Did you go anywhere this past weekend? Don't feel bad if you didn't. The whole summer still stretches ahead of us, giving us ample opportunity to pack a bag and get the hell out of town. But where to go? What to do? If you need travel inspiration, look no further than the literary world and its luminaries. Writers really know how to take vacations. And the great thing is, writers frequently turn their travels into art, compelling you to want to follow in their wake, see the things they saw, do the things they did, feel the things they felt. That's not possible, of course, but it also doesn't really matter. Whether it's a tiny, almost inaccessible island off the coast of Chile or a quiet Cornish fishing village, all of these places left indelible marks on the writers who visited. Maybe you'll be inspired to go to one of these places, or to some other far-off destination. Whatever the case, just make sure to get out of Brooklyn this summer. And don't forget to write.
Virginia Woolf; St. Ives, Cornwall
As a young girl, Woolf visited the seaside village of St. Ives, in the southwestern part of England, with her family and the happy, carefree summers there seem to have been some of the most positive of her life. Woolf wrote in "A Sketch of the Past" from Moments of Being: "...I could fill pages remembering one thing after another. All together made the summer at St. Ives the best beginning to life imaginable." Woolf further memorialized St. Ives in her novel To the Lighthouse which, though set on the Isle of Skye, is known to have been inspired by her long-past family vacations in Cornwall. This lovely passage from the novel perfectly encapsulates the beauty in being alone in your travels: "For now she need not think of anybody. She coud be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of - to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others... and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.” It also, you know, perhaps speaks to a certain amount of mental darkness and despair, but that's not really the point right now.
Hunter S. Thompson; Puerto Rico
Is there a writer more different than Virginia Woolf than Hunter S. Thompson? If there is, I can't think of one. And thus his vacation spots are pretty much the polar opposite from an idyllic Cornish fishing village. In 1960, after having been fired in quick succession from jobs at both Time magazine and something called The Middletown Daily Record, Thompson moved to San Juan to pursue journalistic work there. He was ultimately unsuccessful at working much down there (so, that counts as a vacation, right?) but did find inspiration for his novel, The Rum Diary, which wasn't even published till 1998, so take heart aspiring writers! Anyway. Puerto Rico. You might not want to travel down there to work on a sports journal called El Sportivo like Thompson did, but you might want to go down there and drink massive amounts of rum and ride around on a motorcycle. Here's a quote from The Rum Diary: “With the palms zipping past and the big sun burning down on the road ahead, I had a flash of something I hadn’t felt since my first months in Europe - a mixture of ignorance and a loose, “what the hell” kind of confidence that comes on a man when the wind picks up and he begins to move in a hard straight line toward an unknown horizon.” Now doesn't that make you want to head right on down to sunny San Juan? I thought so.
Henry Miller; Paris
Though born in Brooklyn, Henry Miller is known for his rather nomadic life that took him first to Paris and then later to California, where he lived for more than half his life. Miller lived for but a decade in Paris (although who among us wouldn't want to live a decade in Paris?) but, whoa. He did a lot of living. Like, a lot. In his later years, Miller renounced Brooklyn as "a place where I knew nothing but starvation, humiliation, despair, frustration, every god damn thing—nothing but misery. Every bloody street I looked down I see nothing but misery, nothing but monsters… Later, when I began to explore it, why, it’s a different city, a little more horrible, gets worse all the time." Miller also once said, “If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Which, I like to think is one of the best things ever said about traveling and makes it all the more imperative to get out of town when you can. Especially when your town—your "anchor"—is squalid and scorching, like Brooklyn is in the summer.
David Sedaris; Amsterdam
Sedaris has written extensively of his travels in Europe, including long stints of living in a farmhouse in Normandy and taking French lessons in Paris. However, it was an essay that he published in The New Yorker almost a decade ago about a trip to Amsterdam that relays the grotesquery inherent with the cultural tourism that's intertwined with, you know, actual tourism. I don't want to ruin this essay for you—it has to do with the Anne Frank museum, competitive real estate markets, and snitches. Anyway, read it. Sedaris also shines when talking about traveling in the US, noting, "Traveling across the United States, it's easy to see why Americans are often thought of as stupid. At the San Diego Zoo, right near the primate habitats, there's a display featuring half a dozen life-size gorillas made out of bronze. Posted nearby is a sign reading CAUTION: GORILLA STATUES MAY BE HOT. Everywhere you turn, the obvious is being stated. CANNON MAY BE LOUD. MOVING SIDEWALK IS ABOUT TO END. To people who don't run around suing one another, such signs suggest a crippling lack of intelligence." Sedaris also has this to say about traveling in Europe: "In Paris you're always surrounded by French people." Which, you can't argue with that.
F. Scott Fitzgerald; French Riviera
Fitzgerald and family spent much of the 20s in France, both in Paris and on the French Riviera. It was while in Cap d'Antibes that Fitzgerald was inspired to write his final complete novel, Tender Is the Night, which is quite plainly autobiographical and about a marriage that is disintegrating due to alcohol, mental instability, and infidelity. The novel somewhat parallels what many vacations can be like; they start off all creamy white pearls on tanned skin and parties with champagne served in coupes with bowls the size and shape of a young woman's breast and end with death and dissolution. What, that wasn't what your last vacation was like? Moving on, then. This is a lovely bit from Tender Is the Night and sort of encapsulates that feeling that sometimes sneaks up on you when you're away from it all: “Somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am to-night.” The trick is holding on to that person, even when you come back home.
E.B. White; Maine
White is known for his children's books Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little (his best) , but also, of course, for his career at The New Yorker, where his voice defined the magazine's "Talk of the Town" for many years. I particularly like this short essay memorializing environmentalist Rachel Carson, in which White mentions the degradation of a pond near his home in Maine. For White, and his wife and fellow New Yorker legend Katherine Angell White, Maine went from being a place to go to a place to be. There is something Thoreau-like about White's honoring of the natural beauty of rural New England, but it never feels like a binary proposition for White; he never rejects society in his pursuit of tranquility. In his essay "Homecoming" White writes about his feelings about entering Maine: “What happens to me when I cross the Piscataqua and plunge rapidly into Maine at a cost of seventy-five cents in tolls? I cannot describe it. I do not ordinarily spy a partridge in a pear tree, or three French hens, but I do have the sensation of having received a gift from a true love. And when, five hours later, I dip down across the Narramissic and look back at the tiny town of Orland, the white spire of its church against the pale-red sky stirs me in a way that Chartres could never do. It was the Narramissic that once received as fine a lyrical tribute as was ever paid to a river—a line in a poem by a schoolboy, who wrote of it, ‘It flows through Orland every day.’ I never cross that mild stream without thinking of his testimonial to the constancy, the dependability of small, familiar rivers.” And don't we all wish that returning home felt like "a gift from a true love"? I'd like to think so.
Vladimir Nabokov; Road-tripping through the American Southwest
Vladimir Nabokov led a peripatetic life, from his childhood in Russia, which included summer jaunts to the French Riviera, to his ex-pat years in Berlin, Paris, America, and, finally, Switzerland. But, in an interview with The Paris Review, Nabokov described himself as being "as American as April in Arizona." Which, April in Arizona? What was Nabokov doing in Arizona? Is there any place that seems less apropos for the elite literary lion? Well, what he was doing, of course, was stalking butterflies. Beyond being a writer, Nabokov was a lepidopterist, and indeed also told TPR that "The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all." So, make like Nabokov this summer and explore the wilds of the American Southwest (by car, naturally, a la Humbert and Lolita) and search for the flying, fleeting creatures that Nabokov so loved.
Ernest Hemingway; Key West
There are so many exotic locales associated with Hemingway: the bullfighting rings of Spain, the cafés of Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, Cuba, the wilds of Wyoming, safaris in East Africa, and the rustic region of Idaho where he lived out his final years. And yet he is also as associated with Key West as much as any place else. It was in Key West that he wrote A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not and it was in Key West that he got into a massive fistfight with Wallace Stevens. And it's mainly Hemingway who is the reason that Key West retains some of the romanticism of the 20s and 30s that really ought to have disappeared with the advent of Jimmy Buffet and Margaritaville. Here is what Hemingway wrote about travel: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Which, sure, that sounds like something that should be (and probably is) on an inspirational poster, but it's also pretty true. And the following exchange is from A Farewell to Arms, which shows that plenty of dark stuff can come out of the Florida Keys:
“Maybe...you'll fall in love with me all over again."
"Hell," I said, "I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?"
"Yes. I want to ruin you."
"Good," I said. "That's what I want too.”
Jonathan Franzen; a Remote Island in the South Pacific
Franzen is an avid bird-watcher. He's written about it extensively, both in non-fiction and in his novel Freedom. But perhaps the farthest he (or any other human?) has traveled in pursuit of an elusive avian species is the almost unreachable island off the coast of Chile that he wrote about in a New Yorker essay titled "Farther Away." The whole essay (not behind the paywall!!!) is a beautiful account not only of the pleasures and torments of bird-watching, but also of how Franzen is dealing with the loss of his close friend, David Foster Wallace. The island, which is actually named "Masafuera" (which means "farther away"), is also an opportunity for Franzen to read Robinson Crusoe again and contemplate the idea of survival and how it pertains in the sense of Crusoe and of how it pertained to someone like Wallace, and also to Franzen himself. It is one of the best essays I know of which addresses one of the main reasons to want an escape: boredom. And not just a little bit of boredom, but the kind of existential boredom that might have contributed to Wallace's suicide, the kind that leads people who live in the most comfortable and luxurious era ever known to man to just stay at home and remain sedentary instead of flying away and exploring new things, aloft on a breeze, just like one of Franzen's birds. Anyway, read this. It's amazing.
David Foster Wallace; Caribbean Cruise
So, not all travel is good. If you want to take a darker view of vacationing, read "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." I mean, sure, you've probably already read it. But read it again, because you'll maybe feel better about the fact that you might not even be able to afford going on vacation? Wallace makes travel sound so terrible, that you'll really be able to feel quite superior for not going anywhere at all, and in fact just staying put in Brooklyn. After all, when you read something like this—“I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture — a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”—you're not going to want to move an inch, except maybe to go to the corner bar and drown your despair in a pint of Evil Twin Pilsner or something. Go ahead and do it. That's definitely one form of escape.
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