Though unlikely to appear in contemporary “Best Travel Writing” lists, this Laurence Sterne text is the foundation of the genre. Published in 1768, the book portrays Sterne’s 1765 travels through France and Italy. Upon release, the text was extremely popular, establishing travel writing as the dominant genre of the late 18th century. A Sentimental Journey discusses travel in a new light—rather than focusing on skills and lessons gleaned through travel, the narrator emphasizes subjective discussions of personal taste and sentiment.
The story’s narrator, Reverend Mr. Yorick, is a barely disguised alter ego of Sterne himself. The journey begins in Calais, where Yorick meets a monk begging for donations to support his convent. Yorick refuses to give anything to the monk, but regrets his decision, later deciding to exchange snuff boxes with the man. He then travels to Montreuil, hiring a servant, La Fleur, to accompany him on the journey.
Yorick runs the risk of imprisonment while traveling in Paris; the story takes place before the end of the Seven Years’ War, and Yorick’s lack of passport and English ancestry force him to flee to Versailles to acquire a passport. He then returns to Paris, continuing his voyage to Italy. He meets dozens of residents and travelers during his passage; these interactions and meditations on meetings comprise most of the text. The narrator uses sentimental reflection as a vehicle to critique the obligation of morality to be rational or irrational. This is a wonderful text for those who enjoy fostering interpersonal relationships during travel.
In addition to establishing travel writing as a popular genre, A Sentimental Journey crystallized sentimentalism as a popular style among writers of the 18th century. This was a marked diversion from previous literary practice—prior to Sterne, literature’s primary purpose was to teach, utilizing didactic stories to instill morality and reason. Sterne is an important influence in Romanticism, Victorian literature, and later modernism (such as in the Confessional poets).