The Light Literature of Travel

THE spy-glass or powerful field-glass is a part of the equipment of every explorer, and as we read by our firesides the larger volumes of adventure and research we know that there has been brought to us the game which was taken thus at long range ; but there is a literature of travel which grows out of the reverse use of the glass, when the traveler has amused himself by minifying the landscape, and making that which is close at hand seem to be leagues away. The most successful book of this class was De Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma Chambre, and Alphonse Karr’s Voyage autour de mon Jardin was imitative only in title ; the matter was original. There was, to be sure, in both of these books, and in the many like ones which have followed, a light fancy, which borrowed its humor from the grave dignity of books of travel ; yet, aside from this whimsey, they record exploits in miniature, and the reader, making his tour on snail-back rather than mounted on elephant or dromedary, has a delightful sense of journeying with contracted mind.

We can imagine a traveler now making a trip round the world in the wake of those who have brought back mighty volumes, and displaying his treasures in some dainty book big enough to hold only the airy nothings which have floated idly in the air across his track. The very familiarity which we are acquiring with the countries of the world helps such travelers, for they may take much for granted, and leave unsaid all the cyclopædic matter which a tyrannical literary conscience might demand. It is surprising how a poet or an artist will glean after the harvester of facts, and we shall turn to him as if he were the first discoverer. We suspect that in this field Americans have the best opportunity. The hospitality of their minds, the difficulty of their being insular, the knack which they have of falling in with the mood of the clime where they chance to be, the readiness with which they are pleased, — all these qualities make good light travelers ; and when we add to this their haste to discover something new and their equal enjoyment of whatever is hoary, outside of the conveniences of their own life, we easily find reasons for believing that American literature will show a growing shelf of books of light travel.

We should give an honorable place on the shelf to Mr. House’s Japanese Episodes.1 It is not difficult for any one to sit in his library and survey Japan geographically, statistically, politically, and socially ; one of these days the historian of social America will have a page upon the curious incursion of the Japanese into American life, following for a generation after Commodore Perry’s naval expedition ; and all this matter-of-fact acquaintance with Japan serves to put the reader almost in the position of Mr. House, who writes as a resident in the country, and not as a visitor. That is to say, he quietly assumes in the reader so much knowledge of Japan as shall make it unnecessary for the writer to offer any mere guide-book information ; and the reader gratefully acknowledges the compliment by refusing to halt before any unfamiliar word or custom, and by accepting the pictures of scenery and life as if they were what he could see any day by going to the window.

Mr. House has collected in his little volume four sketches: the first, a glimpse of rustic society and pastoral love ; the second, a Claude Lorraine picture of the ascent of Fuziyama ; the third, a reminiscence of Japanese hospitality; and the fourth, a coup d’œil of Japanese gayety, as discovered by a day in a Japanese theatre. It is agreeable to be introduced to the charming society of this gentle people by so sympathetic a friend, and one is even tempted, in view of the somewhat disastrous course of Japanese association with foreigners, to take as much satisfaction in having the Japanese know Mr. House as in having Mr. House know the Japanese ; for this writer leaves on the reader’s mind an impression of courtesy and breeding which makes him feel that it is not literature alone which owes a debt. The book is so nice in its way that we are in danger of being hypercritical in our judgment, and of being too much offended by certain affectations of humorous expression, which are always unnecessary, and never more so than when one has so quiet a manner as Mr. House.

It is the little excess of literature in the work which mars the perfection of Japanese Episodes ; it would be strange if the light travels of another American did not show this defect even more, since his book is based avowedly upon a purely literary foundation. Yet Mr. Hassard’s A Pickwickian Pilgrimage2 is singularly free from any attempt at fine writing. Here is a traveler who, out of pure delight in Dickens’s creations, hunts for their haunts as diligently and affectionately as any antiquarian might for the footprints of the Pilgrims or the wanderings of King Charles. Mr. Hassard’s unfaltering sense of the reality of the immortal Pickwick and his companions has saved him from a false note in this little book. “I no more doubted,” he says, “ that I should discover the footprints of Sam in the Borough, and find the very house of Mrs. Gamp in Kingsgate Street, than I questioned that the ghost of Samuel Pepys made ‘ mighty merry ’ at The Cock over against Temple Bar, and Will Waterproof still repeated there his lyrical monologues; or that, when I seated myself on one of the ancient wooden benches of The Cheshire Cheese, in a dark little alley off Fleet Street, I should be half conscious of the presence of Oliver Goldsmith and Dr. Johnson in their accustomed corner.”

In truth, Mr. Hassard has practically illustrated his Dickens by photographs of the localities which make the stories vivid. Dickens himself was so realistic in his treatment of London — he was the magnus Apollo of reporters — that there was little difficulty in identifying his scenes, and Mr. Hassard has amused himself and his readers by these unpretending and enjoyable sketches. His very subordination to Dickens has had its reward, for it seems to have saved him from anything like an imitation of Dickens. We are struck by the honesty of his enjoyment of the great humorist, when we find that those sketches of his own which have least to do with Dickens are singularly free from any corruption by contact with Dickens’s manner. His chapter, for example, entitled The Jewish Quarter is graphic and picturesque ; he seems to have forgotten Dickens, on whose account he visited Rag Fair, and to be engrossed with the picture which met his eye. His closing sketch, also, of A Boat Voyage on the Wye, which is aside from the Pickwickian Pilgrimage, is an agreeable piece of light travel, reserved, yet containing touches of quiet playfulness.

Mr. Hassard shows his discreetness by not overworking his conceit. After all, the light traveler is at his best when he is traveling over a real country, and since the mood which gives him his charm is a short one, he is wisest if he sets out for a stroll from his own door the ease of his travel is helped by the lightness of his equipment. It is perhaps a little forced to call Miss Jewett’s sketches3 a book of travel, yet the reader will find their value to lie chiefly in the skill with which the writer has applied a traveler’s art to scenes which lay within easy reach of her own home. Here are the observation of minor incidents, the catching of effects produced by side lights, the rediscovery of the familiar, the looking at a landscape from under one’s arm. One is not sure that the sketch which he is reading may not glide gently into a story, or that the story may not forget itself in a sketch. Miss Jewett herself seems sure only of catching and holding some flitting movement of life, some fragment of experience which has demanded her sympathy. One of the stories, indeed, Andrew’s Fortune, has a more deliberate intention, and we are led on with some interest to pursue the slight turns of the narrative; yet in this the best work is in the successive pictures of the village groups in the kitchen and at the funeral. It would be difficult to find a formal story which made less draught upon one’s curiosity than Miss Becky’s Pilgrimage, yet one easily acquires a personal regard for Miss Becky herself. Miss Jewett’s sketches have all the value and interest of delicately executed watercolor landscapes ; they are restful, they are truthful, and one is never asked to expend criticism upon them, but to take them with their necessary limitations as household pleasures.

Nevertheless, though we cannot persuade ourselves to criticise this work, we are impelled to ask for something more. Miss Jewett has now given us three volumes, besides the one for children, and has shown us how well she can do a certain thing. The sketches and stories which make up these volumes vary in value, but they are all marked by grace and fine feeling ; they are thoroughly wholesome ; they have a gentle frankness and reverence which are inexpressibly winning, when one thinks of the knowingness and selfconsciousness and restlessness which by turns characterize so many of the contributions by women to our literature. It is only when we come to compare Miss Jewett with herself that we become exacting. She has transformed the dull New England landscape into a mossy rural neighborhood; site has brought us into the friendliest acquaintance with people whom we thought we knew and did not know; and now we want her help in knowing other and fuller lives; we are eager to have her interpretation of people who impress us at once as well worth knowing. We are sure that she will bring out what we could not discover by ourselves ; but in our impatience we begin to fear that we are to meet the same people and visit the same houses when a new book is offered. Has not Miss Jewett visited all her neighbors, and would not a longer flight of travel give her new types ?

That is the way with us. No sooner do we get these charming village scenes, for which we have been asking our writers, than we want something else. Well, our discontent is of Miss Jewett’s making. She has opened the eyes of the summer boarder, and when the summer boarder goes back to town it is with a wish to take the friendly Miss Jewett in company. We wish that this light traveler would plume herself for a braver excursion. Possibly we are asking too much, and the skill which executes these short sketches is conditioned upon their very limitations. Yet we heartily wish that this delightful writer would reserve her strength, and essay a larger work. To fail in a long journey may even give one an access of power and dignity when resuming a stroll, and we value the fine moral sense and delicate sympathy of Miss Jewett so highly that we are reluctant to see her gifts possibly diminish in efficacy by too close a confinement and too narrow a range.

  1. Japanese Episodes. BY EDWARD H. HOUSE. Boston: James R. Osgood & Co. 1881.
  2. A Pickwickian Pilgrimage. By JOHN R. G. HASSARD. Boston : James R. Osgood & Co. 1881.
  3. Country By-Ways. By SARAH ORNE JEWETT. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.