He speaks for the 19th-century Romantic tradition where the hero, introspective and melancholy, consciously discards social conventions and, in doing so, sometimes even gains greater power over other people.
But where does this “itch” come from? One particular bout broke out in the early 20th century, when many graduates—often from Oxbridge—found themselves with the means to travel more cheaply and safely than before. Somewhat averse to joining the London set, banking and lawyering their way through the gilded age (sound familiar?), and terrified of being domesticated by modern life, they left England to become romantic heroes in their own right. Along the way they mutated into state spies, aviators, and colonial rebels.
The Great War did not improve matters. The writer Cyril Connolly—cheery fellow this one—wrote to his friend that he was “tired of the country...I do feel it is a dying civilization—decadent, but in such a damned dull way—going stuffy and comatose instead of collapsing beautifully like France.” Similarly, returning from India in 1922, E.M. Forster described post-war England with an oriental flourish—as “a person who has folded her hands and stands waiting.”
And so they left. Having an empire helped of course—I hear we have internships in Iraq—but it was merely the setting and not the source of this craving.
There is the case of Graham Greene, who after Balliol chose not to join his family business. After an uninspiring spell in journalism, he decided to go into the Liberian interior. At the time Liberia was a large white space on the map marked “cannibals.”
You have other sorts of travelers: Robert Byron, after his time at Eton and Oxford, paid for his Tibet trip piecemeal by serializing articles about it. There is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the thoughtful French aviator who piloted his way around Algerian skies and Saharan camels before becoming at one point—randomly—director of the Aeroposta Argentina Company.
And Saint-Exupéry and Byron are very different from Christopher Isherwood, whose stay in Berlin seems to have been motivated chiefly, as one person put it, by the ready supply of German boys. Weimar was the place to be in the early interwar years, and Isherwood was there, writing a gloriously camp version of the rise of Nazism.
In America today, William Langewiesche is one of the few heirs of the solitary wanderlust tradition. He is also the best, fashioning himself as a modern day Hemingway-cum-Indiana Jones. Perusing short biographies of him, I find they do not mention his stint at Stanford as an undergraduate, as if it were too common to emphasize.
Like Saint-Exupéry, he became a professional aviator for many years, and only later began writing for The Atlantic Monthly, submitting his first piece with a simple note: “Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria.” His most recent book was “The Atomic Bazaar,” an investigative piece about the arms trade in Central Asia, bringing to mind the image of someone walking across the desert with a white shirt and khaki breeches—maybe even an immaculate kaffiyeh slung around the neck.
Writing, of course, is the ultimate romantic job, the soft, fluffy plume of the go-it-aloners, and it has always been a little unpredictable. Langewiesche put it best when he said in a recent interview, “It’s a crap-shoot. We know it. But we are the people who decided we weren’t going to become doctors and lawyers. So it’s a very difficult road to walk. Always has been.”
You may have noticed the distinct lack of such people around Cambridge. Harvard bakes its mandarins good, and we don’t fly around the system so much as prop it up. There are some awfully complicated explanations for why this is the case. What matters in the end though, I think, is the fear of vertigo, of free-falling—that is, the mistake of not taking human agency seriously enough.
Walker Percy put it more simply. “I had discovered,” he said, “that a person does not have to be this or be that or be anything, not even oneself.
One is free.”
Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.