the familiar tropes linking ‘self’ and ‘travel’ rely upon varied assumptions. One might prove oneself through arduous experience, journey in order to find oneself, or become oneself through encounters with others. In writing one might adopt the uncertain voice of the traveller in danger or the ‘solemnity and self-congratulatory tone’ of the confident imperialist (Pratt 1992, 208). Travel writing may feature a picaresque hero and plot or a character who evolves and matures through experience. Its meanings are bound up with deep-set assumptions about the nature of the self who travels, experiences and reports.
Notions about the self are particularly important in analysing the extensive, varied body of travel writing in which a first-person narrator recounts first-hand experience. Some texts, such as Charles Dickens's American Notes for General Circulation and Edith Wharton's A Motor-Flight through France, provide descriptive analysis of people and places observed. Some narrate arduous travel and personal crisis: Robyn Davidson's Tracks, Andrew Pham's Catfish and Mandala. Others, such as Jan Morris's Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, use travel to occasion retrospection. In all, the narrative's truth claims rest upon the presumed authority and proclaimed authenticity of the narrator who speaks from experience. Such claims require critical scrutiny, as Sara Mills (1991, 36) explains concisely:
When talking about ‘the self’ in writing of any kind there are immediate problems.