Does Chatwin's writing counteract an old cliche in travel writing?
It almost seems like the texts we are considering in this class form a progression of writing styles, and as a result, increasingly deal with different questions that seem to keep arising in travel literature. We have been reading the texts chronologically, so I don't feel totally unjustified in making a claim like this.
Modern travel, although not totally exclusive to a particular class and national origin, is still tied to the historical development of capitalism and the rise of a solid middle class. It is paradoxically both a product of modern affluence and a method to escape it. The paradoxical nature of tourism is why so many different types of travel (really, all of Redfoot's four orders) are open to a lot of criticism by a lot of different people. This is also why criticism seems to boil down to how genuine one's motives are, or rather, how authentic they are.
Twain's travel seemed superficial to many of us. Flaubert's was flat and unappreciative of foreign cultures. Even Orwell, who apparently tried very hard to understand others, was criticized because of his social and economic origin as being a marker of how well he could understand or legitimately travel to certain areas, although he certainly makes a much better attempt than Flaubert does. Theroux's writing finds itself criticizing and sometimes creating a self-glorifying travel hero.
I don't want to say that Chatwin's writing solves all of these issues, but it seems to me, at least, to largely dissolve the "hero" problem. I don't think this was Chatwin's motive, because he never specifically addresses it like Theroux does. But there is a sense of the narrator (Chatwin himself) being a catalyst more than an active maker of activity. What he describes, more often than not, are the interactions of people around him: the best example of this is the scene where the Aboriginal artists, the American art consumer, and the salesman are discussing what is forbidden in Aboriginal art and the price of certain pieces. In some ways, this is more telling about the societies Chatwin visits than if he only portrayed himself engaging with people at these sites.
It's also interesting to note that Chatwin discusses other types of travel, ones that are largely pre-industrial. What does it mean to travel (literally) in other contexts? I can't entangle all the meanings of these things in one post, but they are worth pondering over. In particular, he mentions Aboriginal travel, particularly the "Walkabout" experience, a male rite of passage that involves solitary journey. I don't want to make too many connections here, but it is worth pointing out that both walkabout initiatives and Western travelers are both going to seek something beyond the material. Perhaps conversely, he also mentions Sudanese Arabs, who travel not in search of anything, but as a mode of life, without end--a type of travel that seems truly impossible for the modern tourist, who bases his travel on wages he must work for by being largely stationary.
Perhaps connected to his defeat of the "hero" problem, Chatwin is just as good, perhaps better, than Theroux at expressing the lives and attitudes of people in other places and cultures. As far as we can trust any writer, he seems to let people speak for themselves. In fact, Theroux and Chatwin seem to be traveling partly to discover and display the lives and personalities of others--to actively create literature, if you will. Whether this is a legitimate travel aim is another question.