Writing the Journey: June 1999
"Travel Writing or Tourist Journalism?: Imperial Decline and Cultural Distinction in the Mexican Travel Books of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene."
Department of English, Stanford University
In this paper I will develop a socio-politically informed analysis of texts by two important practitioners of travel writing during the 1930s, Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads and Evelyn Waugh's Robbery Under Law.
These texts provide rich opportunities for exploring the relations between the British literary field and British imperial power during the 1930s. Each attempts to represent Mexico to readers of English literature during a period when Mexican nationalist economic policies increasingly threatened British interests. Both Greene and Waugh traveled to Mexico for the express purpose of writing about political events occurring there. Greene planned his visit in order to describe the conflicts between the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic Church. The purpose of Waugh's trip, financed by a representative of British oil interests in Mexico, was to gather material for a book condemning the Mexican government's nationalization of foreign oil holdings. In my paper I will briefly outline what was at stake in the conflicts before developing a close analysis of how Greene and Waugh represent them. I will argue that though these texts promise to relate a sensitive and acute observer's impressions of the latest news from Mexico, they are both products not so much of experiences in Mexico as of the interests in and presuppositions about the established global order that their authors brought with them on their respective journeys. Travel literature in general tends, in my view, to be primarily about travelers and their home societies, though the manifest legitimating goal of the genre is to provide new descriptions of visited places.
Like other practitioners of literary travel writing in the twentieth century, Greene and Waugh are forced to respond to the development of modern tourism. While recent theories of travel as a form of cultural contact have not emphasized the socio-economic relations characteristic of tourism, I argue that the tourist industry mediates between twentieth-century travel writers and the places they visit to such an extent that travel writing of this period can best be understood as tourist writing. In the composition of their texts as much as in their actual travels, Greene and Waugh rely on the tourist industry and its standardized experiences for their mobility and vision--just like ordinary tourists. As literary travel writers, Greene and Waugh make use of the conventions of tourist representation while at the same time distancing their texts from them in order to project images of distinguished travel experience.
Both Waugh and Greene write travel books hostile to Mexico, directing symbolic violence against the government, the people, their culture, the terrain and even the wildlife. While concentrating on the political significance of these texts, I argue against reducing them to journalism or political polemic. Though they contain elements of both, their literary status must be taken into consideration in order to understand how they function. The presumed authority which they bring to their quasi-aesthetic judgments condemning Mexican politics depends on their literary vocation. In their treatments of politics and their responses to tourist culture, Greene and Waugh present themselves as authoritative evaluators of cultural value. It is through their aesthetic treatments of international mobility, I will argue, that The Lawless Roads and Robbery Under Law have their political effects.
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