SIMON SCOTT, Host:
James Holman was a blind traveler in a world of wonders, and he became one of the wonders of our world. He traveled a quarter of a million miles in his lifetime, in the early 19th century, not just to spite but in a sense because he was blind. He was a royal naval officer, not a wealthy noble. He didn't travel in high style but more like a migrant worker, step by step, meeting strangers and hearing about their surroundings. His books about his travels became bestsellers, but when Jason Roberts began to learn about James Holman's life he found that Mr. Holman was all but forgotten.
A S: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler. He joins us from our studios in London. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Roberts.
JASON ROBERTS: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
SCOTT: There's the old saying you can't judge a book by it's cover but in a sense the events that set in motion your writing of this book were suggested by the spine of a book.
ROBERTS: Yes indeed. I almost accidentally came across the story of the blind traveler simply by doing one of the things that writers do so often, which is procrastinating in the halls of a public library. And just one day I was killing some time and I saw a little - a turquoise book called Eccentric Travelers on the spine. And I picked it up and it turned out that there was just one short chapter about James Holman, the blind traveler, in it. That was, in fact, the most extensive writing about him in the entire 20th century, as I was later to find out.
SCOTT: And there was a social stigma to blindness then, of which you remind us in the book.
ROBERTS: Yes. Holman was 25 years old when he went blind. It was the tail end of an excruciating illness, a form of rheumatism. But at that time blindness had the major social stigma in that most young men that had gone blind had done so as a result of having gonorrhea. So he needed to struggle in a sense of restoring some sense of social status.
SCOTT: What made him refuse to wear the rag over his eyes as blind people were supposed to do in those days?
ROBERTS: He seems to have been an audacious soul from the very beginning. He seems to have always been willing to take his own sense of command over his fate, over his circumstances. And one of the things that made him unique was that his orientation is not a visual orientation. It appears to have been sonic an orientation rather than touch-based. And he was really quite capable of simply tapping his walking stick and interpreting the echoes that it made so effectively that he could, in fact, navigate down central roads.
SCOTT: What set off his desire to kind of test every convention about his illness and about someone in his condition and began to travel, France being his first trip?
ROBERTS: In 1819 he seems to have settled into this physical and psychological collapse to the point that his doctors were despairing of him. And they gave him what was usually the last resort, which was simply transportation to the sunnier climate of the Mediterranean. Well, Holman took their advice but rather than be escorted by professional nurses in a, you know, a typical medical conveyance, he simply got on the ferry to France entirely alone and disappeared for a good six months.
And the challenge was overwhelming, because A) he had very little money; B) he had entered the country not even knowing a single word of French. But it was the process of travel, it was the very challenge of being open to the chaos of awakening every day and reconstructing the three dimensional puzzle of place and of people, was the thing that distracted him most.
SCOTT: He - early on in his travels - learned to use his voice in a certain way.
SCOTT: Holman became really a very amazing individual in terms of personality. He had to develop almost what I call a slingshot personality because he had to very charismatically draw people in to his regard and his attention and his trust. But he also had to be able, after winning them over, retain the ability to make sure that they would let him go when it was time for him to move on.
SCOTT: I want to get you to read a section of the book where it talks about what kind of passenger he was on sailing ships. If I could get you to read that section.
ROBERTS: Holman created his own tradition. He cured his shipmates of seeing him as a fragile invalid by beginning each voyage with a stunt. As soon as the ship was on the open sea he would make his way to the main mast, remove his coat and hand aside his cane. Then he would begin to climb. Ascending the ship's rigging for sport, a practice called skylarking, was usually the realm of young thrill seeking midshipman. It was a dangerous diversion, frowned upon on some ships, banned outright on others. One miscalculation of the ship's roll and you were giving yourself a burial at sea. Holman climbed to the uppermost point, where the sway rivaled the bucking of a horse. He would shout in triumph, wave his compliments to the crowd below and spend a solitary moment in imaginary flight.
SCOTT: I want to get you tell us about his trip to Russia. What happened when he got to Irkutsk?
ROBERTS: Well, he had arrived in Irkutsk at a point where it was the beginning, the onset of winter, Siberian winter. And he's actually waiting for the winter not to end but for it to get to its highest point. Because there's a point where Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake in the world, freezes over. And he was waiting for it to freeze over because then that would be the shortest route across the border into China.
Unfortunately, while he was waiting at this particular moment, he was arrested by an agent of the Czar, a field jager, an imperial field jager. And the field jager's duty was to escort him back to the border because apparently the Czar was very much concerned for this blind person's health. However, the border that he was escorted over to was not the nearest border, which would be the Chinese border, but the Polish border. And he was concerned about frostbite, because if he had developed frostbite and had lost his fingers, that would have been a second blindness. He would have lost the world a second time over.
SCOTT: He became one of the most famous people in England.
ROBERTS: Yes. After he was able to publish the book on his adventures, that book became quite a best seller. He was invited into the royal society and he was famous to the point that female admirers were writing poems to him, and he was introduced almost generically as the blind traveler. And actually, for many years people would refer to him, I met the blind traveler today and he's as moving a gentleman as I would imagine.
SCOTT: In your account men were almost blind to the charms and intelligence of a blind man, but that women might have been able to see more deeply into him.
ROBERTS: It does seem that the presence of the blind traveler in the lives of many women was something that was very, very fondly remembered. He was a person who was just very much alive to the moment and with an exquisite sense of touch. And he himself wrote extensively that his notions of beauty were a little bit more expansive than the general sighted male's notion of beauty, and that if a woman was not interesting and had an interesting voice he was - would not be attracted to her. And this was something that he saw as not a limitation on his part but actually an enhancement. He said basically that I am capable of being attracted to far more, more women than sighted people are.
SCOTT: I wonder if I can get you to read one his bits of verse which, as I read it, it seems to be referring specifically to his relations with women but also might be referring to his attitude towards all the glories of the world to which he was exposed by travel.
ROBERTS: This is a bit of verse that Holman wrote.
ROBERTS: The beauties of the beautiful are veiled before the blind. Not so the graces and the bloom that blossom in the mind. The beauties of the finest form are sentenced to decay. Not so the beauties of the mind. They never fade away.
SCOTT: What does James Holman's example give? People have said about today, living in a time when so many people can do that kind of traveling for themselves, and we have a sense of being connected...
ROBERTS: I think that's one of the reasons why the story of James Holman is a lot more valid today than ever. And that's because the race to conquer distance has been won. One passage, if I can read it to you, Scott - I'll have my last sentence and then I'll quote James Holman himself.
There will never be another James Holman, but there will always be people who must summon the courage to plunge wholeheartedly into a world complex beyond their illusions of comprehension. It was to them that Holman addressed his most unguarded words. Contemplating his circuit of the world, he confessed that the most profound moments left him feeling not blind, but mute.
On the summit of the precipice and in the hearts of the green woods, there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heart and I could have wept. Not that I did not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.
SCOTT: Thank you so much Mr. Roberts.
ROBERTS: Thank you.
SCOTT: Jason Roberts. His new book is called A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler. Speaking with us from London.
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