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Travelers, Sour and Sentimental

“I hate traveling and explorers.”

—Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

It’s an illusion to think that a need to complain about travel is unique to our age of mass tourism or to the aftermath of September 11th. Already in 1778 Boswell related that Dr. Johnson detected a “strange turn in travelers to be displeased.”   For the roots of our contemporary attitudes toward travel we must go back to the 18th century, to the golden age of the Grand Tour, when extended journeys on the European continent were made not only by royals and aristocrats, whose families had long been embarking on long trips abroad, but large numbers of by middle-class travelers as well.  The period also spawned a huge travel literature, much of it in unpublished journals, like those of Thomas Boswell and Edward Gibbon. But large numbers of publications also appeared both in the form of personal accounts such as Joseph Addison’s  Remarks on Several Parts of Italy from the very first years of the century, and as general travel guides, like Thomas Nugent’s four-volume The Grand Tour, which appeared first in 1749. These books were reprinted continuously in the course of the 18th century to feed the appetites both of those intent on making the journey themselves or for the stay-at-homes eager to experience it vicariously.

There can be no more acid narrator of the displeasures of traveling than the Scottish physician turned man of letters, Tobias Smollett. His Travels through France and Italy appeared in 1766 and remains an immensely readable and fascinating look at the curse and, occasionally, the potential consolation of traveling. The book chronicles the author’s two years on the continent, which began in June of 1763, just months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  This agreement brought the Seven Years’ War to a close and ushered in an interval of intense international travel.  Smollett was one of the very first down the jet-way.

Like so many travelers of his era, Smollett was driven abroad by health and sorrow. He forced himself from the damp and depressing British Isles in search of Mediterranean air for his tubercular lunges and in the hopes of overcoming at least part of the grief at the loss of his only daughter.  Because of these circumstances we can perhaps forgive Smollett his relentless petulance. But it is spleen that makes the book so entertaining.

Distrustful and resentful of foreigners, Smollett has plenty of invective for the English tourist, too. His grievances begin already on the road from London to Dover: “I need not tell you this is the worst road in England, with respect to the conveniences of traveling. The chambers are in general cold and comfortless, the beds paltry, the cookery execrable, the wine poison, the attendance [i.e., service] bad, the publicans insolent, and the bills extortion; there is not a drop of tolerable malt liquor to be had from London to Dover.”

The drama of Smollett’s protracted outburst in a town in Provence where he believes himself cheated over dinner by a landlord and then is refused a departing coach by postilions in cahoots with the landlord puts to shame the best ticket-counter freak-out of the modern age.  Smollett eventually ferrets out the consul but this venal official provides no help to the foreigner who, with the entire town watching, is finally forced to acquiesce to what he sees as extortion. Fully mortified and exhausted by the entire scene, Smollett slumps into the coach and makes his ignominious exit.

Such encounters only abet Smollett’s general disgust with the French. His must be the most resilient strain of that peculiar British Francophobia that thrives to this day:  “If a Frenchman is capable of real friendship, it must certainly be the most disagreeable present he can possibly make to a man of true English character.” It goes without saying that he hates French food and the ubiquitous “garlick” which contaminates all the horrid ragouts inflicted upon him.  Smollett loathes not only French food, but the love they lavish on it:  “If there were five hundred dishes at table, a Frenchman will eat of all of them, and then complain he has no appetite.” French foppery is even worse:  “the French have a most ridiculous fondness for their hair.  A Frenchman will sooner part with his religion than with his hair.”

Appearance and appetite reveal still darker motivations:  “If a Frenchman is admitted into your family, and distinguished by repeated marks of your friendship and regard, the first return he makes for your civilities is to make love to your wife, if she is handsome; if not, to your sister, or daughter, or niece.  If he suffers a repulse from you wife, or attempts in vain to debauch your sister, or your daughter, of your niece, he will make addresses to your grandmother.”

There are select moments in the Travels full of wonder at the beauty of the places Smollett visits and there are prescient passages on the squalor of life among the lowers classes under the tottering  ancien regime. There are also forceful critiques of the most backward of European customs like dueling, cultural practices tenaciously holding on in the supposedly Enlightened century.  Hugely popular and influential in its day, this book provides the rhetorical compass by which so many disagreeable travelers have since navigated and complained their way through their homelands and foreign territory.

Soon after the appearance of the Travels, Smollett would be sent-up as the “learned Smelfungus” by his acquaintance Laurence Sterne in his novel, A Sentimental Journey which appeared in 1768, two years after Smollett’s book. Here Smollett/Smelfungus is nothing more than a bumbling boor whose description of the Pantheon in Rome seems infinitely more absurd under Sterne’s brilliant wit than it does in Smollett’s own account: “’Tis nothing but a huge cock pit” bellows Smelfungus.

Instead, Sterne’s novel, which makes fun both of the effusions of gung-ho travelers and the grumblings of Smollett and his ilk, exudes enthusiasm, sometimes embracing it, sometimes parodying it:  “I declare, ” exclaims the narrator Yorick, slapping my hands cheerily together, “that was I in a desert, I would find out wherewith in it to call forth my affections.” Yorick is the greatest cheerleader of tourism there ever was or will be. On the road there is always something to look at, to be cheered and edified by. The complainers are missing the whole point of travel. “I pity the man who can travel from Dan to Beersheba, and cry, ‘Tis all barren—and so it is; and so is all the world to him who will not cultivate the fruits it offers.”

What of the role of music in all this? As we scan the planes, trains, and autombilies, we see legions of tourists rigged up with earphones, and thumbing their iPods. This would lead one to the conclusion that music is crucial to the modern enterprise of travel.

For his part, Smollett does not let his bad moods be distracted and lightened by voice or fiddle. He only pauses once to remark on what he sees as the contradiction between the lively and ingenious conversational style of the French and their musical tastes: “With all their volatility, prattle, and fondness for bon mots, the French delight in a species of drawling, melancholy, church music.”

Sterne’s Yorick makes a hilarious trip to the Opera comique in Paris, where action in the theatre is more entertaining than that on the stage. In Burgundy he enjoys the rural music that accompanying the grape harvest, and later makes a charming comparison between the spread of knowledge and music in the Italian street, “whereof those may partake, who pay nothing.” But Yorick has other conceits, mostly amorous, to hold his flitting attentions.

The greatest musical traveler of the great age of travel was the Englishman Charles Burney, who knew both Smollett and Sterne and their books. In response to their work, he produced the first musical travelogue.

Burney set out for France and Italy in 1769, and published his account of his first tour in 1771. A second trip to the northern Europe quickly followed and brought forth two more detailed volumes. Burney’s books are imbued with far more of Sterne’s sentimentality than Smollett’s sourness. But Burney shares with Smollett a penchant for hammering the French, though he does lighten his blows now and again. Like most Englishman, especially those addicted to Italian opera, Burney rails against the stultifying conservatism of French musical culture. That nation’s subservience to dead musical heroes mirrored its acceptance of political absolutism. Burney would level the same critique at Prussia when he arrived there two years later but was deprived an audience with the great musician-king, Frederick the Great. Personal affronts invariably colored the musical traveler’s remarks.

In Italy Burney seems to enjoy the political chaos — though he is glad not to have to live under it all the time — because the patchwork of courts and ecclesiastical institutions yields a riotous surplus of music, some of it great, some of it shambolic, but all of it exciting. Burney is not only interested in the opera and sacred masses in glorious churches, but in the music of the street: from the exotic songs and instruments of Naples to the menacing military marches of parading German soldiers. Because there is always something new to hear, and something interesting to be found even in the most flawed performances, Burney’s three travel books on the Present State of Music in Europe are filled with spirited attention and brisk opinion.  Burney’s vivid account brings the musical life of late 18th-century Europe to life.  Without his colorful picture of the continent, our view of the period would be monochrome.

When the music plays and Burney hears it the troubles of his journey disappear—from the battering coach ride over the Appennines and  the bivouac in German fields to the harrowing raft trip down the Danube to Vienna. The succession of departures and arrivals, the flow of inconvenience and anticipation, the boredom and dread of travel are forgotten as soon as the curtain rises.
Burney had no iPod in the coach, no streamed performance in the Teatro di San Carlo to steal the thunder of hearing it live. His traveling was about getting to the music, not about having the music numb the drudgery and danger of transport. In our own times, the eagerness of Burney’s journey becomes increasingly difficult to equal.

In the present age we rarely truly travel. Whether in a jet or ripping along the Interstate, we do not go from place to place incrementally, taking in along the journey the change of custom and topography. Instead we are transported at high speeds in increasingly uncomfortable circumstances, traversing dozens of time zones in a single endless day or endless night or careening through freeway interchanges en route to the next air-conditioned motel.  In these the last days of the travel craze we are both Smollett and Sterne: raging against the horrors of the journey, and then effusing about the fictional joys of being there. And even the Burneys have of the present age are all too willing to let the wide world of music simply come to them.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omni. He can be reached at


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

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