John Brinnin on the joy of travel

The following essay, written by the late critic John Malcolm Brinnin, was first presented as the keynote address to the 1991 Key West Literary Seminar. At this year’s seminar in Key West, “Travel and the Sense of Wonder” was mentioned in several contexts, and Thomas Swick, who wrote about Brinnin in his blog of the event, passed along a copy to me. In the interest of giving it a wider audience online, I am sharing Brinnin’s essay here.

Travel and the Sense of Wonder

By John Malcolm Brinnin

Space-age technologists tell us that we are the first people for whom it is possible to possess any corner of the globe within twenty-four hours — the first traveler’s for whom the fourth dimension is not a mere hypothesis but an available experience. This very afternoon, you or I could leave the White Sands Missile Range or the Houston Space Center and, tomorrow, be set down in some vestigial pocket of the Stone Age. Bucketed beyond ‘the sound barrier, we could arrive at a place where existence depends on crude tools and weapons, and enter a time still innocent of chronology. Yet what we can do, literally, is but a demonstration of what, figuratively, writers have always done. From Marco” Polo’s pictures of a brutish territory not yet called Siberia to Jan Morris’s descriptions of the terraced promenades of Simla, we have seen how imagination can turn a location into an event and fix it permanently into consciousness. In that process, the carelessness of time is brought to account, arrested for moments the sum of which we call history.

Notions like these have led me to my theme: the role of a sense of wonder in the impulse to travel and then in the enterprise of travel writing. I would like to think that this sense is essential; but I know it is not. Some of the soupiest travel writing on record has been done by moonstruck impressionists aspiring to literature; some of the best by close observers aiming to convey no more than pertinent information, a credible economic or sociological overview, a guidebook devoid of Chamber of Commerce soufflé.

Yet you know as well as I that great travel writing is suffused by a sense of wonder as compelling as it is elusive. A phenomenon that cannot be conclusively defined, it remains best comprehended by its effects. Of these, the most constant is the way in which a sense of wonder discloses a capacity for wonder impervious to its opportunities. A great narrative of travel is the product of a writer for whom the given subject is but a convenient focus — a chance to draw upon a personal vision that exists before and after any number of its adventitious expressions. Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue. When it’s there, its presence is- indubitable; when it’s absent, it’s not likely to be missed. But even individuals without a flick of Wonder can respond to its perceptions and, sometimes, its audacity.

Not long ago, when the now hapless city of Beirut was the so-called Paris of the Middle East, I spent a few days there — one of them on an excursion to Baalbek to see the great temple of the sun associated with its ancient name, Heliopolis. The trip was made in a car shared with strangers and a Lebanese driver. When our visit to the gigantic ruins was over, we squeezed back into our seats in a stunned silence that seemed the only appropriate response to such overwhelming magnificence. This spell lasted for many miles, broken, finally, by the muffled syllables with which each of us tried to describe the indescribable. The only one who did not open her mouth was a well-upholstered woman of sixty — until, that is, she was quite ready to speak her mind. “What I want to know,” she said, “is how American Express finds these places.”

Whatever else it is, the sense of wonder is both contingent and dependent. Since it cannot translate itself, it must, professionally speaking, call upon another faculty of equal importance. That faculty may be called the spirit of investigation. Whereas wonder is a state of receptivity which simply widens or contracts in response to stimuli, the spirit of investigation is active, charged with curiosity, avid to know how and why things come to be, how they work, to what they may be compared, how they fit into any scheme that may render them comprehensible, ft is a spirit concerned with otherness, something beside and beyond that can be translated, first for love and then for as much cold cash as may be extracted from the editors of glossy journals. Functioning at its best, the spirit of investigation relates the observer to the observed, makes the exotic familiar, and dismantles those mysteries wonder would as soon keep to itself. By description, measurement, and statistics, the spirit of investigation confirms what my generation knows as “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and so completes an equation in which the sense of wonder can get off its aspirations and go to work.

What might appear to be a philosophical or, at least, a temperamental disparity, challenges the writer to unite a subjective musing with objective evidence, to connect the poetry with the prose and so nudge travel writing away from its current status as a consumer report onto the threshold of a literary genre.

As any professional will tell you, among its benefactions, travel is most generous with the gift of serendipity. And since all travel writing is, inescapably, a form of autobiography, I’d like to cite a few instances, a few serendipitous moments when, indulging my own sense of wonder and driven by the spirit of investigation, I tried to find, or make, a balance that would justify my pretensions to a place somewhere in the vicinity of those writers whose chronicles of travel experience I most admire.

Of all the images that passed before my eyes in mid-childhood, two affected me like summonses. One was a colored illustration on the cover of a geography book of the young Christopher Columbus, richly dressed in quatrocento velvet, gazing westward from a deepwater dock in Genoa. There, I thought, was a boy no older than I who, just like me, had the whole world in his head and still looked forward to another. The second was a painting of what seemed to me a celestial city. Situated at the conjunction of a river and an ocean, it was the scene of dazzling energy as flotillas of ships steamed in and out railroad trains snaked across lacework bridges, and airplanes with open cockpits soared above steeples and tall smokestacks. I knew at first glance I had seen the city of my dreams. The fact that it would turn out to be New’ London, Connecticut — New London! — did nothing to diminish that first impression. Whenever I’m in New London, and that is often, I simply paste my old fantasy over its reality and go on my way.


AT THE AGE of nineteen, after what already seemed a lifetime besotted with Europe and the westward march of civilization which, of course, culminated in my birth, I’d saved up enough money from clerking in a bookstore and caddying at a country club to embark on a transatlantic voyage. My bewildered father drove me to the train station and there, shaking his head and my hand at once, saw me off to New York, quite unaware that the figure in the day coach window who waved back was not his only son but Christopher Columbus in reverse and, as far as I was concerned, in velvet. Every night of that voyage — the first eastward crossing of the Queen Mary — would find me strolling on deck, humming with the wind in the rigging, or singing aloud a popular song, “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming.” As we were about to come to landfall, I was so deeply in thrall to what was happening I could neither eat nor sleep nor do anything but dream the imminent horizon into actuality. And then one morning, through a scrim of mist, or tears, there it was — the pale green coast of France. No one had told me lies, it’s all true, I thought: Europe exists. In that same moment, eyes wide open, I was hit with a second emotion — a surrender of all my castles, a divestment of illusions I alone could support, and I “was ready to go home, to retreat into the comfort of contemplation rather than to hazard all that was waiting for me. In one moment of divine confusion, I had learned that wonder exists before and after any encounter that might verify its premises or “resist its promiscuous embrace.


MY INVOLVEMENT with travel writing came late but started early — in those years of the twenties when the word picturesque was still acceptable in polite society and before it had plunged into the pejorative from which it would never emerge. Apprenticed to the picturesque, I became its victim but only until, at the age of twelve, I learned to spit, use bad words, and otherwise keep my mouth shut. As far as travel writing was concerned, elected silence kept me clean and inoffensive for another forty years. Then some dormant but incorrigible impulse led me to try my hand once more.

Paging through Time one evening, I turned to my companion. “Here’s something I want to know all about,” I said. “What’s that?” “It seems the Cunard people are building a new ship — a superliner to replace the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.” The stare I got was blank. I had only recently given up the idea of going to Ararat to investigate the historical sources of Noah’s Ark. Next day I called my agent. This man knew me only as a literary type — one of those who wrote poetry and criticism and the occasional biography; in other words, one of .those charity cases some agents take on to give their questionable operations a touch of respectability. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You want to do an article on a boat that doesn’t exist.” “That’s right,” I told him. “See if you can get me a commission — something that will put me behind the scenes. I need entree.”

Some eighteen months later, my commission executed, I found myself in Glasgow. I had meanwhile personally supervised the progress of the Q4, as the unnamed Queen Elizabeth 2 was then called, from her beginnings as a skeletal maze of steel to the handsome black hull and white superstructure now towering above the tallest gantries of John Brown’s Shipyard. There was no one — architect, decorator, navigator, or engineer — I had not come to know, not a detail of her construction I had not studied, not a representative swatch of fabric or saucer of Wedgwood I had not held in my hands. Now it was the eve of a declared holiday when the already famous last of the liners was to be christened and launched by the queen herself, with Prince Philip and Princess Margaret in attendance.

Caught up in the spirit of things, I had hired a car — a Daimler Saloon Car so big you could stand up in it — and the Glaswegian chauffeur who came with the deal. To get to Clydeside and the launching ceremony early, I’d asked the driver to meet me at the entrance to the hotel at nine. And there he was, having taken it upon himself to decorate the car with hanky-sized Union Jacks and a pennant that looked suspiciously like a royal standard. But in this I was mistaken. My Daimler was not the festooned Daimler but the one parked beside it. The decorated Daimler was Princess Margaret’s, ready to take her to a rendezvous with her sister and brother-in-law in some part of the shipyard. Off we went on the seven or eight mile journey — I with my press pass securely in hand, but wondering how I might get my obliging driver into the stands reserved for what the British call “the quality.” As we approached Clydeside, people began to line both sides of the road, many of them schoolchildren who’d been given the day off. When the roadsides through which we passed were so crowded as to become a kind of tunnel of expectation, the bystanders began to wave their flags and shout out greetings. Helplessly exposed in my glass cage, I tended to shrink from these displays of untoward interest; but it wasn’t long before I caught myself waving back — in that noticeably diffident noblesse oblige I’d seen in TV close-ups of royal processions. By the time we were in sight of the shipyard’s great iron gates, the cheers were raucous and I had lost all control. Both hands in the air, turning from side to side, I blessed them all as the gates swung open and we sailed through, home free. “How did you bring that off?”— the driver called back. “Trust me,” I said, and on we went to watch the great ship go sliding on tons of grease into the waters of the River Clyde.

Holiday was the most illustrious magazine of its kind in those years; and when my article on the new Cunard flagship appeared there, quickly followed by requests for similar pieces from the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly and a long-term assignment from The New Yorker, I knew I had been blooded, initiated into the excitement of travel-with-a-purpose and into its quicksilver realm of serendipity. Research had led me into so many unexpected byways and untouched archives that I had come to a point of no return and a new role — as a sort of Grandpa Moses of maritime history. The book I produced some five years later was called The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic. Its theme is ocean liners as metaphorical reflections of social change in Europe and America from the first scheduled sailing of a clipper ship in 1819 to the final crossing of the Queen Mary in 1967. Its sub-theme is a propensity for mythmaking by which a rivets-and-bolt industry became a popular romance.

A sense of wonder, finding its voice in the spirit of investigation, had forged a document which — however minor in the large account — has remained unique. The wharf rat kid who’d hung around the ocean terminals of Halifax and the decaying piers of Boston for half of his young life had turned an obsession into a career. Other books would follow; but now that mini career is over — by choice, and under the late-arriving conviction that travel writing per se is a fictitious category of nonetheless unlimited opportunity.


OUT OF A THOUSAND disjunct recollections of seaborne questing, two particular encounters continue to remind me that — compared with souls transfigured by a determination to seize as much of the world as their means would allow and their grasp contain — I remain an impulsive dabbler in a realm of apprehension where, as far as they are concerned, wonders never cease.

One of these was a little man whose name I never knew but who haunts my memory as he once dogged my footsteps. I describe him as “little” with no invidious intent, but merely to suggest that his meek address and mute pathos gave him the air of a reference looking for a subject. Summer after summer, I’d spot him on the edge of a crowd — once in Scotland, once in Trieste, once between the acts of an opera in Odessa. Dressed in the same neat blue suit and clutching a shapeless sort of reticule, he “was always alone and almost, but not quite, smiling. Was he, time and again, the same man, I wondered? Or was he but the manifestation of a type? “There he is again,” I said to a companion who knew me well enough to catch at once what I meant. We had just boarded a motor coach in Palermo on which we would crisscross Sicily to visit its Roman and Greek sites. In the course of the following week, we met his perpetual half-smile with smiles of our own and one afternoon, at a teatime shop, sat at a table with him long enough to learn that he for many years held a desk job with the Department of the Navy, had retired at the age of fifty, and now “just liked to travel.” A few days later, established for a time in Taormina, I was reading a newspaper in its little plateau of a piazza in front of the cathedral when a wedding party came spilling out of its tall doors in a blur of veils, flowers, and the salutations of a retinue of guests — among them the little man. There was a daisy in the lapel of his blue suit and when he reached into his grungy bag, out came handfuls of rice with which he showered the wedding party on its way to an ancient limousine. When the bride and groom were about to be driven away, he stepped out through the crowd, blew them a kiss, and retreated to a point a few feet from where, unnoticed by him, I sat with my newspaper. “Relatives of yours?” I asked. “No.” “Friends?” “No.” A long pause. “Oh, I go to everything,” he said, “christenings, funerals, weddings. I love to see life happening.”

Put to shame on the spot — a spot from which I’m not sure I’ve ever moved — I like to think that, somewhere along his solitary way, that little man became a bona fide member of somebody’s wedding, that somewhere he crashed a banquet, only to find his name on a place card beside his own wine glass, and even that he gets a postcard, out of the blue now and then, saying “Wish you were here.”


MY OTHER MEMORY is as glad as the circumstance on which it’s based and the heresy it has served to correct. In the grip of one of the many misapprehensions that attend advancing age, I’d quite convinced myself that, however many acquaintances one might accumulate, no one ever, ever, makes an intimate friend beyond the age of fifty. Then along came disproof incarnate.

Rita was the only daughter of an Armenian who had become a British subject long before she was born on a fashionable edge of Hyde Park. To suggest the degree of comfort in which she spent her infancy and the source of an intractable shyness she never overcame, let me quote some uncharacteristically purple prose from The New Yorker in which her father is described as “that shadowy Armenian gentleman whose vast holdings include five per cent of the oil in Iraq and who, at his death, was widely regarded as the world’s wealthiest private citizen and we had heard tales of how abrupt silences descended on international conferences at the sound of his mystery-shrouded name and of how governments fell as he stepped out of faraway capitals.”

To Rita herself he was also a shadowy gentleman — a well-meaning but remote parent who saw to it that she would be educated by English governesses and private tutors, that she would be presented at Court, and that she would accept an arranged marriage to the most eligible of her Armenian cousins. As it turned out, that marriage, not always temperamentally compatible, was amicable from the beginning and soon became loving. In her early forties, the birth of a son and the death of her illustrious father allowed Rita to assess a life she had come to regard as one long submission to a kind of genteel house arrest. With a decisiveness of which she had never before been capable, she turned her back on all that she was entitled to in England, moved to Paris, arranged a mutually agreeable separation from her husband, and resolved to spend the rest of her life exploring to view at first hand every example of the creative impulse from the time of the cave paintings of Lescaux, then to comprehend the variety and vitality of lives lived beyond the cocoon-like existence to which she had long been committed. Charged with curiosity and sustained by wonder, she remains the most purely motivated traveler I have ever met, partly because — beneath the trappings of a kind of oriental haute couture — she was still a little girl in a pinafore and Mary Janes on her way to a party that never ended, simply because it never quite took place.

But before she was able to act on her new intentions came World War II, during which she joined the forces of the French underground — the maquis — with the particular assignment of rescuing, then finding hiding places for, British pilots who’d been shot down.

We first met when, by the luck of the draw, we’d found ourselves seated side by side in an open boat taking us to the island of Skyros and the graveside of Rupert Brooke, whose poetry, I was delighted to learn, she considered as high-toned phony and meretricious as I did. I soon learned that she had been everywhere — twice. Long years before China was opened to the west, she had been to China — twice. Traveling alone for most of every year, she would book passage on one or the other of small ships carrying art historians, archaeologists, or botanists to obscure destinations from Antarctica- to Iceland, sometimes choosing itineraries back-to-back or three or four in a row.

Over a period of ten years or so, whenever I dared or could afford to, I’d leave my classroom to join her at some distant dock or airport — reunions that inevitably began in tears of unabashed sentiment, as though we were principals in still another recognition scene, and ended in the confidence that this would go on forever. Even to ourselves, we were almost unlikely couple. To me, she was the Empress Zenobia, fleeing on a long-necked camel — not from jeopardy, but into freedom. In her eyes, I was “a prosperous Boston schoolboy with a book-bag and a blazer.” For all that, we dwelt in wonder, accepting what we saw without the need to speak of what we felt and, for all of our differences, looking out the same window.

On January 4, 1976, it was my treat to show her Jacmel, a ghost town, once coffee-rich, left over from the nineteenth century’s Age of Iron and now preserved in a thin layer of dust. Located on the southern coast of Hispaniola, Jacmel was then accessible only by sea or by helicopter. I had been there once before — and so, with the authority of a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I led Rita through its silent streets, desiccated gardens, and barren marketplaces until, a little grimy with funereal dust, we came to the one ramshackle hotel where we might get a Coke and a sandwich. As we sat down at a table laid with oil cloth and artificial flowers, I was intrigued to note the presence of four or five men in dark suits seated at the only other occupied table. Unless my eyes deceived me, among them was Andre Malraux, then Charles deGaulle’s minister of culture and a hero of my youth for his landmark novels Man’s Fate and Man’s Hope. “Don’t look now,” I said, “but do I see what I think I see?” Incapable of a furtive glance, Rita turned her head. But only for a split second as, on their feet and clashing like gladiators, she and Malraux embraced in a storm of French expostulation.

Forty-eight hours later, in fulfillment of an old promise, I brought her to Key West and ensconced her in the laid-back ambience (some would call it benign neglect) of David Wolkowsky’s Pier House. Leaving her to explorations she liked to make on foot, next day I hid out in raffish bars I hoped she’d never find, down streets with busted sidewalks I hoped she’d never tread. What would she make of a town at the end of the line that reveled in squalor, cultivated waywardness, and, calling itself Conch Republic, regarded Florida as an enemy country somewhere toward the north? When I joined her that evening she was wearing sandals and a ponderous necklace of shells and I was in for a lecture. “Why did you wait so long to bring me to this place,” she said. “I love it even more than Hong Kong!”

Barely one year later, Rita accepted the judgment of her physicians that her heart could no longer withstand the demands of travel. But she could not accept advice to the effect that henceforth her days would be spent in the effortless domesticity a staff of servants would provide. True to her word, she retrieved a vial of some instantly lethal substance which, along with her maquis colleagues, she had been given in the event of Nazi torture. On Easter Sunday she dined with the family she had summoned to Paris and the friends she had enlisted to entertain them. As I learned from one of them, it was the merriest and most carefree of occasions — in the midst of which Rita excused herself and retired to a room from which she would never emerge.


TRAVEL AS DIVERSION; travel as a means. In pursuit of one I would submit to the seductions of the other — but not until the lessons I had learned made the distinction negligible. I’ve had my moments, as the old song says — and, by your leave, I’ll conclude this self-indulgent discourse on a note of nostalgia for one more of them.

September 25, 1967. The Queen Elizabeth, largest ship in .the world, twenty-seven years old, is bound westward; at some point in the early morning she will meet and pass the Queen Mary, the next-largest ship in the world, thirty-one years old, bound east. This will be their final meeting, their last sight of one another, ever. For more than two decades they have been the proudest sisters on the ocean, deferential to one another, secure in the knowledge that they are the most celebrated things on water since rafts went floating down the Tigris and Euphrates.

Notices of this encounter have been broadcast and posted throughout the ship. But as usual at this hour (12:10 A.M.) most passengers have gone to bed, leaving only a few individuals strolling and .dawdling on the promenade deck. Most of these have chosen to be alone; and they are a bit sheepish, a bit embarrassed, as though ashamed to be seen in the thrall of sentiment, even by others equally enthralled.

As the appointed moment draws near, they begin to disappear from the promenade deck, only to reappear in the darkness of the broad glassed-in observation area on boat deck forward. They stand apart from one another and do not speak, their eyes fixed on the visible horizon to the west as the vibration of the ship gives a slightly stroboscopic blur to everything they see. The mid-Atlantic sky is windless, a dome of hard stars; the ocean glows, an. immense conjunction of inseparable water and air. Entranced, the late watchers try to pick out some dot of light that will not turn out to be a star. Hushed, the minutes pass. These ten or twelve of the faithful in their shadowy stances might be postulants on a Vermont hillside, waiting in their gowns for the end of the world. Then the light of certainty. Almost as is if she were climbing the watery slopes of the globe, the oncoming Queen shows one wink at her topmost mast, then two.

Spotted, she grows quickly in size and brightness. In the dim silence of the enclosure there are mutters, the click of binoculars against plate glass, an almost reverential sense of breath withheld. On she comes, the Mary, with a swiftness that takes everyone by surprise: Together the great ships, more than 160,000 tons of steel, are closing the gap that separates them at a speed of nearly sixty miles an hour. Cutting the water deeply, pushing it aside in great crested arrowheads, they veer toward one another almost as if to embrace, and all the lights blaze out, scattering the dark. The huge funnels glow in their Cunard red, the basso-profundo horns belt out a sound that has the quality less of a salute than of one long mortal cry. Standing at attention on the starboard wing of his flying bridge, the Elizabeth‘s captain doffs his hat; on the starboard wing of the Mary, her captain does the same.

As though they had not walked and climbed there but had been somehow instantly transported to the topmost deck, the few passengers who have watched the Mary come out of the night now watch her go. All through the episode, mere minutes long, have come giggles and petulant whispers from sequestered corners of the top deck. Indifferent to the moment, untouched by the claims of history, youngsters not yet born when the two Queens were the newest wonders of the world cling together in adolescent parodies of passion and do not bother even to look up. As the darkness closes over and the long wakes are joined, the sentimentalists stand for a while watching the ocean recover its seamless immensity. Then, one by one, like people dispersing downhill after a burial, they find their way to their cabins and close their doors.


© John Malcolm Brinnin, 1991

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