A Sense Of The World: How A Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts
It would be nice to live in a world where one could read about the exploits of a blind traveler who sought to circumnavigate the globe and had his first attempt ruined by Russian intransigence and who has been lost in obscurity with his books out of print without having to be reminded of politics. And yet this book is all about politics, specifically the politics of disability in both 19th century Great Britain and today. While the blindness suffered by James Holman would likely still be a mystery today given contemporary knowledge of the eye, and was certainly a mystery to him and to the scientific establishment of the time, the difficulties of gaining credibility and agency as a blind man engaged as a gentleman traveler and author were heavy at the time and remain so today, not least because the rapidity of the world makes it hazardous for someone to walk around the way that Holman did during the course of his life. The author notes the ways that Holman sought to keep others from feeling sorry for him and even managed to engage in ferocious struggles with other writers over dueling travel books, something that keeps the excitement level high.
This book contains 18 chapters that detail the life of James Holman from birth to death, making a compelling read of a truly worthwhile and eventful life. Holman’s family sought to rise from middling status but was hindered by the expense of sending so many sons to be in the military. James was one of at least two brothers sent to the Navy, and as a third lieutenant he found himself crippled by rheumatism and then suddenly blind as he was recovering from that. Rather than throwing in the towel, though, he traveled throughout Europe, sought to circumnavigate the globe by traveling across Russia, failed, and then found another way to do it that involved traveling through Brazil, South Africa, India and China, and Australia. The author discusses the various writings of Holman, some of which found early success but which declined in interest as he became somewhat anachronistic in the Victorian Age, dying poor, obscure, and forgotten, with even his attempts at writing a memoir likely burned up in some sort of fire, having never been printed despite his efforts at writing them.
There is a certain degree of poignancy in this book. We see Holman’s desire to rise in the navy, thwarted by disability. We see his brave attempts at ensuring that he would not be taken advantage of or viewed as helpless or pitied, his defiant desire to travel for long periods of time in distant lands where the logistics of travel were by no means easy. All of this would have been a sufficient enough challenge had the author not been blind and gimpy, but he was both, and that makes it all the more remarkable. He was one of those people who was frail at home but who came alive in traveling, someone not too much unlike my mother, who is an accomplished world traveler herself. And in reading about Holman’s life and in his efforts at being remembered, it was nice to see that this book honored the memory of someone who deserves to be better known. It is perhaps inevitable that given the subject’s life circumstances that he would be a lightning rod for controversy with regards to societal views about blindness, and the author is fierce in discussing the ways that others sought to diminish Holman’s insights on account of his blindness, but enough of Holman’s own graciousness comes through that the book’s strident tone is not too upsetting.