Locution, Locution, Locution

At one of the regular Wednesday Writers’ Lunches not long ago, when the subject of travel writing arose, Barnaby Conrad halted the mouthward trajectory of his Reuben sandwich to emphasize a point. “The thing that distinguishes good travel writing from ordinary travel writing,” he observed, “resides in the way the writer uses people.”

Himself no slouch at the craft – he had been paid to go fishing with Jack Hemingway, sent to record the glories of New Zealand, hired to play polo from the back of an elephant, and retained to supply his impressions of Pitcairn Island – Conrad seemed to have let the genie out of the bottle. For the rest of the meal, the assembled host ruminated on the difference between mere descriptions of scenery and narratives wherein the quest or plight of the observers trumped.

My own thoughts moved quickly to a group of travelers en route from the Tabard Inn to the famed cathedral at Canterbury. Shrewd travelers all, they were well aware of the potential for boredom along the way, readily agreeing to a proposal from Harry Baily that they pass the time en route with a group of tales. Although this compendium was fictional, it was neither the first nor last of its type – only the most memorable.

Another such outing or adventure, equally fictional, was an enormous success in its 18th century day, still available to us in the convenient format of the trade paperback. “The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker,” or more simply, “Humphrey Clinker,” is the final and most polished work of the Carl Hiaasen of his day, Tobias Smollett. Born in Scotland in 1721, Smollett wrote in an age where Henry Fielding (“Tom Jones”), Samuel Richardson (“Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”), and Daniel Defoe (“Robinson Crusoe”) held large, varied-but-loyal readerships. Indeed, these three are generally considered to have given the English novel its scope and destiny.

Smollett was closer in spirit to Fielding than any of the others, a splenetic, cantankerous man whose spirit and writings appear to have reemerged nearly a century later as an influence on Charles Dickens (1812-70). In a lovely turn of irony, the tone of “Humphrey Clinker” more approximated the shrewd psychological intuitions of Samuel Richardson than it did Fielding (who savagely satirized Richardson) or any of Smollett’s earlier works (notably “Roderick Random”). Some critics have said Smollett mellowed – read sentimentalized – in the face of his final illness. Other critics, this one included, observe that Smollett’s great social awareness and his narrative talents had matured from cranky impatience to mellow empathy. Smollett was constantly looking for humor; he first came upon it by writing of institutions such as the medical profession, the navy, and the landed gentry. As his skills developed, he saw humor residing in the small details of individual behavior.

Like Richardson’s “Pamela,” Smollett’s “Humphrey Clinker” is an epistolary narrative – letters written by individuals on an extended journey. Like Chaucer’s enduring “Canterbury Tales,” “Humphrey Clinker” employs a number of individual points of view, letters written by the relatives and servants of Matthew Bramble, a wealthy landlord. Bramble, a close personification of Smollett, contributes about a third of the letters. Often torn between the generous nature of his heart and his sarcastic belligerence, Bramble’s behavior provides the tension and most of the direction we could charitably classify as plot.

Bramble is looking for places to repair his failing health, spas, seacoast, places of sunny clime and gentle disposition. The travels range through Wales, England, and Scotland. Squire Bramble is joined by his nephew, Jery, just out of the university, and by the eponymous Humphrey Clinker, a servant, and by an old soldier, Lishmahago. Neither of these is a letter writer but each in his own way provokes dark moments, disagreements, and the kinds of merriment and buffoonery that hold up well considering their advanced age as a literary device. Lishmahago will remind some readers of Sir John Falstaff.

Humphrey Clinker emerges much as the Woody Allen character of Zelig, alternately seen as simple and profound. Accordingly, he raises our suspicions to the point where we – and a number of the correspondents – wonder what his agenda is. Is Clinker a clever humbug or a young man of exquisite feeling? Is he a simpleton, or a shrewder intellect than the well-educated and socially polished nephew Jery? As many novels of the 18th century do, “Humphrey Clinker” has in its denouement an identity revelation, one character being identified as someone quite unexpected.

Others in the ensemble cast are Tabitha, Squire Bramble’s spoonerism-prone sister; Tabitha’s maid, Winifred, and Jery’s sister, Lydia, who is bright and attractive, a magnet for romantic entanglement and complication. This combination of characters provides a core sampling of the 18th century demographic, including in one manner or another such vital contemporary issues as leisure, life in the city versus life in the country, art, literature, architecture, and religion.

One of the great legacies of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe was letter writing, an activity that afforded the correspondents significant pleasures of connectedness bordering on an addictiveness that spilled over into journal keeping. At our present remove, we fall on such documentation, whether the genuine article or a fictional one as a window through which we look with grateful appreciation.

Given Smollett’s Scottish origins, The Separation Act, which joined Scotland and England, figures in much of Bramble’s letters to his doctor friend, and to Jery’s to his university chum. As you might expect, the English do not emerge unscathed.

With our increasing 21st century emphasis on plot to shepherd our interest span, “Humphrey Clinker” and its notional, cranky, digressive format will seem at first blush to invite mild impatience and casting about from the reader. “The pills are good for nothing,” Matthew Bramble writes to his physician, Dr. Lewis. “I might as well swallow snow balls to cool my veins....Prithee send me another prescription.” A bit more of a hypochondriac rant, then he is off on his nephew and niece, but before this first letter is finished, we see the soft side of Bramble, a side he is at great pains to keep hidden.

His last letter to Lewis in many ways anticipates Huck Finn’s observation that “there ain’t any more to write and I’m rotten glad of it because if I’d of knowed how much trouble making a novel was, I’d never of begun.” The final letter in “Humphrey Clinker” comes after the surprise revelation of identity of a character, from an individual on the servant level, loaded with misspellings and misapprehensions of true meanings: “Providinch hath bin pleased to make great halteration in the pasture of our affairs. We were yesterday three kiple chined by the grease of Gods in the holy bands of mattermony…”

As in most of the Shakespearean comedies, “Humphrey Clinker” ends with a resounding ending one – to mix a metaphor – as emphatic and conclusive as a Beethoven ending.

“Humphrey Clinker” was assigned reading in a course on the 18th century novel. Because of this novel, I did well in the grasp of the importance of those earlier days in the history of fictional narrative. Tobias Smollett is all but forgotten in this century, but fortunately, his major works, “Humphrey Clinker,” “Roderick Random,” and “Peregrine Pickle” are still in print, waiting to delight.