Travel literature reconsidered : mobility and subjectivity in Passenger to Teheran
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The critical attention that has been given to Vita Sackville-West’s travel literature has primarily focused on the relationships between these texts and the novels of Virginia Woolf on account of the intimate relationship that existed between the two writers. I argue in this paper that Sackville-West’s travel accounts are worthy of study in and of themselves. This report explores the ways that the genre of travel literature was changing in the early twentieth century through Vita Sackville-West’s Passenger to Teheran (1926). Critics such as Marie Louise Pratt have noted that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British travel accounts had been used as a way to transmit technical knowledge of, and authority over, the East. Sackville-West’s text throws this tradition of the genre into question through its focus on the traveler’s subjectivity. Working from Michel de Certeau’s ideas regarding railway travel and incarceration, I want to demonstrate that the traveler’s subjectivity is augmented by her position as a passenger in various modes of mobility. Ultimately I argue that the privileging of imagination and subjectivity over scientific knowledge found in Passenger to Teheran unravels the traditional epistemology of travel writing which positions the traveler as an authority figure on the East, and instead positions Sackville-West as a traveler-aesthete. This shift in the role of the travel writer reveals that while Pratt’s description characterizes some travel writing, Sackville-West’s travel project is more concerned with discovering the creative potential that travel can stimulate in the mind rather than purporting to reveal facts about the outside world.