Crossroads: Cultural autobiography and imperial discourse

Date of Completion

January 2001


Literature, American




“Crossroads: Cultural Autobiography and Imperial Discourse” explores the intersection of self-representation and the representation of other cultures, classes, and peoples in twentieth-century American non-fiction travel narratives by asking how such narratives shape and reflect what it means to be an American man or woman, of a particular class or ethnic heritage, at specific periods in twentieth century history. “Crossroads” considers intersections of gender, class, ethnic and national identity and the Other in relation to specific moments in national and international culture in the travel narratives of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Martha Gellhorn, A. J. Liebling, Paul Theroux, Mary Morris, Eddy L. Harris, David Mura, and Bette Bao Lord. ^ Due to the high-degree of truth-value associated with travel narratives, “Crossroads” argues that such texts act as a form of “cultural autobiography” in a manner other genres do not. These narratives combine representation of Self with representation of the Other in ways that reveal a great deal about American cultural expectations and assumptions. A study of the personas nonfiction travel writers create, combined with a study of the representation of the Other in these texts, highlights the “horizon of expectations” American readers and writers have about what it means to be American. The connection between narrative persona and the construction of the identity of Others exposes deeply embedded American values and ideological assumptions. ^ “Crossroads” ultimately argues that while changes in American cultural consciousness have led to a greater critical awareness of the social shaping of identity, nationalist impulses still tend to subsume and override such critical consciousness, especially during moments of crisis. Increasingly, however, such uncritical conceptions of others have become problematic. It is the underlying tension between conventional and changing conceptions of identity that makes the travel narrative so powerful and revealing a form. ^