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Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Myth Of Foreign Travel–Sinclair Lewis And The Tragedy Of ‘Dodsworth’

One of the first things that lottery winners always do with their money is travel; and for those who have led lives without much opportunity, nothing can seem more exciting, romantic, and fulfilling.  Moreover, travel is the very symbol of wealth and privilege.  The very rich may have homes in Palm Beach and Bel Air, but they also have chalets in Gstaad, winter homes on St. Bart’s, and a pied-a-terre on the Piazza Navona or overlooking the Jardin de Luxembourg.

No matter how luxurious homes in the United States may be, those on the Mediterranean have a special and enviable cachet.   It is one thing to entertain the best and the brightest of American society; but another thing altogether to party with princes, kings, Milanese models, and aristocrats in Rimini or St. Tropez.

Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth is a story about a Midwestern businessman – patriotic, enthusiastic about everything American, and dismissive of the aristocratic decadence of Old Europe – and his ambitious wife for whom Europe is everything that America could never be.  Dodsworth loves the industry and no-nonsense practicality of America.  He loves factories, department stores, trains and cars.  He loves America’s cities, prairies, and small towns. 

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“Europe?”, asks a friend.
Rats! Dead's a doornail! Place for women and long-haired artists. Dead! Only American loans that keep 'em from burying the corpse! All this art! More art in a good shiny spark-plug than in all the fat Venus de Mylos they ever turned out. Naw! Go take a run through California, maybe grab a drink of good liquor in Mexico, and then come with us.
His wife finds her husband’s America boring, ugly, and unimpressive, wants higher culture, sophistication, and breeding.  Not only does she dismiss her husband’s home-grown ambitious, she ridicules him for his low-brow tastes and lack of imagination.
She had a high art of deflating him, of enfeebling him, with one quick, innocent-sounding phrase. By the most careless comment on his bulky new overcoat she could make him feel like a lout in it; by crisply suggesting that he "try for once to talk about something besides motors and stocks," while they rode to a formidable dinner to an elocutionary senator, she could make him feel so unintelligent that he would be silent all evening. The easy self-confidence which weeks of industrial triumphs had built up in him she could flatten in five seconds. She was, in fact, a genius at planting in him an assurance of his inferiority.
He is quintessentially American in his simplicity, optimism, and belief in work, progress, and reward; but she is no less so in her social ambition.  It is not enough to be wealthy if the privileges it offered were no more than men’s clubs, women’s auxiliaries, social rectitude, and marriage.
But perhaps we'll get us some new selves, without losing the old ones. You'd--oh, you could be so magnificent, so tall and impressive and fine, if you'd let yourself be, if you didn't feel you had to be just an accessory to a beastly old medium-priced car, if you'd get over this silly fear that people might think you were affected and snobbish if you demanded the proper respect from them!
There are great people in the world--dukes and ambassadors and generals and scientists and----And I don't believe that essentially they're one bit bigger than we are. It's just that they've been trained to talk of world-affairs, instead of the price of vanadium and what Mrs. Hibbletebibble is going to serve at her Halloween party. I'm going to be one of 'em! I'm not afraid of 'em!
The go to Europe, and while she finds her way, he can only think of home:
New York on a winter night, with the theaters blaring and the apartment-houses along Park Avenue vanishing up into the wild sky rosy from a million lights. Vermont on an autumn afternoon, with the maples like torches.
Midsummer in Minnesota, where the cornfields talked to themselves, and across miles of rolling wheatland, dimpling to the breeze, you saw the tall red wheat-elevators and the spire of the German Catholic Church. The grave silence of the wilderness: plateaus among the scarred peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, painted buttes in Arizona, Wisconsin lakes caressing in dark waters the golden trunks of Norway pines.
The fan-lights above serene old Connecticut doorways in Litchfield and Sharon. Proud cold sunsets in the last five minutes of the Big Game at Thanksgiving-time--Illinois vs. Chicago, Yale vs. Harvard--yes, and quite as aching with sentimental and unforgettable and lost sweetness, Schnutz College vs. Maginnis Agricultural School.
Cities of a quarter of a million people with fantastic smoky steel works, like maniac cathedrals, which had arisen in twenty years upon unpeopled sand-barrens. The long road and a rather shaggy, very adventurous family in a squeaky flivver, the new Covered Wagon, starting out to see all the world from Seattle to Tallahassee, stopping to earn their bacon and bread and oil by harvesting; singing at night in tourist camps on the edge of wide-lawned towns----

Meanwhile “Fran's life became hectic as life can be only in Paris: a ride in the Bois, lunch, shopping, tea, bridge, cocktails, dressing, dinner, the theater, dancing at such icily glittering haunts as the Jardin de Ma Soeur, cold cream and exhausted sleep.”

Dodsworth never loses his longing for America, the Midwest, his friends, and his work.  In Europe he is an unwanted, uncomfortable interloper.  Although he feels he should be engaged by its cathedrals, style, sophistication, and elegance, he is not.  These are foreign things which he will never understand and part of a life to which he will never belong. 

His wife has made him feel inferior, incompetent, and clumsy; but as much as he tries to accommodate to European ways, he cannot.  His heart is not in it.  He will never be anything other than he is.  He can never exchange his self for another as his wife suggested and has tried to do.

She, on the other hand, refuses to see how foreign she really is, how Europeans have no interest in a such a common American whose pretensions are obvious, and whose energy and intelligence mean little.   She has affairs with old men whose title is all that remains of their aristocracy, wealthy expatriates whose pretensions are only less obvious than hers but just as insistent, and jolly women who find her amusing.  She has no idea that real bona fide Europe would never and will never accept her. 
“Fran's liking for the glories of a Count, however dimmed” leads to her separation from Dodsworth.  Despite her cruel dismissiveness, obvious social ambition, and selfish interests, Dodsworth still loves her; and after she leaves, he is disconsolate. She, his simple life in Zenith, America, and his sense of place and purpose had all been one.  Now that she was gone, he was alone, dispirited, and without the roots which once were taken for granted.

Dodsworth had been betrayed by his wife who had been seduced by the idea of foreign travel.  She naively believed that one could ‘change selves’, that changing personality and even character given the right environment were indeed possible.  Deeply in love with her, he went along.
For Lewis the myth of travel is a tragedy.
Since the days of Alexander the Great there has been a fashionable belief that travel is agreeable and highly educative. Actually, it is one of the most arduous yet boring of all pastimes and, except in the case of a few experts who go globetrotting for special purposes, it merely provides the victim with more topics about which to show ignorance…The Great Traveler has shot lions in Siberia and gophers in Minnesota, and played tennis with the King at Stockholm. He can give you a delightful evening discoursing on Tut's tomb and the ethnology of the Maoris.
Actually, the great traveler is usually a small mussy person in a faded green fuzzy hat, inconspicuous in a corner of the steamer bar. He speaks only one language, and that gloomily…He is as valuable as Baedeker in regard to hotels and railroads, only not so accurate.
He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all…
These are the laws of travel…
It is the awful toil which is the most distressing phase of travel. If there is anything worse than the aching tedium of staring out of car windows, it is the irritation of getting tickets, packing, finding trains, lying in bouncing berths, washing without water, digging out passports, and fighting through customs. To live in Carlsbad is seemly and to loaf at San Remo healing to the soul, but to get from Carlsbad to San Remo is of the devil.
Actually, most of those afflicted with the habit of traveling merely lie about its pleasures and profits. They do not travel to see anything, but to get away from themselves, which they never do, and away from rowing with their relatives--only to find new relatives with whom to row. They travel to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as they might play solitaire, work cross-word puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity.
These things the Dodsworths discovered, though, like most of the world, they never admitted them.
Paul Theroux, like the best travel writers, takes foreign travel seriously.  It is never just a desire to see other things, but to make sense out of the difference between them and one’s own conditioned perspective.  In The Tao of Travel, he wrote:
You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.

Dodsworth understood this, and his wife never did.  Europe did nothing but corroborate what he already knew.  He was and would always be a simple, principled, and devotedly American.  He could never see Europe other than through American eyes, with American perspective, and with American values. 

He never became xenophobic and a ‘booster’, a Babbitt, an increasingly insular and nationalistic patriot.  He knew and appreciated his American roots, but never was aware that one’s own culture was so defining and essential.  ‘Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture’, wrote Theroux; and through his experience in Europe, Dodsworth indeed focused more than he ever had on who he was and where he belonged.

For Theroux travel is never an end in itself. No matter how much learns about the place visited, unless there is a personal purpose to the visit – planned or unexpected – the effort has been worthless. 

Worse, as Lewis claims, is the desire “to escape thinking, to have something to do, just as [one] might play solitaire, work cross-word puzzles, look at the cinema, or busy themselves with any other dreadful activity”.  

Vladimir Nabokov, as quoted by Theroux is more generous:
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values.

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The desire to travel is also a function of age.  Most younger people see travel as an exciting adventure – new, unexplored places, the unexpected.  Welcome surprises, steps out of the ordinary.   Most older people have turned inward in an attempt to figure out what’s what before it is too late.  Death is the consummate journey, all the more frightening and compelling because of its unknowability.


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