Review | The Best American Travel Writing 2019

G.T. Dempsey


This is the twentieth volume since the establishment of this admirable series at the beginning of this millennium.   An anniversary (of sorts) celebrated by this fine collection.  Past annual issues have been guest-edited by such notable travel writers as Pico Iyer, Anthony Bourdain, Bill Bryson (twice), and Paul Theroux (also twice).  The selection, some two dozen pieces, favors our quality literary journals such as The New Yorker (five) and Harper’s (three), but ranges widely to take in pieces from such outliers as Longreads, Airbnb Magazine, or Buzzfeed.  At the end, there is also a three-page listing of other notable travel writing from the year the book covers.

Upfront it seems wise to note that travel no longer means tourism, if we can judge from the subject matter in this volume.  Which may or may not be a good thing.  As an American diplomat in Spain in the mid-1970s, I was well aware of the crucial role which Spain’s official policy-turn to the promotion of the tourist industry played in the economic development of that country.  From a third-world economy marked by rural poverty, Spain joined the world of modern industrialized democracies.   On the other hand, when I first travelled to Europe in 1961, there was no such thing as a line – to get into museums or art galleries or cathedrals – except for the orderly British queues at bus stops.  Now there are lines even on Mt Everest.  So, don’t expect any accounts of sightseeing in this book.

Rather, these pieces feature either dangerous places or the pursuit of the exotic.  In the first category, we visit, separately, Kashmir (and its ‘equation’ with ‘terrorists’), Myanmar, post-apocalyptic Chernobyl, Cairo during mass protests and a coup (featuring a wonder cat named Morsi), Haiti, Cambodian floating villages inhabited by ethnic Vietnamese, the U.S. Virgin Islands during hurricane after hurricane, Cuba (where the visitor’s father, a Cuban-born American, is denied entry), two contrasting accounts of travel in today’s China, and both the Norwegian and the Siberian Arctic.

Neither of the latter two are what you might expect.  In Norway, that treacherous narrow stretch of the Arctic border between Norway and Russia is the crossing point for migrants fleeing war.  Here, ‘where land meets sea, where water meets ice, where taiga meets open tundra, where even the membrane between day and night is always shifting,’ desperate people, first from Afghanistan and Syria and, now, from elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia, have discovered a passageway into the West.  Russia is happy to see them go.  It’s both a disturbing and a liberating account.  That concerning the Siberian Arctic is wholly disturbing.  Initially an account of reindeer-herding by the indigenous Nenets, it skews shockingly into the devastation caused by the appearance of anthrax in the herds.  Scientists lay the outbreak on rising temperatures which thawed the corpses of reindeer infected with anthrax perhaps centuries ago, releasing the long-preserved spores.  Thus far, the Russian government has failed to seriously address the epidemic, which would require acknowledging global warming, its failure most likely due to the country’s overdependence on its fossil fuel industry.   Perhaps even more ominous are the findings of still-active viruses, including that which drove the 1919 global flu pandemic, in a 30,000-year-old slice of Siberian permafrost.

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In our second category of the pursuit of the exotic, we are taken on searches for the chile pepper (a global quest), the Tasmanian tiger, the Sumatran orangutan, and lionfish. Perhaps we could include here William T. Vollmann’s capsule account of the mechanical monsters of World War I: ‘One of the British monsters…was named “Deborah”…[with a] round-tipped quadrilateral shape…like a riveted roach or crocodile….’   And, then, we are also treated, revealingly, to a visit to a Swiss finishing school for young women (with a price-tag of $30,000 for its summer course).

Uniformly, these are travel articles as well-informed as they are well-written.  They tell us, first-hand, what the writer experiences as set against the normative environment of the history informing it all.  This is what good travel writing does.  We are entertained, yes, but we are also invited to learn.  We are set lessons by the truly observant.  The guest editor, in her introduction, writes that ‘Great travel writing doesn’t only awaken us…it also emboldens, inspires, and shakes us.’  She has, with one exception, chosen well.

The one sour note.  The pieces are ordered alphabetically by author, which is unfortunate for it puts in pride-of-place, the lead article, a piece which from a promising start – a relook at Stephen Crane’s war reporting from Cuba during the Spanish-American War – descends precipitously into malignant fantasy history.  It should not have been included.

Alexandra Fuller, guest editor The Best American Travel Writing 2019 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), pp. xviii, 378  ISBN: 9780358094234  Ppk $15.99 (publication date: 1 October 2019)


A review copy of this book was received from the publisher. 

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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.