What is a Travelogue?

by Travel Writing World
travelogue
From Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

Travel writing is a genre that is becoming increasingly popular. It seems that each week a new travel book gets published and every day more writers are interested in writing one. Yet, as interest in travel writing grows, so too does the need to clarify the questions: What exactly is a travelogue? And how does it compare to a travel book?

What is a travelogue?

A travelogue is a truthful account of an individual’s experiences traveling, usually told in the past tense and in the first person.

The word travelogue supposedly comes from a combination of the two words travel and monologue. In turn, the word monologue comes from the Greek words monos (alone) and logos (speech, word). A travelogue is then, in its most basic form, a spoken or written account of an individual’s experiences traveling, which usually appears in the past tense, in the first person, and with some verisimilitude.

Because a travelogue aims to be a true account of an individual’s experiences traveling, descriptions of what the traveler sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels in the external world while traveling are essential components

Of course, thoughts, feelings, and reflections are important parts of our experience of travel. So, descriptions of a traveler’s inner world are not out-of-place in the travelogue.

Likewise, notes and observations on history, society, and culture are also common features of travelogues, as we certainly learn about the world when we travel.

If you want to write a better travel stories, check out our tips to write better travelogues.

What are the types of travelogue?

A travelogue can exist in the form of a book, a blog, a diary or journal, an article or essay, a podcast, a lecture, a narrated slide show, or in virtually every written or spoken form of creation. 

There are many examples of travelogues online in the form of “travel blogs.”

However, not all travel blogs are travelogues in the pure sense of the term because some of their authors are less concerned with giving personal accounts of their own experiences traveling than capturing internet search traffic by providing tips, advice, or practical information about travel.

For example, they claim to present the “best things to do” in a particular destination instead of “what I did” there. Though, some travel blogs do publish hybrid travelogues that also provide tips and advice in order to market their travel services.

Travelogue books

Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad is a good example of a travelogue in book form. While it was published as a book in the 19th century, it is perhaps best characterized as a travelogue by today’s standards and not as a modern travel book. The frontispiece of the first edition in 1869 explains why:

The Innocents Abroad Frontispiece

In The Innocents Abroad, Twain gives us and “account of the steamship Quaker City’s pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents and adventures, as they appeared to the author.” It is a descriptive account of his travels and thoughts, sometimes funny and often bigoted. He tells us what he saw and what he felt while also offering historical and cultural remarks on the places he visited.

While it is well-written, I’m not sure the book has a story, a plot, a narrative arc, or a storyline that holds everything together. These are features seldom found in travelogues, R. K. Wilson reminds us in his 1973 study The Literary Travelogue.

A destination isn’t a story. Neither is simply going from one place to another.

Instead, The Innocents Abroad is an account of Twain’s holiday, written as if were a letter to his mother half a world away. “Dear Mom,” we imagine the book starting.

Oh, wait:

What is a travelogue?
The Innocents Abroad Dedication to “My Aged Mother”

Travelogues vs. travel books

As we have seen in the example above, a travelogue can exist in the form of a book. But this does not mean that it is the same thing as a travel book as we understand it today. 

Indeed, terms like travelogue and travel book often get conflated. “Even [E.M.] Forster is uncertain what to call these things,” Paul Fussell wrote in his book Abroad. “In 1941 he calls them travelogues, in 1949 travel books.” Like Forster, Fussell conflates the terms.

In the last 100 years or so, we have seen the travel book evolve from the travelogue and mature into a more rarefied thing with its own set of stylistic and formal expectations. Carl Thompson calls this the modern travel book, a concept he discusses in the early chapters of his academic study Travel Writing

While it can appear in book form and evoke a day-to-day account like a logbook, a ship’s log, or a captain’s log, a travelogue does not necessarily have the formal dimensions and stylistic conceits of the modern travel book.

A travelogue does not necessarily have the formal dimensions and stylistic conceits of the modern travel book.

This is not to say that travelogues are not insightful or uninteresting. Quite the opposite. They are incredibly revealing and can expose a tremendous amount of information about the world, the writer, and the reader.

But the modern travel book is a different beast. Among other important distinctions, modern travel books and modern travelogue have stories, plots, and through-lines. A mission, quest, or journey isn’t a story in and of itself.

Perhaps making a distinction between a travelogue and the modern travel book is an elitist or academic move. But perhaps it is no more pompous to say this than it is to say that a modern novel has a specific form and style different from its earlier iterations.

Is the travel book a “sub-species of memoir,” as Fussell notes? Is travel writing even a genre? How do travelogues fit into the travel writing landscape?

Travel writing historians and scholars do not agree upon the definitions and boundaries of travel writing. The one thing they agree on is that there is no consensus on the definition. To that point, Thompson writes, “the boundaries of the travel writing genre are fuzzy, and there is little point in policing them too rigidly.”


P.S.: At the time of writing this, the Wikipedia article on The Innocents Abroad says that the book “presents itself as an ordinary travel book based on an actual voyage” (emphasis added). We’ll leave it at that.

Last Updated on 3 December 2020 by Travel Writing World

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