Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey is part of the travel writing literary genre, and is considered one of this genre's most important works. It is not, however, the first work of travel writing, which had its origins in the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman cultures; Pausanias, Herodotus, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder all contributed to the genre. Travel writing, which has been popular in both Western and Eastern cultures, includes a variety of subgenres: outdoor literature, adventure literature, exploration literature, nature writing, guidebooks, and first-person travelogues and diaries.
In the West, Christopher Columbus and other explorers such as Vasco de Gama and Amerigo Vespucci wrote accounts of their journeys. Arabic writers were particularly interested in cataloging their journeys, as were the Chinese. In fact, Chinese fiction writers Fan Chengda and Xu Xiake (of the 12th and early 17th century, respectively) included a great deal of geographic and topographic information in their works. In the 14th century, Petrarch’s account of his ascent of Mount Vesuvius became famous: this text captured the author’s evident pleasure in his climb and his disdain for his companions who remained below. In 1589, Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages quickly became a mainstay of the genre, while many travel diaries, such as that of Captain James Cook, were published in the 18th century. In the 19th century, accounts of the Grand Tour were common; Robert Louis Stevenson contributed An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) to the growing body of travel writing. Accounts of the exploration of future colonies, such as those in Africa, were also popular among European writers.
Travel writing occasionally intersects with other disciplines and genres, as in Charles Darwin’s record of his time aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, in which he develops his ideas on evolution. Novels and literary memoirs that incorporate travel writing have perhaps only become more popular since Sterne's time: one famous American example is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962). Diaries were and are popular; James Boswell, Che Guevara, and Goethe are notable names in this respect.
Scholar Peter Whitfield has explained why travel writing really came into its own in later centuries: “The great figures of the age of discovery were adventurers, men of action, not scholars or writers, and they simply could not articulate the nature or importance of the new worlds. Columbus, for example, never produced a map of where he had been. They were so taken up with claiming territory, finding gold, pleasing their patrons and returning home safely that they had no time for any intellectual response. More’s “Utopia” was the first such response, and a radical one, because it imagined the discovery of a higher civilization than the European somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Neither Shakespeare nor any other Elizabethan writers seemed interested in setting a drama in the new world. It’s extremely strange how long the question of the existence and nature of parallel civilizations took to emerge in the European mind -- perhaps not really until the 18th century.”
A National Endowment for the Arts-funded project on travel writing explained the status of the genre in the 20th century: “With the development of inexpensive and reliable means of mass transport, the 20th century witnessed explosions both in the frequency of long-distance travel and in the volume of travel writing. While a great deal of travel took place for reasons of business, administration, diplomacy, pilgrimage, and missionary work, as in ages past, increasingly effective modes of mass transport made it possible for new kinds of travel to flourish. The most distinctive of them was mass tourism, which emerged as a major form of consumption for individuals living in the world’s wealthy societies.”