Adventure Literature will trace the development of the twentieth-century non-fiction adventure narrative from its roots in early exploration narratives to its modern expression in the exploits of twenty-first century adventurers and athletes. In order to construct a complete picture of adventure writing, this class will consider both the literary and literal construction of the adventure narrative. On one hand, the class readings challenge a unified concept of adventure writing; from its beginnings in the journals of Cabeza de Vaca and Sir Francis Drake in the sixteenth centuries to Lewis and Clark in the nineteenth century to more contemporary descriptions of wilderness travel, the adventure narrative reflects continuing transformation of how, in Thoreau’s words, humankind “fronts facts” in the nonhuman world. On the other hand, the very definition of adventure presents a problem; historical discussions of climbing and wilderness ethics continue to underscore contemporary debates about how we should conduct ourselves in the backcountry.
This class will use the occasion of the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition to frame a dialogue about how adventure writing exists on a continuum as well as how it reflects the period in which it was written; we will situate the work we read in its appropriate historical, cultural, and literary contexts—and try to understand its timelessness. At the same time, we will also engage contemporary debates about the ethics of climbing, exploration, and backcountry travel. While these discussions can clearly be traced through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—in the writing and exploits of Fanny Bullock Workman, Ernest Shackleton, Walter Bonatti, Royal Robbins, Wanda Rutkiewicz, Warren Harding, Reinhold Messner, Lynn Hill, and many others (in fact, there are few climbing narratives that do not implicate themselves in the discussion of how and why objectives are worth attempting), these debates continue to be critically important to contemporary adventure and environmental writing as well as to the development of regulations about backcountry use.
We will explore the act of adventure as a lexical and ideological ecotone between adventurers and the terrain before them; what does adventure in distant or dangerous places offer that life within the quotidian confines of society cannot? By looking at a variety of voices, from narratives about early polar explorers like Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott to Gaston Rebuffat’s prolific reflections on the sublimity of mountain climbing to more contemporary definitions of adventure by writers like Kilian Jornet to students’ own writing we hope to traverse this conceptual bergschrund to develop our own definitions of adventure and adventure writing.