Justin D. Edwards
Exotic Journeys: Exploring the Erotics of U.S. Travel Literature, 18401930
Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001. Pp. 201. $22.95

Reviewed by Udo Nattermann

In his study of the notoriously unwieldy literature of travel, Justin Edwards focuses on aspects of gender and sexuality in American travel narratives in the period of the nation's imperial travel. His aim is to "identify previously unnoticed or ignored ... dimensions of the writing practices of American travelers from 1840 to 1930" (14). In the examined texts, Edwards discovers instances of "paranoia, structures of difference, expressions of intense desire, objects of sexual fetishism, primitivism, eroticism, and exoticism" (11).

In part one of his book, Edwards analyzes several accounts of travels to the South Pacific: Herman Melville's Typee (1846), Charles Warren Stoddard's travel sketches and his novel For the Pleasure of His Company (1903), and Jack London's "The Sheriff of Kona" and "The Heathen" (both 1909). All three authors experience on their journeys to foreign lands relationships that transcend the confines of Victorian morality, including their own notions of gender and sexuality, and that make them call into question European and American civilization. However, Edwards argues that the three writers also hold on to traditional Western stereotypes and "colonizing attitudes" (23) when they perceive Polynesian culture as effeminate, inferior to European and American societies, and available to their imperial interests.

Part two of Edwards's book concerns the Old World as depicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860), William Wells Brown's The American Fugitive in Europe (1854), and Edith Wharton's In Morocco (1919). Hawthorne's Italy, Edwards claims, is both admirable and repugnant, for it combines great cultural achievements with threatening sensuality and primitivism; the Roman carnival even affords opportunities for role playing that dissolves the boundaries of human identity. A fluid identity may be experienced in England, too, where Brown can simultaneously be abolitionist, tourist, and exiled slave; he can be free from "savage" American society and enjoy "civilized" Europe. Wharton's Morocco is predominantly a tourist site rich in picturesque treasures of the past, but it also features the frightful harem, an institution morally unacceptable to visitors from America and Europe. In sum, Edwards maintains that all three travel narratives depict states of instability and ambivalence brought about by the foreign encounter.

The final section of Edwards's study deals with New York City as the locus of ethnic and racial alterity. In several journalistic travel pieces, Djuna Barnes describes the immigrant neighborhoods of New York as exotic, primitive, and liberating places, thereby debunking some stereotypes about newcomers to America but also in part idealizing them. In Nigger Heaven (1926), Carl Van Vechten offers his readers a voyeuristic portrait of Harlem, which he romanticizes as a place of untainted naturalness. The black ghetto is similarly sexualized and idealized in Home to Harlem (1928), where Claude McKay, according to Edwards, "displays a human geography that is hybrid: neat gender divisions and polarizations of sexual identity are absent here" (166). In short, the three authors emphasize the pleasurable aspects of the intercultural encounter.

Though plausibly argued and sufficiently supported by textual evidence, Edwards's examination is based on narrow parameters that allow him to give his study a well-defined focus but also very much limit the results of his analyses. When speaking of erotics, Edwards has in mind almost exclusively descriptions of sexual intercourse between characters in the travel accounts, or of same-sex relationships; that is, erotics is a matter of narrated events or, as in the case of McKay, of "sensual images" (168). Does not the pleasure of the text, one wants to ask, reside in other elements of these books as well, and what does the activity of traveling contribute to the pleasure? On one occasion, in the context of discussing Barnes's sketches, Edwards observes "that the early-twentieth-century shifts in urbanization and immigration inspired anxiety in many Anglo-American New Yorkers and that travel discourses provided a forum in which these fears could be purged" (129). Here Edwards recognizes the connection between erotic attraction and fear, but he does not pursue the issue further. A psychologically deepened understanding of eroticism probably would have benefited his study.

The limited concept of the erotic also leads to a clearly discernible leftist bias in Edwards's assessment of the travel writers. In his analysis of Typee, for example, he remarks that "Tom's fear of being tattooed signals a much greater [than aesthetic] fear: the fear of becoming permanently marked as a member of the Typee community, thus losing his privileged position as traveler" (30). The character's refusal to adopt a Polynesian custom is interpreted as an indication of his assumption of a superior ("privileged") status. This conclusion, however, is not at all convincing, for a traveler who appreciates a foreign culture need not therefore swallow it hook, line, and sinker. Edwards's inference reveals his liberal view or wish: that Tom should distance himself as far as possible from his allegedly sexually repressive Western identity. Similarly, in his examination of London's South Sea stories, Edwards observes that "London is unable to present undisrupted male bonds" and that "the homosocial attachments remain ambivalent through the exclusion of physical passion" (6162). London's characters, in other words, do not demonstrate the high degree of permissiveness that is presumably the true mark of the liberal mind. Here, and in the discussion of the other authors, Edwards would have us believe that "ambivalence" is always bad.

Finally, the study's focus on the era of America's political and military expansion is rather abstract, for the erotic responses Edwards detects in the travel texts are not germane to American literature but can be found in other national literatures as well. Furthermore, he historicizes the narratives only generally as reflecting developments in U.S. imperialism, tourism, and immigration; as a result, the texts do not emerge from the analyses as products of particular historical moments. And, maybe, they are not entirely the products of such moments after all, but also of their authors' respective sensibilities. Perhaps Hawthorne would have reacted to the Typee in a different manner than Melville did, and Melville would have responded to the culture of Italy in his own special way.