The first part of this book deals with Britain’s imperial age, its militants and its critics. The selection of works generates a large field of debate explored using traditional or innovative approaches. The 19th century is presented as a time for writers (J. E. Aylmer, E. Marryat Norris, G. A. Henty, Conan Doyle) who tell stories of Europeans venturing forth into “uncivilised” regions of the world where they meet other races. But writers of a different outlook are also considered. Before the twilight of Empire, women were born in England (Virginia Woolf) and in Ireland (Elizabeth Bowen) who would use the ductile means of literature to narrate journeys into the female self, instead of masculine tales set in distant lands. The imperial experience is a subject of concern and reflection with special interest when authored by natives of (former) colonies, such as Michael Ondaatje’s Hindu/Sirk hero in The English Patient and the Nigerian girls in some of Patience Agbabi’s poems. The idea of travelling into or out of the culture to which one apparently belongs, and the contradictory feelings such an experience causes, pervades the writer’s mind and the ensuing narrative.
The second part can be regarded as a North American miscellany, mostly devoted to the African culture, although also dealing with European heritage. In order to recognise Asian and South American influences as well, authors such as Fred Wah, Ariel Dorfman and Julia Alvarez have been included. Black literature is represented by two 19th century writers, Mary Ann Shadd and Martin R. Delany, who remind us of the fight against slavery and segregation and the path to equality. Various 20th century writers (Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, Harryatte Mullen, August Wilson) address the African-Americans’ quest for identity, presented by some as a journey southwards, away from the place of birth or an unsatisfactory life and in search of self-knowledge in the land of their forefathers. These journeys provide materials for different genres and tones, enabling readers to examine the aspirations and fears of a community whose contribution to the history and literature of America has stimulated continuous study.
The two parts of the book are connected by the underlying discussion of essential conflicts that have occupied “travellers” traversing imperial spaces or experiencing foreign lands as well as “travellers” who, instead of exotic adventures or romantic sojourns, want to settle in a “new” country, be accepted by a nation their ancestors did not know, or exercise rights they were denied on their native soil.