Though it seems impossible to contemplate a world without the continuing travel impressions of Jan Morris, it appears that this is to be the case. Morris is retiring, and The World: Travels 1950-2000 is a valedictory collection of her work. The collection is striking, not only because the writing is consistently vivid but because Morris’s essays always seem to reflect the historical period in which they were written. This seems true even when their topic has no specific relevance to a major historical event.
For example, her first entry is her 1953 essay on the ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, coinciding with the coronation of Elizabeth II. Many readers will see the opportunity to accompany the British climber as the coup that propelled Morris to celebrity in the realm of travel writing. There is much more to the book than this, however. Most notable is the fact that revisiting the scenes of earlier visits provides a wonderful insight on changes, for example in the New York of the 1950’s and of the 1970’s.
Whether fortunately, unfortunately, or neither, it is simply the fact that one element of Morris’s book is that her series essays begins written by James and concludes under the byline of Jan. The story of Morris’s sex change, oddly set as a travel piece, occupies almost precisely the center of her book. The reader discovers a vivid, somewhat lurid Morocco of the early 1970’s and the French clinic in which her operation was performed. All considered, The World: Travels 1950-2000 is an impressive performance.