Part 1: ‘The Postcard Project’
Amber Pouliot is a teaching fellow at Harlaxton College, the UK study abroad centre of the University of Evansville, Indiana. She was awarded her MA and PhD from the University of Leeds. She is currently writing a book on the development of Bronte fictional biography from the mid-nineteenth century to the interwar period. Her essay on nineteenth-century proto-fictional biographies of the Brontes will appear in Charlotte Bronte: Legacies and Afterlives (forthcoming from MUP), and she is associate editor of the Charlotte Bronte bicentenary issue of Victorians Journal of Culture and Literature. She is also writing on the novels of Henry Siddons for The Cambridge Guide to the Eighteenth-Century Novel, 1660-1820.
In 2015, Joanna Taylor, Claire Wood and I co-organised Placing the Author, a conference on literary tourism in the long nineteenth century. While brainstorming ways to encourage more diverse participants in the conversations we hoped the conference would generate, we developed the Postcard Project. We had already made space for undergraduates, recruiting three conference assistants from our respective universities, but we wanted our reach to be even wider – to include people from outside the academy and the professional world of museums and galleries. The Postcard Project met this need. It invited literary tourists (people who, like us, sought encounters with the homes, haunts, graves and relics of nineteenth-century authors) to discuss their personal reasons for literary tourism as well as the impact these experiences had on them.
We also used Google Maps to create an open-access digital map so that participants and visitors could easily see the geographical spread of sites and the frequency with which they were visited by our contributors. We hoped these digital postcards would shed light on the complex motivations of present-day literary tourists and, by extension, allow us to compare modern tourist practices with those of our nineteenth-century predecessors. What we didn’t anticipate was that the Postcard Project would also be used as a learning resource for students of nineteenth-century literature.
Our first indication of how it might be used in the classroom came from Dr Jessica Cook of the University of South Florida. She used the digital postcards to demonstrate the tendency of many literary tourists to form strong emotional attachments to places they first ‘encountered’ within the pages of a book. For many readers, literary tourism extends and prolongs the pleasures of the novel, and the desire to see the ‘original’ of a fictional location can be so strong that the reading experience remains incomplete without a visit to the moors of the Brontës’ Haworth or the streets of Dickens’ London. Our respondents are, overwhelmingly, self-motivated literary tourists who feel drawn to sites associated with their favourite texts and authors. But how is literary tourism experienced by and how does it affect the casual visitor, who doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to supplement reading with travel? And what might actually engaging in literary tourism – as opposed to studying its impact on authorial afterlives or on the establishment of a literary canon – teach students about nineteenth-century literature?
In the spring of 2016, while teaching at Harlaxton College (the UK study abroad centre of the University of Evansville, Indiana), I had the pleasure of working alongside Dr Kristina Hochwender, a visiting colleague and fellow Victorianist from Evansville. Kristina made participation in the Postcard Project a requirement for her students who, as Americans on their study abroad term, were newly presented with the opportunity to access museums, houses, graves and landscapes associated with British writers. Some might be sceptical about requiring literature students to engage in reflective writing about tourism. After all, despite increased scholarly attention to literary tourism over the past decade, many academics still regard it as a guilty pleasure. As Nicola Watson, one of the foremost experts in the field, explains: ‘The embarrassment of literary tourism is encapsulated in the very phrase, which yokes “literature” – with its long-standing claims to high, national culture, and its current aura of highbrow difficulty and professionalism – with “tourism”, trailing its pejorative connotations of mass popular culture, mass travel, unthinking and unrefined consumption of debased consumables, amateurishness, and inauthenticity’. But responses to the Postcard Project showed Kristina’s students to be anything but unsophisticated consumers. The digital format of the project allowed them to share their meditations on the interrelations between concrete and imagined literary spaces with other tourists from around the world, making their individual voices and experiences part of a broader network of shared experience. And this, too, brings something new to the discussion of literary tourism. Scholars such as Samantha Matthews and Paul Westover have discussed the ways in which nineteenth-century poets and professional men and women of letters commemorated and constructed encounters with dead authors by writing about their experiences of literary tourism. But as Watson has observed, historically ‘literary studies have been comparably uninterested in the motivations and behaviours of real tourists, whether historical or modern, except when those tourists have themselves been major writers’ . The Postcard Project, by contrast, is deeply interested in the experiences and motivations of ordinary literary tourists. Moreover, it provides them with a forum for taking part in literary creation, for writing back and responding to authors, literature, and locations. Below, you’ll find details of these student responses as well as Kristina’s reflections on using the Postcard Project as pedagogical tool.
Read Kristina Hochwender’s post ‘‘Tourism as Pedagogy: Part 2′ for an example of how to use this project in teaching. Read here.
 Nicola Watson, ‘Introduction’, in Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture, ed. by Nicola Watson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 5.
 Nicola Watson, ‘Introduction’, in Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture, ed. by Nicola Watson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 6.