Travel Writing: Romantics to Newspaper
After reading various works from Romantic travel writers such as Gilpin, Wordsworth, Goethe and others, I was interested in how their writings' conventions have changed when a different medium is used. Every Saturday the local newspaper, The Edmonton Journal, has a section that is strictly dedicated to travel destinations and topics pertaining to travel. Appropriately named "Travel," this section describes exotic locations for tourist and travelers. Its articles contrast the Romantics' description of the environment by having less emphasis on the picturesque and sublime, more focus on historical background, and greater detail in the lives of people living there. I believe that these differences are credited largely to one factor; the writing's medium influences what is being stressed as the purpose of the writer is different.
Travel articles focus largely on describing nature only in terms of basic description. When referencing a scene with specific characteristics (such as cliffs, waterfalls or mountains) the Romantic writer describes the scene as if the reader has very little experience or expectation for what the scene should look like. The result is often elaborate description after elaborate description. Newspaper travel sections do not concern themselves with such sensory description near the same extent for a number of reasons. The newspaper focuses less on creating imagery for the reader because of the increase in availability to travel, images of the picturesque and sublime on television and movies, and the presence of photographs physically next to the text.
1. Nearly every article, within this section, is accompanied by a large photograph showing the landscape. By presenting the writers' description of the land next to the photograph, the article intrinsically promotes a comparison by the reader, contrasting the colourful photograph with the writer's words. If the photograph presents a landscape different from the vivid description of the travel writer (which inevitably happens with readers' mental constructs) the reader will find it hard to trust the writer in the accuracy of description. The writer wisely follows the saying that a "picture says a thousand words" and is better off letting the picture do the talking. After all, the journalist has less space and more constrictions than the novelist does.
2. The dominant concern for the travel journalist is conveying what they want in a limited space. The journalist does not have space to elaborately describe every cliff, river or valley. It is, therefore, up to the writer to assume that, with the addition of the given photographs, the reader would be able to visualize a serene waterfall or placid lake. This makes sense as, the average consumer's exposure to exotic scenery is more available, through advancements in technology, than the supposed audience of 200 years ago.
3. Just based on the likeliness that the average North American consumer has seen more images of the serene images discussed (due mostly to the visual emphasis of mass media) than the audience of the Romantics, determines that given limited space the modern writer should focus less on visual description. Compared to previous audiences, the modern reader can better understand and appreciate a simple account of a scene. Furthermore, more general associations are available to the modern reader from a simplified report as they have a more diversified experience with the subject. An example could be a simple passage from Anne Viponds' recent article:
"Washed by the Pacific Ocean and extending southward from Cabo San Lucas to Acapulca, the Mexican Reviera is a thousand-mile-long stretch of beaches, rocky headlands, secluded coves and jungle-clad hillsides."
This is the extent of scenic detail. While the passage is short, the reader can easily imagine, with accuracy, the scene more specifically as his/her experience with images of beaches is much more extensive than past audiences.
4. The article is obviously an account of the writer's travels. But consider the mode of travel done. Modern writers' accounts would be significantly different if they traveled in the same mode as the Romantics did. While the Romantics systematically detailed everything along their journey, that is they showed what they saw between destinations, modern writers usually only describe scenes once they arrive at a predetermined destination. On the rare occasion that the writer does mention the bypassing landscape, it is done only briefly. A major reason is that they do not spend much time in one place before passing by it, and they see more landscapes within the same time frame. As Theresa Storm says that the "Island Safari jeep tour was the best--and most fun--way to see the Barbados natural beauty."
5. Probably the most significant reason for the reduced emphasis on nature is the most obvious. The Romantics had focused on nature as not the background but as the subject for many of their writings. As we have studied, writers thought that nature signified purity, held sacred characteristics, and contained answers for us to understand greater truths. Due to the more material culture that we live in today, the emphasis is shifted onto the history of the area and the area's development.
The vast majority of all description in the newspaper articles are concerned with what man-made structures are present. This occurs in two ways: either an exploration of resorts, communities or other aspects of the native population, or a history of the area and how its contributed to the area's culture (this is not a new feature as we have seen this often in our readings such as Coxe's reference to the chapel dedicated to William Tell in his journey to Swisserland at Urnursee (Coxe 134)). Every article is saturated with references to how the local people dress and the activities they partake in like Shelach McNally's writing of a Mexican village, "Life in Valladoid centres on the zocalo, or town square, where local women wearing the traditional dresses known as hulipiles sell handicrafts." Although this is not a new concept (we've seen this repeatedly in Romantic writings) its more prevalent in modern writing.
Since modern writers are focusing on societal features instead of natural, it poses an important question. Does the focus on nature (in all of the readings so far) result because the writers were travel writers or because they were writing in the style of Romanticism? As Romanticism and the focus on natural subjects became underemphasized, and travel writing still remained popular, the source of the focus on nature is obviously based in Romanticism and not travel writing.
As discussed before, the medium in which the material is presented makes a difference to the emphasis. Before taking this class, I enrolled in a creative writing class (Write 398, Intermediate non-fiction). Our essays' only restrictions were that they had to be non-fictional and an appropriate length. I wrote on an experience that I had in Jasper where I describe the mountain scenery in a quasi-travel narrative (I've attached a copy of the essay if anyone is interested). The essay's climax takes part on the mountain side where I reveal a natural image (without actually knowing what it was at the time, just the emotions that I knew I had felt). It follows:
I was much higher than I thought possible. And the view was beautiful. From my viewpoint, I could see the entire mountain range; the dense forests, snowy mountain tips, and glistening rock all were captured in an instant flash of life. There wasn't a breath of wind. It was like someone had painted a masterpiece just for me. But the best part was the sky; it no longer appeared suffocating but inviting instead. Small puffs of cloud silhouetted the light afternoon, reminding us that we are not alone but that we are only a part of something greater; a star in a galaxy of possibility. My serenity was broken by a startling cry and the sliding of a few loose rocks. Two mountain goats had passed by the wall, below me. And further down below, the path looked so distant: just like out of a memory, or a dream that was partially real. But now I was awake, and the path couldn't carry me anymore. I looked up once more to see that the scene had changed and it was time for me to go. So, slowly, I started my descent, far enough away from the mountain goats, and began to slide down the wall back to life. (My Path Begins in Jasper 5)
I will be the first to admit that it's not Wordsworth, but the emotions and description given are completely genuine. I wrote it before I had ever encountered a lecture on the sublime or picturesque. My point is that my essay was written for a very different purpose than Goethe or anyone from The Journal. My imaged audience (my writing professor) influenced my writing as I wanted to emphasize something different than if I were writing a 200 page novel. As a side note, my description was intended to show how a distance from conformity can provide illumination for the individual (it makes sense, hopefully, after reading the essay).The description, however detailed or elaborate, poetic or plain, is largely reflected on the genre that its being written for.
While the Romantic travelers and certain modern day travelers share a common subject, the descriptions are very different. Nature is underemphasized for several reasons while cultural elements are highlighted. This may be attributed to a change in stylistic priorities, but it is definitely impacted by the medium that the writer chooses. The intended audience, along with the writers' purpose for writing, shapes the writers' description.
Chapelsky, Matthew. "My Path Begins in Jasper." Unpublished essay (see attached)
Coxe, William. Sketches of the Natural, Civil, and Political State of Swisserland; in a series of Letters to William Melmoth, Esq. (London: J. Dodsley, 1779).
McNally, Shelagh. "Yucaton Town Reflects Colonial Beauty and Brutality." Edmonton Journal 12 February 2005, L4.
Storm, Theresa. "More to Barbados than Beaches." Edmonton Journal 12 February 2005, L3.
Vipond, Anne. "Cruising the Mexican Riviera." Edmonton Journal 12 February 2005, L1.
Number 1 Matt Chapelsky (word count 1729)
My story begins in Jasper. Others expected tremendous cycling ability from me, considering that I was such an avid athlete. And even though I was a successful basketball and volleyball player, my cycling was not as advanced as my ninth grade fitness class'. We were riding in a school bus to the Rocky Mountains for a three day mountain biking trip. Upon arriving at our hostel, we quickly left our gear to leave for an afternoon of cycling: breaking into smaller skill based groups. I left with the "recreational" riders, who weren't as concerned with biking as they were with commenting on the pretty flowers, asking about the golf course's dress code (as we wandered through their parking lot), or expressing their wonder for such a beautiful place. We arrived back at camp just as the sun set behind the mountain tips, and the sky transformed into a streaking fire of deep reds, light pinks, and dark purples. I began reflecting on my afternoon bike ride, and felt an uncomfortable peace within me. I was relaxed, healthy, refreshed but ultimately unhappy.
With an entire day of mountain biking ahead of us, we arose promptly at seven o'clock and divided ourselves, once again, into riding groups for the day. The other group was obviously too boring for me, so I joined the "competitive" riders: the real men, the jocks, the aggressive athletes, the people who were just like me. Except that they could ride well, and I could not. After twenty minutes of pedaling on the highway, we approached the mouth of the path and slowly ascended up the mountain side. By late morning we had been on the trail for three hours, and even though the trees were providing shade the entire time, we were all soaked with sweat. At first I kept up with the others fine. But gradually I seemed to be getting further and further behind as I would lose my balance from an exposed root or an unexpected rock, and I would crash to the ground. And every time this would happen, I would mount my bike like nothing had happened and continue pedaling until I would crash again or reach the others who might have been waiting for me. They would continue onward, rested, while I would push to the extreme, telling myself that I had survived worse, and this is only making me stronger. We rode for another hour and stopped for a break in a field, somewhere in the mountains. Most of us were too tired to eat lunch, so we sat there and talked about the trail, the weather, the ride down the hill, the ride back, and so forth. We stretched out on our backs in the grass, watching the sky; this sky was barren blue. Not one cloud appeared, making the sky look absolute, like a blanket. After a few minutes, I continued following the others down the path.
The trail was narrow, only room for single file, with a sharp incline on the right, and a steep drop to the left. I followed a slight curve in the path to find my entire group standing along their bikes, watching the scene before them. The path stopped. What was in its place was a cliff of rock that continued for a hundred feet, and the path's reopening thirty feet above us at the other end. We hoisted our bikes onto our backs and slowly proceeded across the cliff. All of us were careful to lean to the right, hugging the cliff, avoiding the fall that would meet us if we strayed to the left. We climbed until, eventually, we reached the path's opening and continued on our journey. The rest of the path slowly descended back to the base of the mountain, making it difficult to control our speed. The result was more spectacular crashes, including one where I was tossed over my handlebars at the worst possible point on the trail. I fell away from the mountain, to my left, and down the cliffs' steep edge. I dropped only a few feet before a branch caught hold of my backpack, suspending me above the waiting gorge below. Help eventually came and pulled me back up to the path, so I could carry on with my journey, with a growing list of injuries. The afternoon wore on, and through the dense forest, we could tell that the hot morning would soon produce a wet afternoon. Black clouds started to mount and the humidity started to rise.
We eventually came to the mountain's base and found our new way home. Since the weather looked threatening, and the prospect of us getting trapped was not appealing, we were forced into diverting our route back to our camp. Again in single file, we crawled along side the road back to where we came from. Immediately it became obvious that it would not take us as long to get home, since our pace was drastically quickened. In fact our extreme regiment was gruelling. Twenty bikes, all in single file, gliding down the highway with a clear blue sky ahead of us and a sinister black cloud following. Finally, completely exhausted and grateful for staying dry, we arrived back at our camp just as the wetness came, and the sky started to fall.
I sat alone in the gazebo by our cabin, and just watched the rain fall. It wasn't raining hard but fast. Shouldn't I have felt good about the day? Physically I conquered an intimidating foe, and met all of my personal goals. Keeping up with the others wasn't a huge problem, and I survived many potential life-ending injuries. I met all of the expectations that were reserved for me, and somehow I felt that the answer was still waiting for me and hiding until I bothered to look. Even though the path was daunting, I took it and succeeded. Shouldn't that be enough?
It rained all night, and through the water stained windows I could see the sunrise. A soft yellow blossom started at first, and slowly, almost teasingly, the sun grew and overthrew the rain clouds. After breakfast we assembled onto our respective school vans and proceeded to a hiking trail not far from our camp. We were to spend the morning hiking on a remote trail at the base of a nearby mountain. The path, again, was narrow and had only room for us in single file. At first the trail was muddy due to the recent rainfall, but as we continued upward, the ground became more solid and our footing more secure. There were many conversations as people walked leisurely and enjoyed the fresh morning. I was walking with a purpose. I wasn't going to follow anyone, and I would lead the group. No one challenged me. I pushed forward, often lacerating my arms or legs on protruding branches but never hesitating. And I didn't tire either. With every step I got further from the others, and with every step I became happier with myself. And it was easy; there were no decisions to make, no ways to get lost, no questions to raise, and no way to stop me. I just had to follow the path. After what seemed like a lifetime of running, I stopped. I couldn't continue any further. In front of me the path continued, but on my left a shelf of loose gravel and rock ascended up the mountain's side. The wall of rock was about thirty feet wide, and stretched up for as far as I could see. It inclined at an incredibly steep rate, much too steep for someone to climb. Instinctively I ran at the wall but failed to climb any portion of it as the rock was too loose and the slope too extreme. I turned and started walking back to the path, watching its inviting trees with its sheltered shade and secure direction, thinking of its comfort and of its pleasing rewards. Without thinking of purpose or consequence, I sprinted into the wall again. My legs pumped furiously, and slowly I managed to climb over the falling rock. In all of its attempts, the wall was not able to throw me off and soon I would find that I was making progress. After many long minutes of animalistic scrambling, I collapsed onto my stomach. I reached a protruding boulder, and after lifting myself onto it, I turned and lost my breath.
I was much higher than I thought possible. And the view was beautiful. From my viewpoint, I could see the entire mountain range; the dense forests, snowy mountain tips, and glistening rock all were captured in an instant flash of life. There wasn't a breath of wind. It was like someone had painted a masterpiece just for me. But the best part was the sky; it no longer appeared suffocating but inviting instead. Small puffs of cloud silhouetted the light afternoon, reminding us that we are not alone but that we are only a part of something greater; a star in a galaxy of possibility. My serenity was broken by a startling cry and the sliding of a few loose rocks. Two mountain goats had passed by the wall, below me. And further down below, the path looked so distant: just like out of a memory, or a dream that was partially real. But now I was awake, and the path couldn't carry me anymore. I looked up once more to see that the scene had changed and it was time for me to go. So, slowly, I started my descent, far enough away from the mountain goats, and began to slide down the wall back to life.
My feet touched the bottom, just as the final hikers were passing by.
"Hey Matt, what were you doing all the way up there?" asked a fellow student.
I replied to her "Just making my own path."
She shrugged and continued talking with her friends and we marched along the trail. I hung back of the group, making sure I was the last one in line. My feet never touched the pathway, and I hummed a tune as a enjoyed my walk, completely confident that I would break from the path again before I was done. My path begins in Jasper.