“Objects Worthy of Attention”: Modernism and the Travel Guide

In her 1926 essay “Impassioned Prose,” Virginia Woolf seeks to distinguish herself from her Edwardian predecessors, writing that “they ignore [the mind’s] thoughts, its rhapsodies, its dreams . . . while prose itself . . . will be fit . . . to write nothing but the immortal works of Bradshaw and Baedeker.”[1] Like her fellow modern novelists E. M. Forster and Henry James, like Mina Loy with her Lost Lunar Baedeker or T. S. Eliot with his “Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar,” Woolf mentions the famously popular Baedeker travel guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Woolf here seems unconcerned with what the Baedekers and similar guidebooks have to say about changing patterns of tourism and travel, or about how they mediate the relationship between cultures. The content of travel guides—what Roland Barthes sees as the “disease of essence,” the tendency to reduce cultures to “types”—is not the issue for Woolf.[2] Instead, Woolf uses the Baedekers to characterize the language of Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy: a language perfect for the simplest forms of communication, but unsuited to creative expression. The “Bradshaw” to which Woolf refers is probably the Bradshaw railway guide—a textual form reduced to a list of times and city names. Bradshaws and Baedekers impart information, but they don’t express; they don’t, as she says, dream. Woolf defines the modern novel against the travel guide, yet the persistent invocation of guidebooks in fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries points to a deeper connection between them. While the modernist novel and the travel guide both claim to be totalizing genres that can more fully represent the reality of cities or countries, they each confront the limits of that endeavor. Both genres are characterized, I argue, by their selectiveness rather than by their expansiveness. While they attempt synecdochally to construct an encyclopedic portrait of a nation or metropolis, they are faced with the need to choose which people or places or events should be focused on, or, in the words of the Bradshaw, what “objects” are “worthy of attention.”[3