Monday, 2 June 2008

D-U-C Travel Writing Awards Spectacular- Part the Second: Soul Searching

Jonathan Raban, Old Glory

Raban also inspires ambivalence: Bryson implies that he isn't a huge fan, and his writings do often give the impression that he hunts out unpleasantness for subject matter rather than letting it occur on its own terms. For me, this isn't necessarily a problem- it's alright for travel writing to be a medium whose findings confirm a worldview- but I have often been uncomfortable with his pernickety willingness to find fault with the (numerous) people who give him hospitality. Also, though his political stances are often to be agreed with, he isn't really one for grey areas or relativism in this quarter. It often seems as though he's going to lose his rag with the inhabitants of Tennessee for as little as not having a Guardian in the newspaper rack.

Old Glory is the story of a journey down the Mississippi in a dangerously small boat. There's a long hiatus in the middle where Raban takes up with a wealthy Jewish woman in St. Louis (or does he? There's something of the shaggy dog about the book), which gives him ample opportunity to discuss Middle Eastern affairs. Everything takes place against the backdrop of the end of the Carter presidency and, inevitably, the Iran hostage crisis looms large: Raban presents a picture of a nation extremely at odds with itself. The river, Old Glory itself, is obviously over-determined as an element of a symbolic geography or psychic topography, but the metaphor is kept motivated with digressions that subvert what, in less capable hands, might be an irritating or pious idea of eschatology. There's also a subtle way in which one is never just moving downstream but drifting back and forth across it, which makes Old Glory read a little like a dream diary at times.

In a way, though, this is precisely what it is. Raban is in Emersonian mode, and the experience of the American frontier represents all kinds of psychological extremes as well. We aren't always comfortable with the co-opting of the "real" of landscape into the service of the individual whinge (although it worked for Coleridge) but it works here.

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