Shrining Narrative: The travel writings of D.H. Lawrence, Bruce Chatwin and John McPhee

Jamie Effros, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." With these words, Joan Didion begins the first part of her book, The White Album. While the 'we" she is referring to is a universally human 'we," it is held especially true for writers. The writer is the shaper of narrative. He or she quite literally tells stories in order to live. The writer, in order to survive, must love the narrative form, and must actively seek it out or construct it out of their experience of the world around them. Everyone needs stories in order to live. Without the telling of stories we would not know how to live. We would not learn. We would not evolve. But it is the 'telling" part of Didion's statement which especially belongs to the writer. The writer is driven by the need to tell the story -- to weave together a beginning, middle, and end -- and to do it in such a way that the reader attends it, and for a time hopefully exists within the text. As Didion says, "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience" (Didion, 11). The writer makes sense of the world through the formation of narrative. But there is a certain type of writer who is especially addicted to narratives. These writers are constantly searching the corners of the earth for new stories to be told, new narratives to be woven out of experience. They are the travel writers.

The travel writer is a nomad, never passively waiting for inspiration to fall into his or her lap, but always on the move, always searching for a story. Their stories are of experience: their own and those of the people they meet and the places they go. Their stories pay homage to these places and people; they wrap experience into a narrative curve. The travel writer's aim seems to be to pay tribute to stories yet untold; to put into narrative form elements of the world of which we may not otherwise be able to see or hear. D.H. Lawrence, Bruce Chatwin, and John McPhee are all travel writers of remarkably different styles whom are inextricably linked through their unerring desire to seek out narratives in the unfamiliar. Their formation of narrative in paying tribute to the unfamiliar places that they go and people that they meet function in a certain way as shrines to experience, and in Lawrence's accounts of Italy, Chatwin's In Patagonia, and McPhee's The Crofter and the Laird, the concept of the shrine as well as physical shrines themselves are often spoken of and visited. A narrative is always implicit in the shrine. The shrine houses a narrative which has run its course from beginning to end, and which now stands symbolized in whatever form the shrine takes. The travel writer seeks out the shrine for its implicit story to be uncovered. The shrine is concrete and accessible in Didion's 'shifting phantasmagoria" of experience (Didion, 11). For the travel writer, the shrine embodies the ultimate potential for a neatly constructed story with which to feed his addiction. If we all tell ourselves stories in order to live, for the travel writer, the shrine is like a story pill.

Lawrence, Chatwin, and McPhee each have a very distinctive style in their exposition of the travel narrative. Technique greatly varies from one writer to the next, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to imagine that all three writers are categorized within the same literary genre. Lawrence's romantic symbolism in Twilight in Italy starkly contrasts the balanced and subtle prose of McPhee in his exploration of the island of Colonsay in The Crofter and the Laird. Likewise, Chatwin's erratic but sensual accounts of his meanderings through Patagonia fit the voice of neither of the two former authors. Yet all three travel writers are similar in their unending search for narratives, and all three find themselves continually moved by shrines of one kind or another.

Twilight in Italy begins with Lawrence's travel along the imperial road from Munich to Verona. This first section of the book, called "The Crucifix Over the Mountains," traces Lawrence's steps over this mountainous region through his descriptions of crucifixes he finds along the roadway. "The crucifixes are there, not mere attributes of the road, yet still having something to do with it" (Lawrence, 3). Right away Lawrence suggests the implicit narratives behind the crucifixes, each of which is a shrine itself, and each of which has a story. Lawrence speaks floridly of the atmosphere the crucifixes create not only out of their gloomy religious imagery, but also out of the "shadow and . . . mystery" which each seems to hold (4). It is more than just the symbolic meaning of these shrines which intrigues Lawrence. Each crucifix holds a story of its creation and placement which he delights in either uncovering or theorizing upon. Each crucifix is a different portrayal of faith exhibited through a subjective medium.

Lawrence, through is observation of the people he comes across, the state of the countryside and human condition around him, and the nature of the crucifixes themselves, constructs assumptions on the history behind many of the shrines he comes across. The "strange beauty and finality and isolation of the Bavarian peasant" seem to inform the crucifixes he finds in the Bavarian highlands (7). Lawrence hypothesizes on a certain artist's intention in his crucifixes in the Zemm valley, saying "He is no longer a peasant working out an idea, conveying a dogma. He is an artist, trained and conscious, probably working in Vienna" (9). Lawrence feels the constant need to construct a narrative behind each of the shrines which catches his eye, merely because he knows that one is there, and he does so mostly through supposition and conjecture.

One shrine which Lawrence mentions is reminiscent to one that Chatwin happens upon in In Patagonia. Lawrence says that "The shrine was well kept and evidently much used. It was hung with ex-voto limbs and with many gifts. It was the center of worship, of an almost obscene worship": an ironic statement considering Lawrence's almost obscene interest and description of the crucifixes themselves (13). But it is the gifts left at this shrine which harkens it to Chatwin's. Chatwin describes "a votive shrine with offerings´┐Ża tin of Nestle's milk, a plaster model of a girl in a bed, a nail dipped in grey paint, and some burned-out candles" (Chatwin, 81). Both the authors find some importance in the leaving of gifts or offerings. To them, such leavings are shrines in themselves. Each has a reason for being left, and as such, each holds a story. Chatwin chooses to particularly tell us of the "nail dipped in grey paint" because of the potential narrative energy which it houses. Each of the offerings to the shrine is a meta-narrative to the one which they are paying homage. It is these remnants or symbols to stories unknown which keep the travel writer moving.

Chatwin's entire book seems a leaving of narrative offerings. The staccato chapters of In Patagonia sometimes consist of less than a page of text, and are many times unrelated accounts of a single day, or journey from one location to another. Mostly though, they are stories, each one a mini-narrative within the main narrative of the book. Chatwin's accounts are so numerous and diverse that it is oftentimes difficult to locate exactly what the main narrative is based upon. Interestingly enough, the intention behind Chatwin's journey to Patagonia was to seek out and piece together the story behind an object which was a sort of shrine to Chatwin's childhood. The books begins with the sentence, "In my grandmother's dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in that cabinet a piece of skin" (Chatwin, 1). The skin supposedly was that of a brontosaurus which a distant relative of his had discovered frozen in Patagonian ice. The little piece of skin kindled the young Chatwin's imagination, and he would dream of the mystical beast and the mysterious land it came from. It is his curiosity over this encased shard of skin which colored his childhood imagination that Chatwin provides as his reason for journeying to Patagonia. Like Lawrence and his crucifixes, Chatwin seeks the story that he knows must exist behind the coveted object. He obsessively desires to find out what is "beneath the skin" of whatever remnant he comes across that he thinks could hold a potential narrative. In Patagonia is a documentation of Chatwin's seeking the story of his brontosaur, but is also a phantasmagoria of experience woven into short vignettes. As a travel writer, Chatwin may have a general narrative to construct out of the place in which he is traveling, but that general narrative truly serves as a shell for the stories that he finds along the way which keep him stimulated. Chatwin's appetite for stories is insatiable, and he even makes reference to it in comments like "Following the scent of a story, I followed and cut back to the main road" (54). Ironically, Chatwin follows far too many scents of stories to even have a 'main road" as far as his over-arching narrative path is concerned.

Chatwin's schizophrenic storytelling, constantly jumping from one place or person to the next is markedly different form the way John McPhee constructs his narrative in The Crofter and the Laird. But while McPhee's voice may be different, his fascination in finding stories and weaving narratives is just as strong as either Chatwin or Lawrence's. The idea of shrines and stories left to be uncovered is also extremely prevalent in McPhee's text. McPhee spends a great portion of the book in describing named locations on the island and the incredible histories behind them, usually having to do with clan warfare and grisly murders of people important to their historical moment on Colonsay. It could even be said that the entire island of Colonsay is like a shrine for McPhee. Colonsay, as a community, is upholding, and therefore paying tribute to a centuries-old way of life. It is in a type of stasis, detached from the world, existing, it seems, to preserve the memory of a simpler time. McPhee's living there is an attempt to flesh out the narrative of the place as it is, not only in paying tribute to the history Colonsay maintains, but in bringing it into the context of the modern world, and discussing the ramifications of its existence as such.

McPhee may have good reason to regard so much of Colonsay as a shrine to stories past, as he is directly related to the inhabitants of the small island. This personal connection creates an even more intense desire in McPhee, the travel writer, to seek out as many narratives as possible on the island, and in one particular instance that personal connection resonates deeply in his visit to an ancient cloister once belonging to his ancestors. When his friend hands him a piece of human skull, and says "one of yours I expect," McPhee sets it on "a ledge of the cloister wall where there was a small pile of other human bones" (McPhee, 78). This makeshift shrine does not immediately affect McPhee, but as he says, 'since that day, though, I have found that that moment in the cloister has not left my mind" (78). McPhee locates something profound in coming in contact with a piece of history; with a piece of his story, in fact, something that had to do with his even being.

McPhee's travel writer's passion for story is paralleled to his writer's passion for language in The Crofter and the Laird. The Gaelic language fascinates McPhee to no end, especially Gaelic names for places. Nearly two whole pages of the book are devoted to a list of places on the island. They are presented first in Gaelic, then with English translations in parentheses. The lyrical quality of the names strikes McPhee, but not as much as what they mean. Places like "the Norsemen's Channel," "the Reef of the Jura Men," "the Shelter of the Miserable Women," and "the Fishing Rock of the Crabfish's Heel," all connote a story behind their name (54). There is some narrative which determines the name of every place on Colonsay and the surrounding islands, constructing them as somewhat like shrines to events that occurred there. McPhee immerses himself in a land of stories, paying tribute to as many as he can while attempting not to overly romanticize the landscape and community around him. There is a profound sensitivity to subjectivity in McPhee's writing. He strives to keep a subjective balance in his narrative that does not lean too heavily toward one viewpoint or another.

McPhee's technique differs greatly from Lawrence who tends to romanticize his interactions and impose his own subjectivity on that which he does not truly know. All three authors, in fact, present their travel writing narratives very differently, and the dissimilarity of their techniques is easily locatable. McPhee tends to balance his experience from different interpersonal perspectives in order to achieve a more complete or holistic narration of the place he is in. Chatwin achieves a broad sampling of experience, introducing a variety of brief and simple narrations of his interactions. Lawrence relies more on inference and speculation than genuine interaction or inquisition in shaping his narratives, a tendency which causes him to romanticize and generalize more than the other authors.

Lawrence relies much more on observation than anything else in Twilight in Italy. He may be just as interested in the potential stories behind the places he goes and the people he meets as Chatwin or McPhee, but is much more content to develop his own narrative rather than enquire about or seek one out. This reliance on observation, while good for Lawrence's vivid descriptions and word painting, leads him into theoretical musings and grotesque generalizations which are often difficult to swallow. This stylistic tendency is exemplified in the following passage:

This, then, is the secret of Italy's attraction for us, this phallic worship. To the Italian, the phallus is the symbol of individual creative immortality, to each man his own Godhead. The child is but the evidence of that Godhead. And this is why the Italian is attractive, supple, and beautiful, because he worships the Godhead in the flesh. We envy him, we feel pale and insignificant beside him. Yet at the same time we feel superior to him, as if he were a child, and we adult. [Lawrence, 44]

Instead of genuine interaction, Lawrence often falls into grandiose theoretical assumptions like this one. It is no wonder that he feels superior after making such an essentializing statement about the Italian people. But for Lawrence, this seems part of the joy of travel writing. It is easy to wrap into a neat theoretical narrative that which he is unfamiliar with, and purely inspect it from the viewpoint of an outside observer. There is a certain safety in Lawrence's position, but as is obvious, in such a position he looses some credibility out of rampant generalization. Statements like "there is no comradeship between man and women, none whatsoever," are difficult for a reader to accept, knowing Lawrence's position in regards to that which he is observing (Lawrence, 57).

This stylistic tendency of Lawrence is almost opposite to that of McPhee in his narrative construction. In The Crofter and the Laird, McPhee's technique of traveling, let alone of writing, is vastly different form Lawrence's. McPhee chooses to live on Colonsay for the better part of a year instead of visiting it. He immerses himself within the culture, living with, eating with, and constantly conversing with the island's people. McPhee's positioning in regards to the culture makes Lawrence's look exceedingly like that of a tourist. His sensitivity to being as non-subjective as possible in regards to the people is also a stark contrast to Lawrence. McPhee hardly ever calls attention to himself as the writer/observer in the way that Lawrence, and sometimes Chatwin do. Many times, McPhee simply lets the people speak for themselves. For example, to exhibit the people's opinions on the new Laird, McPhee simply gives a random sampling of dialogue.

"He spent forty thousand pounds to restore his house in Bath."

"Och, it was a hundred and twenty thousand. That's why he lets the island go to subsistence sums"

"He is the chairman of the Bath Festival. He has no time for Colonsay."

"He doesn"t have the money you think he has. There were death duties, you know."

"There are ways to circumvent them." [McPhee, 102]

This multi-person dialogue goes on for more than two pages, as it does a few times in the book. The only hints of the authorial voice in them are in the choices of exactly which sentences to document, and when to do so. Instead of positing some generalizing sentiment, McPhee captures the views and opinions of the people directly in their agreement, disagreement, and emphasis. It is sections like these in his narrative which give McPhee such a sense of subjective balance. His art is in subtly weaving engaging imagery into his objective, democratic voice to peak the reader's interest in his narrative.

McPhee's random samplings of dialogue reflects Chatwin's complete technique of travel writing in In Patagonia. Chatwin's narrative functions from just as random a sampling of experience. The diversity of Chatwin's experience cannot be denied, but he does tend to hold on to a certain subjective voice, and with good reason. Chatwin's accounts are so disjointed that it is his authorial self-awareness which tie them together in the mind of the reader. Instead of the place he is in, Chatwin is the primary character in his travel narrative. This technique differs from both Lawrence and McPhee. Neither of the other authors insert themselves into the text in such a personally centered way. Chatwin tells an incredible number of unrelated stories ranging from the fantastic to the completely arcane which are always undercut by his presence. Chapters begin with lines like: "I left the boneyard of La Plata," "In the morning I walked to Bethesda," "She was waiting for me," and "I now had two reasons to head back to the Cordillera" (Chatwin, 7, 23, 61, 75). The reader is constantly aware of Chatwin as a narrative device.

Chatwin's insertion of himself as a narrative link is a different positioning than either that of McPhee or Lawrence. Each of the three travel writers utilize opposing techniques in their presentation of narrative. But from Lawrence's extended musings on crucifixes and Italian culture to Chatwin's flippant glimpses into the lives and stories of Patagonia, to McPhee's exploration of the stories of the people of Colonsay, one thing is clear: all of the writers have an intense passion for the formation and telling of stories. As for the idea of shrines, and the travel writer's connection to them, it is plain to see through the accounts of all three writers that shrines play an important role in the travel writer's idea of potential enclosed narratives. The idea of enclosure is key here. A shrine connotes a narrative which has run its course. Shrines to people are usually only constructed after that person is dead. In death there is a sense of ultimate closure, and it is interesting to see death as a recurring theme throughout all three of the travel writer's narratives. McPhee refers again and again to the grisly murders of ancient clan members on Colonsay. Chatwin is chasing the remnants of a dead animal, and is constantly stumbling into stories of death and murder in Patagonia. Lawrence, in speaking of the crucifixes says, "This is the worship, then, the worship of death" (Lawrence, 11). This is perhaps the worship of the travel writer. Death makes the narrative complete, and thus, that much more accessible. The narrative enclosure of the shrine is attractive to the travel writer because of the clear narrative end which it delineates.

A story which is enclosed can be told with a progression in mind. A narrative curve occurs naturally around a story which is book-ended with events. Those two most essential events are birth and death. We tell stories of birth and death, and since the travel writer is desperately seeking to enclose his narrative of the unfamiliar, he latches on to death as a symbolic device for enclosure. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb, "to shrine" as "To enclose in a shrine." This is what Lawrence, Chatwin, and McPhee attempt to do with their narratives. They attempt to enclose them within something which is concrete, symbolic, and accessible in a huge and fantastic world where no experience is easily simplified. The travel writer creates a shrine, and hopefully a telling and expansive one, to the unfamiliar.


Lawrence, D.H. D.H. Lawrence and Italy. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin, 1988.

McPhee, John. The Crofter and the Laird. New York: Noonday, 1992.

Oxford English Dictionary: Online Edition.

United Kingdom In Patagonia

Last modified 7 May 2002