So What?

No, this isn’t some sort of horrifyingly nihilist first post for 2013. This is a comment on a piece of rubbish masquerading as a history called Travelers and Travel Liars by Percy G. Adams.

(Not to be too childish, but I suppose I should’ve known I was in trouble right from the “Percy,” yes?)

I picked up a Dover copy of this little darlin’ on a $1 cart somewhere in Boston and thought it would make a nice quick vacation read during the past 10 days. Well. It was quick. -Ish.

Writing in 1962, Mr. Adams would like to blame all travel authors prior to 1890 — or thereabouts — for their egregious mistakes made in not consulting basic 20th century reference works before composing their own manuscripts. He would also like travel authors to strip themselves of any and all personal biases, political or religious beliefs, or reasons for travelling prior either to travelling or writing about their travels. For preference, he’d like it if people drew maps — carefully checking them past Rand-McNally first — or encyclopedia articles — checking them past Britannica or Americana as necessary, of course.

Outside of meeting those few simple standards, Mr. Adams has no hesitation about clapping various terms of opprobrium straight on the chests of authors: liar, falsifier, mendacious, prejudiced — he does everything but resort to calling authors who don’t meet his rather peculiar standards for a ‘truthful’ travel tale ‘Fibby Fibby McFib Pants,’ but he’s not far off.

I’m not entirely sure how the original explorers of, say, North America were meant to be aware of the exact cartographic outlines of major rivers like the Mississippi or Missouri or the intricacies of Hudson’s Bay when travelling 50 miles could be an adventure involving not only new landscape but new people, new languages, new bugs, new animals, new weather… But apparently they were supposed to know all this and Mr. Adams is going to hold them responsible for not knowing it.

This is a deeply frustrating book to read if for no other reason than Adams seems to have absolutely no wider vision about his topic at all and treats all authors who strayed from his particular vision of the — historicized, 20th century, cartographical, mathematical, statistical — truth as wilful liars.

If nothing else, has he never heard of ‘a good story’?

Beyond that fairly facile explanation, how about ‘they didn’t have satellite maps’ or ‘money’ or ‘telling the king/queen what he/she wants to hear so you don’t end up dead’ or ‘received truth’? While Adams claims that making money or getting famous are perfectly reasonable explanations for most of the authors he decries as liars to have done what they did, he never says that any of them got particularly rich. In fact, several he mentions as dying relatively impoverished, their grandiose travel narratives having gotten them very little.

Adams writes as if those authors who strayed from the absolute, 100% truth were deliberate, wilful liars with some agenda to push that the lies would forward.

They weren’t.

Mostly, they were confused, trying to keep themselves afloat, perhaps trying to gain royal attention or get a patron for another voyage or pay the rent or tell a good story. Some of them genuinely believed their confused narratives or found them getting more confused over time as more people traversed the same geography and came back with conflicting narratives: “Hey, wait, I saw a mountain there, I swear — how did he see a valley?” Explanations that seem simple to us — and Adams — like obscuring fog rolling in off a nearby body of water that was unknown at the time are brought up as partial excuses for some authors but only for those who otherwise adhere to Adams’ 20th century vision.

One of my friends in graduate school used to talk about the ‘sin of presentism’ and I’ve never seen a worse example of that very sin than this piece of rubbish that ate several hours of my life.

Don’t bother with Mr. Adams’ ill-thought out piece of work. Go and read a real travel narrative instead: Mary Kingsley or Mungo Park, Fridtjof Nansen or Roald Amundsen, R.L. Stevenson or Robert Goodsir.

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