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Fiche de lecture : «The Travelers» de Regina Porter (2019)

Par Jillian Bruns : Lectrice - ENS de Lyon / University of Maryland
Publié par Marion Coste le 23/02/2021
Regina Porter, ((The Travelers)) (Jonathan Cape, 2019). French translation: ((Ce que l’on sème)) (Gallimard, 2019).

The Author : Regina Porter

Porter is an American novelist, award-winning playwright, and creative writing instructor. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York but was born in Savannah, Georgia. She is a graduate of the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop Masters of Fine Arts program whose notable alumni include Jane Smiley and Philip Roth. The Travelers is Porter’s first novel which has been critically well received and highly acclaimed. In France, Porter was featured during France’s autumn literary publishing season of 2019 when reviews of her first novel featured in Le Mondeles Inrocks, Le Figaro and Libération. Porter was also a featured author at the 2020 virtual session of Villa Gillet’s Semaine des Assises in Lyon, France.

Regina Porter © Francesca-Mantovani. Source: Villa Gillet

The Novel

The Travelers has been described as an intergenerational familial saga involving the stories of two families (one white, one black) over the span of decades. The text opens with a cast of characters, a list of places or “settings of note” (viii) and the time frame spanned within the space of the novel much like a play might. The first chapter opens in the year 2009 after the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States of America and ends not much later in 2010; in between the chapters jump in an achronological fashion between 1945, 1954, 1964, 1971, 1986, 2000 and 2009. The Travelers reads like a historical panorama of the United States; to any audience the interwoven historical aspects can be used to achieve pedagogical aims. Visual media has an important place in the novel: interspersed throughout the chapters are photographs, book covers and artwork. These images are both directly and loosely correlated with the diegetic action depending on the particular instances. References to works of fiction in the form of novels and plays such as Moby Dick, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn also compose a fundamental part of the novel’s historical landscape. Porter’s writing style and inclusion of dialectical features of non-standard American English add further linguistic diversity to her novel.

Questions to consider

What does it mean to be an American? Does this notion of identity and belonging change depending on race, sexual orientation and gender? How are the concepts of history and roots different in a country with a comparably short past? What does it mean to be a minority or marginalized in American society? Who are these groups and how do they interact? And lastly, despite many points of contention and division, what is it that binds Americans together as a cohesive nation?

Main themes

1. Travel

1.1 American family across distance

Aptly named The Travelers, the novel centers around two extended American families (not necessarily linked by paternal kinship nor bearing the same last name) who travel across the globe as well as in and out of one another’s lives. Their stories are unexpectedly intertwined throughout space and time. The American family, as Porter portrays it, is a notion that relies more on shared origins and familial ties than geographical closeness or quotidian proximity. The American family is nomadic and finds itself traveling between New England, California, the Carolina Coast, New York, Berlin and le Finistère in France. In The Travelers, family is not rooted in one place but is instead a mobile connection that nearly imperceptibly yet durably remains between its members. Prompted by obligation and need, they manage to reunite and find one another throughout the decades and across continents. Porter’s illustration of the American family highlights the importance of written correspondence (letters), phone calls, and eventually the internet along with planes and automobiles as means of uniting families. 

1.2 The airplane and the personal automobile

The text shows the importance of locomotive technologies in keeping American familial structures intact. Due to the vast geographical surface of the United States, Americans rely heavily on commercial airplanes and personal automobiles in order to move around the country. Vignettes of cross-country interstate travel by car are recurrent in the novel for many of its characters. A love of airplanes and aviation comes into focus early within the historical timeline and is embodied by the character of Eloise. Porter writes that “Bessie Coleman [the first African American female aviator] was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved, before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photo cropped from The Bruckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplane” (145). The black and white photograph of Bessie Coleman is placed in the book just above this passage at the beginning of the chapter. Albeit a source of inspiration and fascination for Eloise, airplanes have lost their novelty for Jasmine who, as a flight attendant, “didn’t know if she was on the planet half the time. She was always on a plane between New York and Los Angeles” (205). Even for the characters not involved in the aviation industry, they all use planes to connect with family across the globe.

2. American Identity, Past and Present

2.1 Race

Although the novel tells the story of America’s conflicted history with race relations, within the pages of the text the segregation between black and white families is erased. This is achieved through the actual blending of families. For example Porter writes: “Rufus had married a black woman named Claudia Christie, which meant that James’s grandchildren, Elijah and Winona, were multiracial, biracial, part black. Everywhere James went in Manhattan, there were half-and-halves” (5). The issue of race is certainly not erased but instead, through the plot and rhetorical aspects of Porter’s writing, characters are defined by their shared human experiences. Additionally, the classically American names of the characters from both families, such as Eloise, Nancy, Jimmy, Flora, Hank and Adele, defy racial stereotypes and create a sense of interchangeability or connectedness of identity. Finally, historical elements of America’s attempts to grapple with its racist past are incorporated into the book’s events: the election of President Barack Obama, the protests and sit-ins of Buckner County, and the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.      

2.2 Gender and Sexuality

The novel is full of strong and fearless women (and girls) but they are not necessarily the same in appearance or character. Porter’s depiction of femininity is multifaceted and non-prescriptive. Within the pages of the text, there is room for more than one type of woman and their differences are celebrated. Agnes Miller Christie and Adele are survivors of abuse that manage to carry on and to fulfill their roles as loving mothers (and eventually grandmothers). Agnes also was the former lover of Eloise, the lesbian aviatrix who later served in the military in Vietnam and stayed in Berlin after the war. Eloise is described as more androgynous than her more feminine lovers. In euphemistic language that foreshadows Eloise’s sexuality, Porter writes that in 1954 she “never wore a dress when she could wear pants” (9). The novel’s next generation of women are also accomplished professionally such as Claudia who is a Shakespeare professor. Through the examples of Claudia, Eloise and many of the other female characters in The Travelers, Porter revisits the traditional notions of American women’s stories and rewrites history more inclusively.

3. America’s Culinary Traditions

3.1 Iconic brands and mass production

References to mass produced food and beverage abound in the text: Coca-Cola, Cracker Jacks, V&T’s Pizza, the Salisbury steak dinner with canned vegetables and mashed potatoes, and a still life photograph of a TV dinner circa 1955. These brands offer an identity to a splintered national culinary culture and their inclusion punctuates the text with nostalgia. Furthermore, it reveals the origins of fast food culture; much of what is considered to be quintessentially American food is represented by products that marry highly processed mass produced food with brand name recognition. Porter presents the commercialized aspects of America’s food history without judgement: it is a faithful depiction of what constitutes culinary culture in a relatively young nation without millennia of shared tradition.

3.2 Traditional dishes and multicultural roots

In The Travelers, American identity is also demonstrated by its culinary traditions. Porter depicts a cuisine that is a veritable melting pot, which includes adaptations of indigenous foods and imported European dishes that blend together to compose a unique gastronomic tradition. Soul food, an ethnic cuisine that is attributed to Southern African-American culture is also mentioned. Porter gives us the example of a backyard dinner party that Barbara Camphor hosts where she serves “okra gumbo, Southern red rice, fried chicken, pickled relish, mustard greens and ... home-style potato salad” (94). Agnes Miller Christie dislikes cooking but always baked “for the holidays, a mandatory sweet potato pie” (80). Other indigenous items include the blue crabs that Jimmy catches with his Uncle Monroe or the tomatoes that Claudia grows in pots outside their Bronx apartment. At the opening of the novel, inserted haphazardly and without explanation, is a photo of a white arm sorting through potatoes. This evokes a shared foodstuff that both Native American and European populations had traditions of preparing.

Exposition of traditional dishes are often cited through cooking magazine articles. One of the first chapters is prefaced by a description of Nancy Vincent’s Christmas Menu where she serves a “Rib Roast Splurge” featured in a 1959 Better Homes and Gardens Special Edition (3). Later, James makes a mushroom risotto recipe from the magazine. These dishes combine classic European food staples with an American twist by using highly processed versions of ingredients to render the meals more convenient to prepare. Porter’s depictions of food reflect the United States’ unique history of immigration and economic development; they add another layer to the ambiguous and often conflicted nature of American identity.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Jillian Bruns, "Fiche de lecture : «The Travelers» de Regina Porter (2019) ", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2021. Consulté le 04/03/2021. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/litterature-contemporaine/the-travelers-regina-porter-2019