This book of impressions of the Far East is called The Critic in the Orient, because the writer for over thirty years has been a professional critic of new books–one trained to get at the best in all literary works and reveal it to the reader. This critical work would have been deadly, save for a love of books so deep and enduring that it has turned drudgery into pastime and an enthusiasm for discovering good things in every new book which no amount of literary trash was ever able to smother.
In 1912, San Francisco Chronicle sent critic George Hamlin Fitch (1852-1925) on a seven-month trip around the world, from which he cabled daily dispatches for publication in the newspaper. After his return, Fitch distilled his stories into a two-book set; the present volume and The Critic in the Occident (which will be featured next time). The books were published by Paul Elder in September 1913.
Fitch’s itinerary in the East was:
- Japan, The Picture Country of the Orient
- Manila, Transformed by the Americans
- Hong Kong, Canton, Singapore and Rangoon
- India, The Land of Temples, Palaces and Monuments
- Egypt, The Home of Hieroglyphs, Tombs and Mummies
One of the pitfalls of vintage travel literature is encountering language that we would now call patronizing or even bigoted. I am not qualified to write a comprehensive sociological criticism of Fitch’s work, but I see more to praise than to condemn. Most painful to modern ears is his use of “race” when today we would use “nationality,” and noting that India is “the seat of the Aryan civilization and that, though the Hindoo is as dark as many of the American negroes, he is of Aryan stock like ourselves.”
On the other hand, to his credit Fitch admits his preconceptions about Japan were wrong, and devotes the opening 48 pages to that country.
One of the best results of foreign travel is that it makes on revise his estimate of alien races. When I started out it was with a strong prejudice against the Japanese, probably due to my observation of some rather unlovely specimens whom I had encountered in San Francisco. A short stay in Japan served to give me a new point of view of both the people and the country of the Mikado.
Fitch ends with a couple valuable reference sections: “Hints for Travelers,” and, in keeping with Fitch’s belief that the literate traveler is a happy traveler, a bibliography. In the Hints section, Fitch starts by recommending which agency to use to go on your own world tour:
For a round-the-world trip the best plan is to buy a Cook’s ticket for six hundred and thirty-nine dollars and ten cents. This provides transportation from any place in the United States around the world to the starting point. The advantage of a Cook’s ticket is that this firm has the best organized force, with large offices in the big cities and with banks as agencies in hundreds of places where you may cash its money orders. This is a great convenience as it saves the risk of carrying considerable sums of money in lands where thievery is a fine art.
Of course, $639 was a huge sum in 1913, when the average worker’s annual salary was about half that. Then there was the matter of taking seven months off work, plus the expenses along the way. Extended world travel, then as now, was mostly a rich man’s pastime.