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How Travel Writing Works

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Time Travel Writing
An early example of a travel writer, Italian scholar Petrarch penned a letter describing his pleasure-seeking trek up Mont Ventoux.
An early example of a travel writer, Italian scholar Petrarch penned a letter describing his pleasure-seeking trek up Mont Ventoux.
Alison Cornford-Matheson/iStock/Thinkstock

When mobility meets the invention of writing, travel literature begins. The Greek geographer Pausanius is considered to be among the first known travel writers. Travelling around Greece in the second century, he composed a work called, fittingly enough, "Description of Greece." Short on scenery but long on cultural idiosyncrasies, "Description"remains an important reference for modern historians and archaeologists [source: Elsner].

During China's Song Dynasty, between the 10th and 13th centuries, travel writing was something of a fad. Travellers like Fan Chengda and Xu Xiake intrigued readers with records of the topographical and geographical details gleaned from their journeys through the Chinese provinces [source: Hargett].

The great 14th-century Moroccan adventurer Ibn Battuta spent 30 years voyaging over land and sea, from the Middle East to Africa, China, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. His report of these travels, dictated to the scholar Ibn Juzayy, established him as one of the world's most legendary travellers [source: Kowalska].

Ibn Batutta's Italian contemporary, Petrarch, is best known for his poetry and humanist writing, but a letter he wrote recounting a climb up the Provençal Mont Ventoux, is often cited as one of the earliest examples of modern travel literature. That's because Petrarch writes that he made the climb not for religious, political or mercantile reasons, but for pleasure alone [source: Schama].

The pleasure of travel. That, perhaps, is the sentiment we most associate with travel writing. And the possibility of experiencing that pleasure vicariously through reading about it is probably what draws most readers to the genre.

In 19th-century Europe, as travel became easier and more frequent, those privileged with leisure time picked up where Petrarch left off, voyaging, trekking and climbing for pleasure. Travel literature took off. Famous novelists like Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain joined in the fun, writing popular accounts of their travels by land and sea [source: Hulme].

The 19th century was also a time when women were making themselves heard in greater numbers than ever before, and some chose travel writing as their medium of expression. Examples include French women's rights activist Flora Tristan, who published an account of her intrepid journey to Peru to claim a family fortune in the unforgettably titled "Peregrinations of a Pariah" [source: Pratt]. In "Station Life in New Zealand," the British journalist Mary Anne Barker detailed life raising sheep in what was then one of the most remote corners of the world [source: Spender].

This 19th-century expansion of the travel writing genre coincided with the apex of European colonialism, and many contemporary scholars have pointed out that much of that era's travel writing is saturated with the exoticism and racism that were endemic to the empire-building mode. In the post-colonial world, these attitudes can still be found lurking in the background of much contemporary travel writing [source: Pratt].