Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Despite the importance – and complex significations – of smell across most world cultures, the term does not feature in Williams's original volume or in New Keywords. The emergence of the sensory humanities has nevertheless asserted the importance of smell in cross-cultural enquiry (Classen et al. 1994; Drobnick 2006), with such studies providing a clear indication of the potential contribution to studies of travel writing. The term ‘smell’ – referring to odours emitted as well as to the sensory capacity and physiological mechanisms by which these are detected and processed – is more common than the formal ‘olfaction’, although the latter has the benefit of relative neutrality.
Mary Louise Pratt – in Imperial Eyes (1992) – was one of the first to explore the ocularcentrism of travel writing and the dominance of the genre by the gaze. As scholars of tourism have however suggested (e.g., Dann and Jakobsen 2003), although often culturally denigrated according to the sensory logic Pratt and others have described, aroma can be as important as vision in encapsulating the character of place. Smell can be associated closely with the memories of a location with which visitors are accompanied as they travel home, although the subtleties of olfactory memory tend to fade more swiftly than other forms and may as a result feature less often in retrospectively narrated travelogues. Smellscapes are nevertheless implicit through often fleeting detail in much travel writing, and relate to natural elements of both rural landscapes and cityscapes, the fauna and flora that inhabit them and various aspects of human culture (most notably cuisine, suggesting that there is often a clear overlap between the olfactory and the gustatory). Smell forewarns of dangers and delights to come, and is regularly associated with means of transport themselves, mechanized and other.
Herodotus is one of the first, in his Histories, to associate place and smell, but the traditional ocularcentrism of much Western travel writing has often led to a confirmation of cultural hierarchies of the senses within the genre: smellscapes encountered in the field of travel are often pushed to the background of descriptions, and also associated with the more abject ‘odour’ and its synonyms than with the relatively more pleasing ‘aroma’, ‘fragrance’ or ‘scent’. Visceral reactions to smells in the field of travel reflect the specific nature of the sense to which they relate.