115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Queer North: Louis MacNeice’s Travel Writing on Iceland

Takeshi Kawashima, Doshisha University

The 1930s in Europe saw tourism attaining mass popularity. In England, especially, the development of tourism was so extensive as to have multiple effects. The popularity of travel writing is one example. In this presentation, I will examine Letters from Iceland (1937), the collaborative work by W. H. Auden and the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, written while traveling in Iceland.

Proposal: 

In the history of British Literature, the 1930s was characterized by enthusiasm for the Spanish Civil War. Simultaneously, the 1930s in Europe saw tourism attaining mass popularity. In England, especially, the development of tourism was so extensive as to have multiple effects. The popularity of travel writing is one example. In this presentation, I will examine Letters from Iceland (1937), the collaborative work by W. H. Auden and the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, written while traveling in Iceland.

Iceland was an unusual destination for most British as many tourists preferred to go south for a vacation. People’s enthusiasm for Spain can be considered as an extension of the tours of the south: Spain served as a symbol of passion as well as freedom. Auden’s and MacNeice’s heading to Iceland contrasts with the contemporaneous fervor for the south and Spain.

Letters from Iceland is an ambitious book of 17 chapters in which Auden and MacNeice experimented with multiple forms of writing for conveying their experiences in Iceland: eclogue, verse letter, diary, or guidebook. Among different varieties of writing, my focus is on one of MacNeice’s texts “Hetty to Nancy,” which is distinctive in terms of gender identity; this is because MacNeice disguised himself as a girl and represented his talk with Auden in disguised feminine chats. The association of queer writing with the north deserves special consideration, since the direction of the north was then identified as a source of homosocial solidarity, as exemplified by George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) or by Auden’s famous script for the Night Mail (1936), a documentary film produced by the GPO (General Post Office) Film Unit which has the impressive refrain: “north, north, north, north.” In fact, what Letters from Iceland mainly illustrates are wild sceneries formed by pristine nature such as crags, volcanos, and glaciers, suitable for tough exploration rather than peaceful vacationing.

By reconstructing contexts of tourist geopolitics and gender issues in the 1930s, I intend to examine how MacNeice’s fictional girl chats represent the Icelandic landscape.