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The Value of Literary Tourism for Students While Abroad

Desk of Honore de Balzac
The desk of the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac at his country house in Saché, France.

In the The Chronicle of Higher Education, Randy Malamud wrote a compelling argument in defense of “literary tourism”—travel with a focus on historical locales connected to famous authors. In “You’ve Read the Book, Now Take a Look! Literary Tourism and the Quest for Authenticity” Malamud contends that there is validity in what he calls “touristic readings” of a text. He explains that some academics, such as Nicola J. Watson, condemn literary tourism because “‘only the amateur, only the naïve reader, could suppose there was anything more…to be found on the spot marked X’.” Often the link between tourism and literature—all in the name of a vacation itinerary—does bother me, as well. I have seen behavior and heard comments that have curled my hair. Just a few weeks ago, I overheard a young man say as he stepped off an Amsterdam canal taxi and onto the dock in front of the Anne Frank House, “She wrote a book or something, right?”

Malamud surmises that many academics might find distasteful “literary tourism [because it] involves a cheap appropriation, an amateurish displacement of the text’s aesthetic sanctity….” While I, too, dislike the idea of Shakespeare’s birthplace as just another stop on the itinerary, I believe there is great value in literary tourism. To stand in Bath, England, the reader physically enters the world of Jane Austen. Nothing can match the sheer force of reading Wuthering Heights and then walking the moors above the Brönte parsonage. And it is this sense of place that is the backbone of many short-term study abroad programs offered at American colleges today. Over 50% of our nation’s students are in community colleges. To spend a year abroad is an impossible dream for most, what with jobs, families, responsibility, and poverty demanding their attention. 10 days is possible. A 10-day trip abroad, I can attest, can change a student’s life.

I am a professor of literature, and I lead a study tour every year to a European capital. I take a group of approximately 20 young community college students, who are, for the most part, on their first experience abroad. Their families tend not to travel overseas. If a family member has been abroad, it is usually to Germany, Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. A few students, usually from out-of-state, have travel experience, but the majority of our students look to the faculty to lead them into this new world across the sea.

If I travel abroad to do research—with a capital “R”—then my travel is valid because it is academic in its purpose. For example, I have used my own credentials and the college’s letterhead stationery to gain direct access to Hawthorne’s letters, Yeats’ tower, and the Titanic’s artifacts hauled up from the very bottom of the sea. And yet, these moments of examination cannot hold a candle to my casual travels, when I was a mere literary tourist. It was when I was just traveling for myself that I learned the most. This all seems elitist to me: people with serious work to do have every right to the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace, but everyone else is a tourist, with all the negative connotations that word still often evokes.

Each year, I exchange our house through an international home exchange club. Trading houses with a European family is my family’s own study abroad program—a living and learning plunge into another culture for four weeks. I wrote the first draft of this essay when I was in the Netherlands, just a few kilometers from Germany’s border. We traded our home in Boulder, Colorado, for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath duplex in Heerlen. Our exchange partners’ daughter and grand kids lived upstairs; we lived downstairs. We shared an entryway, garden, and babysitting duty. Over drinks one evening Ramon, the son-in-law, told us that for four long years in the 1940s, Hitler’s army billeted on the very grounds where their house now is.

Heerlen is a short distance from Eindhoven, one of the areas linked forever to 101st Airborne paratroopers. I watched Band of Brothers while in Heerlen, and suddenly, world history became a 3-D experience for me. I experienced what Malamud believes is the perfect mode of literary tourism: “I always read in situ: Dracula among the ruins of Whitby Abbey, overlooking the River Esk….” Serendipitously, the DVD set was simply there in the living room waiting for me. I watched and learned. All the country roads through little towns like Gulpen and Thorn suddenly took on new meaning for me. I asked my husband as we drove, Do you think these trees were here sixty years ago? Could those be bullet holes in that stone barn? What buildings in Eindhoven are still original? Even a simple walk near the house in Heerlen was enough to trigger a sense of walking through history, as I wondered if American GIs crept through these same woods as World War II drew to a close.

I read Anne Frank when I was a girl. I reread the book when I was an adult, and I have taught it to college freshmen. So, when in Amsterdam I waited in the long, long lines to visit the hidden annex on Prinsengracht. As I entered with the crowds in July, my first thought was, Tourism has reduced this tragedy into something mundane. Before I left the United States for this trip to the Netherlands, I reread the diary and watched interviews with Miep Gies and Otto Frank. I knew all I needed to know. Or so I thought. 

To be in the Frank’s annex gave me a glimpse into an existence I would dread to experience myself. Fresh air was just outside, but it was totally unavailable to anyone locked behind the windows. The rooms were dim, and yet bright sunshine glinted off the canals below. Summer must have been difficult for the eight people waiting in the hot upstairs rooms. I wanted to leave. The rooms were so crowded, but I could not move without bumping into someone.

Perhaps the close conditions, the humidity, the cramped quarters, and the whiff of body odor are an integral part of the Anne Frank experience. My husband argued that it was a natural matter of course—crowding happens when thousands of people wish to move through a small space. However, I think that while his argument is true, I think visitor discomfort is intentional. A million visitors quietly move through the Frank’s hidden apartment each year. Anne Frank was just one girl out of a million and a half murdered children. What does being part of a million feel like? What was it like to hide for two years in an airless apartment with too many people? I thought I could imagine Anne Frank’s life; but until I climbed the stairs behind the bookcase, I never fully knew.

And perhaps Anne Frank’s house will lead people to read her book. My son, a small boy of eight, asked if he could read the diary when we are home in Boulder. How many of the million visitors who wait along the canal to step through the bookcase have not read Anne’s diary? How many visitors now will pick up the book after seeing the dark, cramped rooms where the author spent the final two years of her short life? Cannot travel lead to insight? I argue that it can.

Today is August 4th. On this day in 1944, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, Anne Frank, 15, was arrested along with her sister, parents and four other people by German security after they had spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a building in Amsterdam. I closed the newspaper and wept. Had I never been to the Franks’ Secret Annex, I would have read this bit of the newspaper and paused for a moment before moving on to “Dear Abby.” But now, after climbing the very steps where Anne Frank wrote, hoped, and lived, the facts of her arrest profoundly affect me. Anne Frank changed from historical figure into one person who pasted pictures of movie stars on her walls, and had to wait until six o’clock each evening before using the toilet, and planned to see Paris. Anne has become a human being to me. It is that simple.

And literary tourism, I know, strikes my students as profoundly as my walk through the Annex. When they first gaze up at Notre Dame or the Coliseum, a vital learning experience occurs. Just the fact college students are willing to take a look at the places connected to an author or a text deserves our praise. Let’s face it: students have enough distractions in the Twenty-first Century. If they happen to have the extra money to travel, they could just as well go to Cancun and drink away ten days of their young lives. But many do not at my college; they enroll on a 10-day literary tour of Dublin, they read their Wilde and Shaw, they sleep in a hostel, and they write essays on their experiences. This past May, one young man—Jeff Kraus—summed up the Ireland experience like this: “Before I came here, I thought this whole Irish literature thing would be pretty watered-down. But it’s real—and every bit of this country is entwined with everything else, including the literature.”

To be honest, literary tourism and short study abroad programs make me feel better about American education. Of course there are those students who check off study abroad as a measuring stick of accomplishments,but let’s hope that there few people like that. Most student travelers I have led abroad for the last nine years are like us teachers, who read the book and then have to take a look. Most of these students probably will read the book again once they return home. And maybe, just maybe—if we are all lucky—they will teach the great authors, authors who are, according to Malamud, “no more ours than they are theirs, or anyone else’s” to their own students on day.

Jennifer Eisenlau lives and teaches in Boulder County, Colorado. She is the Study Abroad Coordinator for Front Range Community College.

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