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Miles to go

In A Sense of the World, how a man overcame blindness, and convention, to journey beyond the maps

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
By Jason Roberts
HarperCollins, 382 pp., illustrated, $26.95

The most thrilling travel often is experienced in a figurative blindness, the traveler leaving behind (or never establishing) an itinerary, shunning main streets for dim alleys, or simply setting foot in a place with no idea what to expect. Of course, such a traveler can fall back on an itinerary, a familiar place, or the conventional attitude of a tourist.

James Holman, who lived from 1786 to 1857, had no interest in conventional travel. And in ``A Sense of the World," author Jason Roberts deems the (literally) blind Holman ``history's greatest traveler" -- a man who journeyed over 250,000 miles, committed to ``the exhilaration that came only from venturing off the maps."

Holman traveled for most of his 70 years, first while in the British Royal Navy, then on his own. He became blind at age 25 following an agonizing and unexplained illness that began at sea during the Napoleonic Wars. As Roberts points out, the cultural attitude toward blindness was pity, even suspicion (that the blindness had been caused by syphilis). Yet Holman would expect others to see him as a human being, not a victim or a nuisance.

Forced to leave active duty, he was accepted as a Naval Knight of Windsor, an order limited to seven ``superannuated or disabled" military veterans who were expected ``to lead a virtuous, studious and devout life" on what Roberts calls ``a notoriously small pension" while remaining virtually confined to London, especially Windsor Castle. Holman could have lived quietly , relying on the routine and familiarity that can simplify a blind person's life. Holman had no interest in that. Paraphrasing an Oliver Goldsmith poem that was a favorite of Holman's, Roberts writes that Holman ``pities those who choose comfort over experience, who bind themselves to place."

And so Holman began studying literature and medicine at the University of Edinburgh, eventually combining the spirit of a poet and the training of a scientist, which served him well when he began independent travel on the day he turned 32. He would wisely reject bizarre ``cures" for various ailments, and his aesthetic sense heightened his appreciation of the people he encountered and the places he visited.

Holman's financial resources were limited to 84 pounds a year (about one-sixth the salary of a mid-level government clerk), plus whatever royalties he eventually received from his travel books. He almost never boarded steam boats or trains, instead traveling on foot, horseback, in horse-drawn carts and carriages, and in sailing ships.

His independent, iconoclastic character is evident in a practice from his earlier years of travel, when Holman would temporarily give up his horse-drawn ride (which sometimes could be almost painfully rough) to walk briskly alongside the carriage, tethered to it by a cord he carried with him.

Holman's journeys make most modern travel woes (lost luggage, lousy restaurants, rude locals) seem trivial. Yet he never seems discouraged by the difficulties he faces. His discouragement emerges when he cannot travel, to the point that he becomes physically ill -- a condition that helps earn him temporary release from his Naval Knights obligations , freeing him to travel.

His chronic adversaries included not only ill-informed medical care, but the tethering of bureaucracy, particularly while traveling in Russia, where he was held under house arrest in Moscow to try to prevent him from traveling across Siberia. Like travel itself, especially the solo kind, ``A Sense of the World" sometimes is more episodic than unified. Yet the episodes are mostly illuminating, and the plot moves along because Holman does. The greatest constant, of course, is Holman himself, and the book's steady, trustworthy narrator: Roberts makes the kind of knowing yet unobtrusive guide you would want at your side on a trip. When he steps in to explain such matters as the effect of blindness on other senses, the slave trade in Africa (which Holman helped battle, with little success), or the insidious nature of malaria, the book gains a larger context that gives Holman's story greater meaning.

Famous historical figures whose lives intersected with Holman include John Keats (Holman moved in to the address where the poet last lived), Charles Darwin, Peter Mark Roget (the thesaurus author), and Queen Victoria at the beginning of her reign, whose intercession on Holman's behalf in his ongoing battle with the Naval Knights leads to a larger political dispute .

Friends come and go in his life (mostly because Holman comes and goes), and any romances seem to range from the nonexistent to the mysterious. This occasionally leads to a distance between the reader and Holman that is worsened by his habits of writing about himself in the third person and expressing his emotions in literary allusions and quotations. In the book's last chapter, Roberts makes a kind of mirror-image move, inserting himself into the story in a way that briefly breaks the narrative spell.

That Holman's journals disappeared after his death is just one of the challenges that Roberts met, just as Holman overcame so many obstacles in his own path. Holman not only accepted his situation, but redeemed it, considering ``both the world that blindness had closed to him and the one it opened up." ``The Blind Traveler," as he was known, actually saw his blindness as an advantage, maintaining that, ``freed from the hazard of being misled by appearances, I am the less likely to adopt hasty and erroneous conclusions."

``A Sense of the World" is an admirable work, testament to the determination, resourcefulness , and skill of not only its subject, but also its author.

David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at

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