The American literature of the Vietnam War, even at so short an historical distance from the end of the war (1975), can seem exotic to the contemporary reader, who might be excused for thinking of it as a species of travel writing, providing an imaginative tour of an exotic place and a turbulent historical period, but depicting a fundamentally different order of reality. This view, paradoxically, represents an important truth even while making it difficult to come to an understanding of this body of writing. Travel writing imposes a double burden on writers: first, to understand for themselves what they have seen so far from home, and, second, to bring at least some of that experience home to their countrymen. That is exactly the burden that many writers who served in Vietnam—as soldiers, journalists or civilian advisers—take up. In her book Travel Writing: The Self and the World (1997), Casey Blanton describes the problem with precision: “Melville's Ishmael, sole survivor of an epic journey…discovers the central dilemma of travel literature when he begins to tell the reader of Moby-Dick about Queequeg's home: ‘It is not down on any map. True places never are.’ Ishmael's attempts to represent the exotic island homeland of his friend are frustrated by the inherent difficulty of rendering the foreign into familiar terms.” Melville's great novel (1851) and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), both concerned with venturing into the unknown regions of the world and the self, provide important points of reference for many of the American writers who have taken the American war in Vietnam as a subject. Along with Graham Greene's short novel The Quiet American (1955), these texts provide a stylistic point of departure for many writers going to or coming from Vietnam.Less
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