Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Literary Pilgrimage

I see that University of Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill has discovered fandom in his new book, Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, and Bronte's Grave, which was the subject of a recent profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education's PageView blog. His discomfort with readers who make pilgrimages to author-related sites is interesting; if anything, it shows why critics and fans, reading the same books, often exist in completely different universes.

I shouldn't show him, I guess, the photo of me, during a trip to New Orleans in 1989, casually reading a newspaper outside the French Quarter residence of William Faulkner (where he began his career as a writer):

Perhaps, however, my family will sympathize with Goldhill's skepticism. When I suggested a vacation trip to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this summer, so we could visit the home of Herman Melville, they laughed, and then, with some alarm, asked if I was serious. I was.

Literary tourism is a big business, big enough to get a featured in O Magazine articles like "5 Legendary Writers' Homes." It has also been a hot topic in literary studies, where it is generally equated with superficiality and commercialism, the equivalent of taking a pre-packaged bus tour of a city rather than living in a neighborhood and learning the language. Literary pilgrimage has been the subject of satiric novels (like Brocke Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England), as well as condemnatory papers about the public's naive obsession with authenticity or the emotional reality of texts (discussed previously in a Chronicle review, "You've Read the Book, Now Take a Look!," from 2009). Tourism, more generally, has been a hot topic in cultural studies for much of the last decade, the subject of journals like Tourist Studies, or research collectives like UC Berkeley's Tourism Studies Working Group, and also the subject of books in anthropology, literature, history, and music, from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (U. California Press, 1998) to Stephen A. King's I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

From the standpoint of fans, visiting sites associated with various performers, works, or characters is a key element of how they decode works, aesthetize their lives, and shape cultural experience. As far as I can tell, however, work in fan studies has not had any explicit impact on the study of tourism. It might be time to connect that gap by holding some kind of meeting that will enable a sharing of perspectives from anthropology, history, literature, media studies, and religion on fandom and the power of place. Sounds like a good panel, at least, no?

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