License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport | Geography Book Review

G.T. Dempsey

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Patrick Bixby License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport (University of California Press, 2022), pp. xiii, 230  ISBN: 9780520375857  $24.95

More anecdotal than history, this is still both an engaging and instructive book.  

As our author sees it, the passport is more than a travel document, more than a means of personal identification; rather, it is an existential ‘tool of state power…with dystopian implications’.  

Nothing mundane, then, in his recounting of numerous stories, both true and fictional, of that experience of the temporary loss of ‘liberty’ we all must suffer as we stand before the passport control officer and sense him (or her) deciding our fate as he glances at our face and then back to the computer screen before him, perhaps a question or two, and only then the welcome stamp of approved entry in our passport.

‘Passport ritual’

Bixby terms this the ‘passport ritual.’  Initially, a reader (like me) might think this all a bit much.  But, then, I recalled a number of incidents from my time as a career American diplomat.  

Once, for instance, when I was the weekend duty officer, I fielded a call from a distraught American whose Irish girlfriend had been stopped at passport control in New York on the grounds that she was an intended immigrant and not a tourist as she had claimed.  

The evidence was a letter from him with wedding plans.  ‘They had no right to search her purse,’ he cried.  ‘Actually,’ I replied, as gently as I could, ‘they do have that right.’  

Sadly, they do, I thought to myself as I listened to his lament: ‘It took so long, so long, to get her to come.’  

Now long retired myself, I can only imagine the quantum leap in such personal tragedies played out at passport control most everywhere in this age.

Cultural geography

The operative word in this book’s full title is ‘cultural.’  

The author is a professor of English at Arizona State University, and his methodology is the presentation of one personal account after another of the travails of the ‘passport ritual’ interspersed in a once-over-lightly accounting of the coming into being of the passport itself (primarily for international travel but with some reference to the use of an ‘internal passport’ in authoritarian countries, such as Tsarist Russia).  

His history begins in the Egypt of the pharaohs.  

Indeed, he begins with the curious claim that the mummified corpse of Ramesses II when it was flown to France in 1976 for scientific examination was accompanied by a passport (he even reproduces an illustration of this supposed official Egyptian passport, complete with photograph of Ramesses’ three-thousand-years-old mummified face).  

Bixby demonstrates this all to be no more than an urban myth or, to be kinder, a ‘collective false memory’ (spread by the Internet).

More useful is the subsequent illustration of a cuneiform-imprinted clay tablet from the Late Bronze Age (circa 14th century B.C.).  

One such tablet, written in Akkadian (the lingua franca of the Middle East of this period), bore a safe-conduct for a courier from a local king en route to the pharaoh of Egypt.  

For centuries upon centuries, such safe-conducts for official travel constituted the norm for travel identification documents.  

Pasportis

It was not until the end of the 15th century that the term ‘pasportis’ came into usage in Europe; and it was not until the nineteenth century that the ordinary traveler was required to possess one (until then passports were issued for official business and for those with high official connections, such as English aristocrats engaged in a Grand Tour on the continent).  

The passport morphed from a surety of special treatment to the ‘passport ritual’.  

Stories of encounters with passport officials

The engaging feature of this book are the accounts of individual encounters with passport officers.  

Most are actual such encounters.  But the author also calls on fictional accountings in order to illustrate the ‘psychic investment’ the passport has induced in modern society.  

He is an excellent story-teller, and the tales he lays out for the reader range from the comic to the dread-filled.  He begins with the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business, a surrealistic farce ending with Harpo imprinting the passport officer’s bald head with a visa stamp.   

More realistic (to say the least) and more stressful accounts of passport confrontations are drawn from such novels as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (where a young couple fleeing the war in Italy must convince the Swiss officials of their legal – and financial –  probity) and Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent (which Salman Rushdie read for comfort during his time in hiding from the fatwa).  

True life accounts abound:  James Joyce, Lenin, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Max Ernst, and many many more.  Particularly harrowing are the accounts of those caught up in the bureaucratic barbarities of World War II, such as Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin.  

These accounts alone justify the author’s positing of the ‘passport ritual’ as an existential ceremony.  Read this book and you’ll never again treat your passport so casually.

Dark blue book cover with golden lettering and an elaborate compass rose in gold.

License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport  by Patrick Bixby (affiliate link)

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.

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