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The stories a passport tells

October 21, 2022

ASU professor's book looks at the cultural history of the travel document

Open your passport and take a look. What do you see?

Your picture. Stamps from countries you’ve traveled to. Perhaps the expiration date and the country of origin.

Patrick Bixby sees all those things too. But he also thinks about the stories the passport reveals.

“It’s a document that tells stories in a way that many other kinds of historical documents don’t,” said Bixby, an associate professor of English in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, “because it comes along with someone as they travel, and travel is generative of stories. It tells us where someone went often, it tells us why they went there, and it tells us where they weren’t able to go. Those things become very interesting if you look closely at them.”

Patrick Bixby's book on the cultural history of the passport will be published on Oct. 25

Bixby has written a book on the cultural history of passports titled “License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport” that will be released Oct. 25.

The book examines the passports/travel documents of artists, intellectuals, ancient messengers — as far back as pharaonic Egypt — and modern migrants to see how the document reflects larger issues such as citizenship, state authority and identity.

“It seems like a mundane object, this piece of paperwork,” Bixby said. “Most people don’t give it too much thought. So, I liked the idea of taking this more or less everyday object that people don’t think about too much … and looking more closely at it to unearth all of these stories.”

ASU News spoke with Bixby about his book.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What made you interested in this topic in the first place?

Answer: I’ve had my own experience with passports, traveling international for 30 years. Some of those experiences have been pleasurable, seeing different parts of the world, meeting interesting people, all the things travel has to offer. But I’ve also had my fair share of certain anxieties associated with passports, like having them lost or stolen, or even that moment when you’re getting ready to go on a trip, you’re heading out the door to the airport, and you’re like, “Where is this thing?" Searching for it in your bag and having that moment of panic because everything depends on it, right? That little book really controls where we are, where we can go and where we can’t.

And then my day job, as it were, is a scholar of modernist literature. The modern passport regime that we live under now grew up out of the first World War. Most of the standards that are adhered to in the international community were first codified right after the war in a series of conferences. So, the first generation of people to travel under the modern passport regime included writers and artists and others who I study. I studied their work, and I began to see ways that the passport regime and their dependence on passports shaped their emotions, their imaginations and their work. And that’s where this idea of a cultural history came about.

Q: What’s the primary storyline of the book?

A: The main idea, which is a fairly obvious one, is that the passport is a place where the person and the political come together. They are our documents in a sense … but on the other hand they are a document that implicates us in international relations. This became very evident during the pandemic when all of a sudden there were all sorts of new visa requirements and parts of Europe were shut off to U.S. passport holders. So, these little books connect us as individuals to these larger structures and historical concerns.

Q: What is the cultural history of the passport?

A: One of the things that I was very surprised to find is that there were passport-like objects all the way back to pharaonic Egypt. These little clay tablets were carried by messengers that allowed them to pass through different territories. That’s more than 3,000 years ago. In the Han dynasty in China, they had a very intricate set of controls to regulate traffic on the Silk Road (a network of routes used by traders). So, you can go all the way back to deep history and find all sorts of precursors and the way that those documents gather significance for individuals and for these larger historical concerns about the nation-state and sovereignty and so forth.

Q: Are those some of the narratives explored in the book?

A: Yes. One of my favorite stories in the book involves Frederick Douglass, the formerly enslaved person who became a human rights advocate and an abolitionist hero. He made his flight from slavery by using some borrowed (freedom papers) that allowed him to board a train in disguise. He traveled without a passport for a number of years going to the United Kingdom to advocate for the abolitionist cause. But he was denied a U.S. passport when he requested one because of the Dred Scott decision, which denied citizenship to enslaved, formerly enslaved and free African Americans. So, that document became an emblem of the citizenship that he was being denied. After the repeal of the Dred Scott decision, Douglass got his very first passport, and that document is in the national archives. And then he goes off on his wonderful trip (with his second wife), which he had sort of dreamed about his entire life, even when he was enslaved. He writes of having this kind of wanderlust, of wanting to see the world. It’s very poignant because, of course, all that was closed off to him.

Q: Are there any other historical figures you researched that intrigued you?

A: One of the stories I tell at the very center of the books is about James Joyce, the Irish novelist who was kind of in self-exile. He left Ireland because he found the social mores and the artistic horizons just too limiting for him. So, he went off to Trieste in the Austro-Hungarian empire, taught English there and worked on his early works and tried to raise a family on little money. But then the first World War starts and he’s compelled to leave there because he’s what was then a British citizen and was no longer wanted in that part of the world. So, he has to go off to Switzerland, a neutral country, where he finds a new sort of haven where he can do his work. So, he gets a passport, and the passport sort of tracks his movements during that period from the war to the early 1920s when he relocates again in Paris. That’s the same period that he was writing "Ulysses," his iconic novel. So, that little piece of paper now provides a record of his movements while he’s writing one of the great works of literature in the 20th century.

Q: So, you’re using these individual stories to show how passports shape narratives of some of these issues.

A: Exactly. That’s what I think makes it a good read and certainly made it a lot of fun to write. I’m writing stories about individuals, their particular desires, their wants, their needs, their fears, but those are always tangled up in stories with these larger historical concerns.

Q: When you talk in the book about government authority and the rise of the nation-state, what is the passport’s place in that structure?

A: Well, passports were one of the forms for documenting citizenship. When nation-states became more clearly drawn in their borders, beginning in the late 18th century and increasingly through the 19th and up to the early 20th century and the first World War, keeping people in the right place was an important concern. You want to collect taxes, and there’s worries about sabotage, espionage and so forth. So, the passport was an important tool to track and register a population. It becomes one of a number of government methods to say, “OK, this person has a right to be here and they have a right to go there. That person doesn’t have a right to be here." This is mostly in the European context, so as the map of Europe evolves the passport plays an important role in regulating the populations across that map.

Q: I’m curious. After doing all the research for this book, do you look at your passport differently?

A: I do. If you look at the language of the U.S. passport and the kinds of demands that it makes of other governments, it basically says take good care of my citizen. Those kinds of demands or commands even are on clay tablets in ancient Greece. So, the language in the passport and the way it asserts the rights and privileges of the passport holder is rather remarkable because, after all, it’s just words, but they have a lot of power.

Top photo by Ekaterina Belinskaya via

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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ASU English professor gives story to forgotten sister storytellers

October 21, 2022

Coveted fellowship and endowment helped Devoney Looser puzzle together Porter Sisters' literary postscript

Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University, literary critic and Jane Austen aficionado, is taking other Austenites and bibliophiles into the world of another Jane — and her sister — in a revealing new biography, 20 years in the making.

“Sister Novelists” is a tale of two sisters — Jane and Maria Porter — once wildly popular writers of England’s Regency era — until they weren’t, and all but faded from literary history.

Looser’s biography explores the lives, the loves and the letters of the Porter sisters in a narrative Looser says is as Gothic and gossip-worthy as the sisters themselves.

Ahead of the Oct. 25 release of the biography, Looser sat down with ASU News to share her journey in rediscovering the sister novelists.

Question: Congratulations on the completion of your book on the Porter sisters, “Sister Novelists.” Your work on this book was made possible in part by the awarding of several prestigious fellowships and grants, but your interest in the Porter sisters was sparked well before your research support. What was it about these nearly-forgotten literary sisters that motivated you to give their story — and stories — a proper retelling?

Answer: By 2004, I was vaguely aware of Jane Porter as a once-famous, wrongly forgotten and pioneering voice in historical fiction. I decided I’d add a chapter about her in my next book, "Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850." That might have been as far as it went! But as I was researching for that chapter in the archives, I started dipping into more of Jane’s letters to her younger sister, Anna Maria, who went by Maria (pronounced “Mariah”), and then Maria’s letters back to Jane. I was absolutely riveted.

These sisters’ letters were so full of secret stories and gossip that I couldn’t put them down. Sometimes I’d come across pages that said, “Burn this letter!” I felt like a fly on the wall in Regency England, as Jane and Maria described their adventures and reported on conversations they’d had or overheard, using dialogue. Their letters were a training ground for their fiction writing, of course, but they were also just incredibly fascinating! I knew the Porters were the most famous literary sisters before the Brontës and had written 26 novels, separately and together. What I didn’t know was that they’d left behind more than 7,000 unpublished letters. I felt called to try to give shape to them. It sounds a little nuts, I know! But that’s the way I thought of it at the time — I felt called.

 - Sister Novelists Author

Devoney Looser

Q: Tell us a little bit about your experience and the process of piecing the Porter sisters’ story together through letters. Where had these letters been all along, and how did you get access to them?

A: The story of how the Porters’ letters survived is almost its own Gothic novel, which I tell briefly at the end of "Sister Novelists." Jane, who lived longer, couldn’t bring herself to destroy Maria’s letters. She hoped, after she died, their papers would be entrusted to a biographer friend. But after she died in 1850, no friend stepped in, and a couple of years later, the Porter correspondence auctioned off for a pittance in a jumbled mess. Eventually, a notorious Victorian manuscript hoarder bought them and squirreled them away. Then his heirs spent a century trying to unload his crazy collection. The Porter papers ended up at auction again, sold in parts from the 1950s and the 1970s. By then, few people had even heard of the Porters, and no objection was raised to exporting their papers to the United States.

Thousands of their letters and manuscripts ended up at the Huntington Library in California, the New York Public Library’s Pforzheimer Collection and the University of Kansas’ Spencer Library, each of which awarded me short-term fellowships to read their Porter papers. I tracked down hundreds more items at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Indiana, McGill, the British Library, the University of Durham and on and on. If I would have known it would take me 20 years of searching, believe me, I never would have started this book. The two long-term fellowships I was awarded (Guggenheim and NEH) gave me the needed time to finish the work. This book couldn’t have been written without the generosity and help of these agencies and libraries, and especially of librarians, archivists and collectors, to whom I dedicate the book. 

RELATED: ASU English prof to plumb lives of literary sisters with Guggenheim Fellowship

Q: Where in the Porter sisters’ storied career does your book begin? What is happening in the world around them when you pick up their story?

A: I start the Porter sisters’ story with their middle-class parents, who met in Durham in the mid-1700s. Their Irish father, an army surgeon, died unexpectedly in 1778, leaving his English widow with five children under the age of 8. The first chapters of the book describe how Mrs. Porter, an uneducated single mother, fell into poverty and moved to Edinburgh to try to make it as a landlady. She miraculously found a charity school that took in not only her youngest son but also her two clever daughters. That was the only formal education Jane and Maria would get, but they began to read and write voraciously together and became each other’s best friend, teacher, critic, editor and supporter.

Anyone who knows American or European history will recognize that this was a tumultuous era. The Porter sisters came of age during the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and what some have called “the Longest Revolution,” the struggle for women’s rights, as well as the first stirrings of the movement to abolish slavery and the slave trade.

The Porter sisters were wrapped up in these conflicts and changes. They weren’t sheltered from the unfair, dangerous and ugly parts of life. Although they didn’t always make the choices we might now wish they’d have made, they tried in their writing to espouse liberty and give voice to inequities of gender, race and history, at a time when a single woman’s choosing to sell her words, instead of quietly being married off, was in itself a daring thing.

Sister Novelists Book Cover

Q: What did you learn about the Porter sisters during your research, and what do you think readers will find fascinating about their story after reading your book?

A: I think readers will find the sisters’ stories about how their literary lives clashed with their romantic lives to be both dramatic and moving. Jane and Maria died unmarried — their love for each other would prove the most significant relationship of their lives — but they also fell hard for flawed, handsome men. And when they fell in love, they confessed everything to each other, in an era when a polite woman wasn’t supposed to show that she had any feelings for a man until he professed his for her first.

So much of what we’ve been told were the rules governing educated women’s behavior in that era — things we’ve gathered from Jane Austen’s novels or Regency romances — it’s just not how the Porter sisters actually lived, day to day. That shouldn’t be a surprise, right? Ideals for model behavior and the messy choices in real life have always come into conflict.

Q: What else would you like us to know about your research, your book and the Porter sisters?

 ​A: When Jane Porter died, an obituary declared her one of the greatest novelists England had produced. It credited her with having invented a new species of writing, the historical romance, or what we’d now call the modern historical novel. This is mind-blowing, right? Why have we not heard of her? One reason, which the biography goes into, is that although she was, for a time, widely credited with that invention, it was ultimately given to someone else: Sir Walter Scott, although he’d published "Waverley" (1814) a dozen years after her "Thaddeus of Warsaw" (1803).

The Porter sisters were very angry about it, calling it theft and vampirism. They thought Scott was at best ungenerous in not having acknowledged that Jane and Maria’s books inspired his own. They were especially angry because all of them had once been childhood friends. Jane vowed then to bring her case to the public. She eventually did, but you’ll have to read "Sister Novelists" to learn how that turned out.

I think it’s hard for us to grasp just how famous Jane Porter once was, given how forgotten she is now. I’d like to mention one final fascinating figure, from an article in an American newspaper in 1844. It reported that a New Hampshire publisher kept five presses going throughout the year, just for Miss Porter’s works, and had printed more than a million volumes. Jane Porter, in old age and living in England, didn’t receive any of the proceeds. In fact, she was then homeless and trying to live on less than a clerk or teacher might make, yet she was still one of the most famous, bestselling authors in the world. We can’t ever give Jane the comfortable old age she ought to have had, but we can give her and Maria their due in one way. We can learn about their remarkable lives and writings and return them, along with other wrongly neglected voices, to literary history.


Top photo: St. Paul's Church, Portland Square, in Bristol, England, the final resting place of Jane and Maria Porter. The image is included in the book "Sister Novelists" by Devoney Looser. 

Suzanne Wilson

Sr. Media Relations Officer , ASU Media Enterprise