Defining Travel and Travels

Samuel Johnson, Idler No. 97

In this article from the Idler (1758–1760), Samuel Johnson surveys contemporary travel narratives. Johnson acknowledges the popularity of the form, yet at the same time, unflinchingly points out several faults shared by many travel writers. Johnson contends that readers approach travel narratives with the expectation of receiving both pleasure and instruction, and are frequently disappointed in this aim by the prosaic, quantitative accounts written by commercial travelers, or "the sons of enterprize," as he calls them.

Accordingly, in this essay, Johnson develops the idea of the "useful traveller," or the observant person who travels and writes "for the entertainment of others." The useful traveler is one who meets the reader's curiosity and desire for knowledge with reflective, informative writing, not the barren labor of mere description of successive landscapes. A patriot who collects objects and knowledge for his home country, the useful traveler's writing will give his fellow citizens insightful comparisons of the domestic and the foreign. Above all, Johnson recommends that those authors who wish to be useful travelers pay strict attention to what he views as the most important function of travel and travel writing: the opportunity to observe — and to learn from — the infinite variety of human life.

["Narratives of Travellers considered"]

Saturday, February 23, 1760.

It may, I think, be justly observed, that few books disappoint their readers more than the Narrations of Travellers. One part of mankind is naturally curious to learn the sentiments, manners, and condition of the rest; and every mind that has leisure or power to extend its views, must be desirous of knowing in what proportion Providence has distributed the blessings of Nature or the advantages of Art, among the several nations of the earth.

This general desire easily procures readers to every book from which it can expect gratification. The adventurer upon unknown coasts, and the describer of distant regions, is always welcomed as a man who has labored for the pleasure of others, and who is able to enlarge our knowledge and rectify our opinions; but when the volume is opened, nothing is found but such general accounts as leave no distinct idea behind them, or such minute enumerations as few can read with either profit or delight.

Every writer of travels should consider, that, like all other Authors, he undertakes either to instruct or please, or to mingle pleasure with instruction. He that instructs must offer to the mind something to be imitated or something to be avoided; he that pleases must offer new images to his reader, and enable him to from a tacit comparison of his own state with that of others.

The greater part of Travellers tell nothing, because their method of Travelling supplies them with nothing to be told. He that enters a town at night and surveys it in the morning, and then hastens away to another place, and guesses at the manners of the inhabitants by the entertainment which his inn afforded him, may please himself for a time with a hasty change of scenes, and a confused remembrance of Palaces and Churches; he may gratify his eye with a variety of Landscapes; and regale his palate with a succession of Vintages; but let him be contented to please himself without endeavour to disturb others. Why should he record excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he never could attain?

Of those who crowd the world with their itineraries, some have no other purpose than to describe the face of the country; those who sit idle at home, and are curious to know what is done or suffered in distant countries, may be informed by one of these wanderers, that on a certain day he set out early with the caravan, and in the first hour's march saw, towards the south, a hill covered with trees, then passed over a stream, which ran northward with a swift course, but which is probably dry in the summer months; that an hour after he saw something to the right which looked at a distance like a castle with towers, but which he discovered afterwards to be a craggy rock; that he then entered a valley, in which he saw several trees tall and flourishing, watered by a rivulet not marked in the maps, of which he was not able to learn the name; that the road afterward grew stony, and the country uneven, where he observed among the hills many hollows worn by torrents, and was told that the road was passable only part of the year: that going on they found the remains of a building, once perhaps a fortress to secure the pass, or to restrain the robbers, of which the present inhabitants can give no other account than that it is haunted by Fairies; that they went to dine at the foot of a rock, and travelled the rest of the day along the banks of a river, from which the road turned aside towards evening, and brought them within sight of a village, which was once a considerable town, but which afforded them neither good victuals nor commodious lodging.

Thus he conducts his reader thro' wet and dry, over rough and smooth, without incidents, without reflection; and, if he obtains his company for another day, will dismiss him again at night equally fatigued with a like succession of rocks and streams, mountains and ruins.

This is the common style of those sons of enterprize, who visit savage countries, and range through solitude and desolation; who pass a desart, and tell that it is sandy; who cross a valley, and find that it is green. There are others of more delicate sensibility, that visit only the Realms of Elegance and Softness; that wander through Italian Palaces, and amuse the gentle reader with catalogues of Pictures; that hear Masses in magnificent Churches, and recount the number of the Pillars or Variegations of the Pavement. And there are yet others who, in disdain of trifles, copy Inscriptions elegant and rude, ancient and modern; and transcribe into their book the walls of every edifice, sacred or civil. He that reads these books must consider his labour as its own reward; for he will find nothing on which Attention can fix, or which Memory can retain.

He that would travel for the entertainment of others, should remember that the great object of remark is human life. Every Nation has something peculiar in its Manufactures, its Works of Genius, its Medicines, its Agriculture, its Customs, and its Policy. He only is a useful Traveller who brings home something by which his country may be benefited; who procures some supply of Want or some Mitigation of Evil, which may enable his readers to compare their condition with that of others, to improve it whenever it is worse, and whenever it is better to enjoy it.


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