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Female Authors and the Travel Novel

Why travel narratives seem to lack female presence

There’s a gap in the literary canon. Well actually, there are a ton of gaps in the canon, but there’s one that feels extra pressing this month as we celebrate Women’s history. Skimming through the decades, generations, and centuries, our bookshelves are overgrown with male writers. It’s a melting pot of languages and cultures, sure, but the soup we’re serving up still lacks gender representation. The canon has become better at including women, but despite these strides there are genres where the female absence is still felt, and a female presence is still desperately needed. Cue nearly every travel novel you’ve ever read. 

Thinking back to the popular travel narratives, like Jack Keruoac’s On the RoadJoseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America… (we’re a reading site, we could go on and on), there’s a similarity among them all. There’s the “quest” to find a self that can only be found away from home; the drive to cut through all the clutter, to some essential truth to be found on the road ahead; the transiency of place, as the characters move from one location to the next; and, overwhelmingly, there’s the male protagonist.

Image courtesy of Drenched By Books

Although we were at first a bit stumped by the lack of women in these novels, we then began to wonder why are there so few female narratives about travel and being on the road to begin with. We started skimming the dates American travel titles were published. You know, the “all-American type” that traverses from California to New York, with all the meaty in-betweens, and the protagonist finds himself and his country only when he leaves the front porch. What we found was a whole lot of testosterone. This breed of novel (Kerouac, Steinbeck, etc.) emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, during a time when American life was dominated by family life and domesticity. Kerouac’s novel On the Road is one of the best examples of the Beat Generation—a group of authors whose literature explored American culture post-WWII. In the rigidity of family life and domestic structures, On the Road’s character Sal Paradise—who is a fitting stand in for the typical traveling male protagonist—feels the need to break the bonds of domesticity. If the domestic life is oppression, then the road is liberation: an open landscape where man can unidentify from home in order to create himself anew.

Here is where it gets tricky for women. In this historical pin drop of the twentieth century, a woman was one and the same with domestic life. She represented a pillar of perm pressed aprons, fresh baked cookies, and every cliché of domesticity. How then, in this time, can a female author break from home when her identity is synonymous with the home? Darn you social conventions. This tie is a difficult one to shake, but there is a way many female authors have successfully done just that, offering us a road drastically different from the one our male characters find.

Can’t leave the domestic behind? Take it with you.

Image courtesy of Our Open Road

Although the male narrative severs itself from home, the female travel novel takes realities of home life with it—providing an ever-present grid to guide the story. Home life is always in the background, haunting, maybe guiding, but never elusive. As where man uses travel as a means of escape, female narratives use travel as a means of confrontation with home life, and a place beyond the walls of the house, where the broad stokes of a familial culture can be looked at, poked, and prodded. Bringing domestic life public opens the door for a strong feminist narrative to lay itself bare as our female protagonists begin to grapple with the hidden structures that shape their lives.

Although the male and female roads diverge, they converge at a similar revelation: an ability to deconstruct and reconstruct a perception of self. To defy what we initially believed to be an absence of women in the realm of travel narratives, we’re bringing some awesome travel narratives from the fringes of the genre to center stage. The canon’s gap in gender representation still needs work, but these travel narratives are exemplary models that overturn the once gendered travel novel.

 

Recommendations: 

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson’s

Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly

A Motor Flight Through France by Edith Wharton

Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

America Day By Day by Simone De Beauvoir

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert