Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film

Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film

by Jennifer Lynn Peterson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822354536
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/22/2013
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jennifer Lynn Peterson is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5453-6



VARIETIES OF TRAVEL EXPERIENCE Burton Holmes and the Travelogue Tradition

Travel accounts have been produced for millennia, but the travelogue is a multi-media form that emerged at the dawn of the twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a travelogue as "an (illustrated) lecture about places and experiences encountered in the course of travel; hence a film, broadcast, book, etc., about travel; a travel documentary." The term is usually considered a neologism by the travel lecturer Burton Holmes. The film historian X. Theodore Barber writes, for example, "In 1904 Holmes coined the term 'travelogue' to refer to his show, thereby giving it a greater air of novelty." I have not found corroborating evidence that Holmes coined the term, however, and in fact Charles Musser has located a usage of the word by someone other than Holmes as early as 1899. Regardless of the word's true origin, Holmes did claim to be its originator, and he was certainly the one who popularized it with his renowned illustrated lecture series that toured the United States from the 1890s through the 1950s.

Illustrated travel lectures were hugely popular in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. In these presentations, live lecturers described foreign lands before a paying audience, accompanying their talks with magic lantern slides. These public speakers, almost always men, were usually celebrity travelers or scholars, which gave them the requisite aura of cultural authority to perform as experts. Lecturers typically took credit for the photographic images that accompanied their talks, even if they had not taken the slides themselves (lantern slides were manufactured and sold by a number of firms). John L. Stoddard, Alexander Black, Lyman Howe, and Dwight L. Elmendorf are some of the other prominent American travel lecturers, but Holmes was the most famous of his contemporaries; in his heyday, he was a well-known media figure.

Because the word "travelogue" was first associated with the phenomenon of the illustrated travel lecture, it is directly connected to the visual medium of photography and associated with public exhibition contexts. In 1897, Holmes became one of the first travel lecturers to incorporate motion pictures into his presentations. What was new about the Holmesian travelogue model and what sets travelogues apart from prior travel accounts is their expanded multimedia hybridity: not just photographic slides and a lecture but now also moving pictures. Even with the broadening of the term "travelogue" later in the twentieth century to include travel literature—and sometimes even travel literature without accompanying photographs—it is clear that hybridity is central to the conceit. (Bruce Chatwin's books, which are often called travelogues, were published without photographs, for example, although he was in fact an avid photographer.)

The travelogue film's most immediate predecessor, and the entertainment form to which it bears the closest resemblance, is the illustrated travel lecture. But there are important differences of voice between travel lectures and travel films. Recent scholarship on travel literature has argued that travel writing tends to be more about the narrating subject than the places through which the narrator travels. In literary travel accounts, the One Who Travels is usually also the Author. Similarly, illustrated travel lectures were marketed largely on the appeal of the lecturer rather than the subject matter he or she presented. Audiences went to see a lecture by John Stoddard or Burton Holmes, not a lecture about Morocco, for example. Travel lectures not only documented other places and other people, they also documented the self—and not so much a "real" self as the lecturer's constructed public persona.

Unlike travel lectures, however, travelogue films exhibited in commercial moving picture theaters typically lacked a first-person narrator. In early cinema, the director was not yet an important category; when any credit was given in this era, it was the name of the production company. Before the sound era, travelogue films narrated in an omniscient voice. This changed with the introduction of synchronized sound, when figures like James A. Fitzpatrick and Lowell Thomas narrated travelogue films for the major studios such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Fox. Holmes was also a pioneer in this area, producing a commercial travelogue film series for Paramount in 1916—although, of course, the series lacked sync sound and thus the specificity of Holmes's speaking voice. But in the early cinema period, travelogue films invoked a generalized, disembodied subject rather than exploring any individual subjectivity (that of Holmes or some other narrating author). The "speaker" in silent-era travelogue films is not a specific person but a kind of ghostly amalgam of the (unseen) cameraman, the production company, and official (or commercial) Western culture at large.

While much of this book will dispense with questions of authorship in favor of examining the travelogue film as an industrial phenomenon (and because directors are unknown for most of these films), in this chapter I analyze an author figure in order to contrast travelogue films with travel lectures. Burton Holmes, as the celebrity "father figure" most identified with travelogues, provides a useful starting point for analyzing the travelogue's particular mode of spectator address, and for investigating the tensions and contradictions at the heart of the turn-of-the-century imperial ideology that fueled these representations of travel. As Jeanette Roan has argued, Holmes's lectures differed from those of his predecessors (such as Stoddard) in that he strove to create for his audiences the illusion of actually traveling: "Holmes invited his audience to feel ... for themselves through what would be known today as ... perceptual point-of-view shot[s]." As Roan suggests, Holmes offered himself either as a first-person surrogate for the spectator's perception of travel or as a broader "figure of identification for his audience." I would add to this observation that Holmes also might have functioned as a figure of resistance for some spectators.

In this chapter I analyze the tradition of the illustrated travel lecture in the context of the larger visual culture of travel in the late nineteenth century. My aim is to trace the influence of a figure such as Holmes, who had a strong authorial presence, on the commercial travelogue film of the 1900s and 1910s, which depicted places without an authorial voice, so to speak. The suffix "-logue" usually refers to a speaking subject, as in "monologue." To understand the travelogue film, it is important to understand its origin in the live lecture tradition. Lacking a live narrator or a narrating figure within the film, early travelogue films make room for the spectator's own subjectivity, opening up space for the audience to interact with the film in personal or unexpected ways. Ultimately, I argue, the absence of the authorial figure in early commercial travelogue films enabled the viewing subject to become a stronger participant with the film as a text, encouraging open-ended interpretations, projections, and spectator fantasies.

The Visual Culture of Travel

If travel is about encountering difference, then a variety of media have long been marketing this experience to consumers who do not actually travel. By the end of the nineteenth century, travel had found its way into just about every popular representational form. Against a backdrop of economic and social upheaval, imperial expansion, and growing consumerism, a multitude of popular media contributed to a veritable craze for travel imagery. Before the emergence of cinema in the 1890s, images of travel and foreign lands had been hugely popular in illustrated magazines such as Harper's and The Century, as well as in photographs, stereographs, chromolithographs, and a variety of other media. The travel film, like much early cinema, poached from preexisting media for its own content and structure. As Tom Gunning has put it, "Cinema did not immediately appear with a defined essence as a medium, but rather, displayed an amazing promiscuity (if not polymorphic perversity) in both its models and uses." Travelogue films quickly became an important part of this broad network of travel representations, drawing on the conventions and tropes established by previous forms of media. Like these other kinds of travel representation, travel films shaped a new sense of what could be pictured in the modern world. Unlike these other representations, however, travelogue films added the crucial element of movement to travel imagery. The films also addressed the spectator in ways that differed from these non-cinematic forms, resulting in an experience of virtual travel that was entirely singular in the era.

A survey of all of the different nineteenth-century travel media would easily overflow into another book, so I restrict myself to making just a few points about represented travel in this era. First of all, it is important to note that travel is one of the common threads running through virtually all nineteenth-century (pre-cinema) visual culture. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of an entertainment form from this period that did not take up travel as subject matter. Second, the spaces in which these travel media were consumed can be divided into public and private spheres, with different effects on spectatorship for each category. Travel literature, illustrated magazines, stereographs, and postcards were consumed in the private domain of the home, while travel lectures, panoramas, dioramas, zoos, museums, World's Fair exhibitions, and fairgrounds were public experiences.

Given the ubiquity of interest in exoticism at the time, the differences between media are more numerous than the similarities. World's Fair displays are an important precursor to the travelogue film, but even in this one kind of venue, a variety of different attractions were available. World's Fair exhibitions featured installation and performance-oriented travel displays such as dioramas, panoramas, and native villages that could be experienced only by a live, on-site audience. For example, Emmanuelle Toulet has described how the Universal Exposition in Paris of 1900 offered both "traditional" displays, such as "the Panorama of the Congo, the Panorama of Madagascar, [or] the Diorama of the Sahara," which featured painted canvases that did not move, and the "animated" or "moving" panorama, with a painted canvas that "was not only mobile, but formed part of a full mise-en-scène which sought to create a complete change of environment." The variety of displays here is astonishing, and many of these attractions share similarities with the cinema. The movement of the panorama, as opposed to the stationary diorama, for example, anticipates the movement of cinema. But at the same time, each entertainment form provided something the others did not. As Alison Griffiths has emphasized, World's Fairs "often provided opportunities for direct spectator contact with native peoples appearing in the exhibits (an experience that also relates to the reciprocal fascination of the indigenous peoples with Westerners), unlike the cinema audience's always-mediated and temporally dissociated experience of the Other." In other words, live displays provided direct contact that was precluded by cinema.

World's Fair displays also straddled the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction with their combination of real bodies presented in staged environments with painted backdrops that emphasized the fairground nature of the display. In the early cinema period, the boundary between fiction and nonfiction was defined differently from how it is defined today. Finally, as Mark Sandberg has pointed out, for visitors to exhibitions and museums, "Spectators' impressions of their own mobility still depended ... insistently on the actual mobility and assembly of objects and bodies in the physical world.... A photograph could bring the Alps to the viewer without moving mountains, so to speak, but a museum display had to do just that to be true to its object." Material travel displays required the movement of actual bodies and objects, while travel lectures and cinematic travel displays provided a very different experience of mobility. Not only does the spectator not move in the cinema, but the material on display has not moved, either; instead, what has moved is the apparatus (camera, film print, photographer). In each instance, the goal is to move the spectator emotionally and intellectually, but the effects of these different stagings are quite variable.

Another constitutive tension in the nineteenth-century visual culture of travel, which was later picked up by travel films, is the opposition between the "scientific" displays of World's Fairs and museums versus the more explicitly amusement-oriented pastimes of the fairground. This tension between education and entertainment also created a contrast between representations that emphasized the spectacular aspects of foreignness and representations that emphasized the realism and everyday life of the foreign. I am certainly not the first to point out this tension between the exotic and the everyday in travel displays, which has been analyzed by Barbara Stafford, Vanessa Schwartz, and others. In an article about the "ethnographic" exhibitions of non-Western people by the German showman Carl Hagenbeck, Eric Ames argues that "the ethnographic exhibition inadvertently counteracted its very premise that exotic peoples are inherently spectacular.... Live display de-exoticized the other, rendering it familiar and comprehensible, without destroying the lure of the exotic." What is significant here is the historical specificity of this tension in the late nineteenth century and how it changed in the early film period of the 1900s and 1910s. The cinema's addition of represented movement and spatial fragmentation to this tension created new forms of abstraction in this tradition of instructive entertainment. As we shall see, some travel films embody a detached "scientific" curiosity while others are more sensationalizing, but often the same film hits both registers. Travel films, like earlier forms of instructive entertainment, challenge the division between science and sensation.

What is striking about these various travel representations is how they tend to invoke a sense of wonder and awe. World's Fairs and illustrated magazines certainly could have emphasized other aspects, such as the economic and social conditions of the locales being documented, but nineteenth-century travel entertainments overwhelmingly favored the depiction of a particular kind of world: a world not in turmoil but filled with astonishing sights. Picking up on the distinction between tourists and immigrants that I began to develop in the introduction, we might say that travel imagery of the late nineteenth century constructs a tourist vision of the world at the expense of a migrant vision of the world, and in so doing offers a new image of the globe as an endless series of commodified landscapes.

Travel lectures, illustrated magazine articles, and stereographs make this tourist experience quite literal by narrating the travel route that was taken as locations are described and photographs are presented. Many stereographs, for example, contain text on the back of the card that describes the image from a generic and omniscient but still ideologically grounded point of view. A classic image of Egyptian pyramids from a 1902 stereograph by Underwood and Underwood (fig. 1.1), for example, features a narration on the back that describes a travel route: "We have crossed over to the west bank of the Nile at Cairo and come some five miles [southwest] out into the edge of the vast Libyan desert. To get this broad view out over the sand-waves, drifting under the wind, we have slowly, toilsomely climbed up the gigantic slope of the Great Pyramid; now here we are on the summit." In this narrative, the viewer is invited to participate with the nameless traveler describing the journey (by using an ambiguous "we," the narrator implicitly includes the reader: "We have crossed ..."), even though that speaking traveler is not pictured in the photograph that is arguably the point of the entire exercise.

We might push this analysis further, however, to point out an alternative significance for the image. Within the conventions of travel photography (and landscape painting), the two men in the lower left of the frame serve as anonymous lead-in figures. They appear to be tour guides, although the written narration on the back of the card does not mention them. It is possible for a viewer to identify not with the written narration of the traveler—with its air of entitlement and awe—but with the visual image of the tour guides, which captures the viewer's visual attention in a more ambivalent way. That is to say, while Caren Kaplan's point about the "individualized, often elite, circumstances" of travel representations certainly applies here—the primary address of this stereoscope card allies the viewer with the "elite circumstances" of the tourist—alternative possibilities exist for identification with the figures or even identification with the camera that has captured this landscape. These alternative possibilities for identification are not available in the written text. It is important to acknowledge that both kinds of identification—with the elite tourist's point of view and with the anonymous "native" figures—are available in this photographic image.

Excerpted from EDUCATION IN THE SCHOOL OF DREAMS by JENNIFER LYNN PETERSON. Copyright © 2013 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction The Dreamworld of Cinematic Travel 1

1 Varieties of Travel Experience: Burton Holmes and the Travelogue Tradition 23

2 "The Living Panorama of Nature": Early Nonfiction and the American Film Industry 63

3 "The Five-Cent University": Educational Films and the Drive to Uplift the Cinema 101

4 "Atop of the World in Motion": Visualizing the Pleasures of Empire 137

5 Scenic Films and the Cinematic Picturesque 175

6 "A Weird and Affecting Beauty": Watching Travel Films in the 1910s 207

7 "The Nation's First Playground": Wilderness Modernized in the American West 235

Epilogue Reveries of the Solitary Walker 269

Notes 277

Filmography 323

Bibliography 331

Index 353

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