Raban, Jonathan 1942–

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Raban, Jonathan 1942–


Born June 14, 1942, in Fakenham, Norfolk, England; son of Peter (an Anglican clergyman) and Monica Raban; married Bridget Johnson, marriage ended; married Caroline Cuthbert, 1985, marriage ended; married Jean Lenihan, 1992, divorced; children: one daughter (second marriage). Education: University of Hull, B.A., 1963, additional study, 1963-65. Politics: "Reluctantly Socialist." Hobbies and other interests: Sailing.


Home—Seattle, WA. Agent—Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates, 18-21 Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PT, England.


Journalist and author. University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, lecturer in English literature, 1966-67; University of East Anglia, Norwich, England, lecturer in English literature, 1967-69; writer, 1969—. Visiting lecturer, Smith College, 1972.


Royal Society of Literature (fellow), Society of Authors, Royal Geographical Society (fellow).


PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award; Governor's Award of the State of Washington; Thomas Cook Award, 1981, and Heinemann Award, Royal Society of Literature, 1982, both for Old Glory: An American Voyage; Thomas Cook Award, 1991; National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, 1997, for Bad Land; Booker Prize longlist 2003, for Waxwings.



The Technique of Modern Fiction: Essays in Practical Criticism, Edward Arnold (London, England), 1968, University of Notre Dame Press (South Bend, IN), 1969.

Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Barron's (Woodbury, NY), 1968.

The Society of the Poem, Harrap (London, England), 1971.

Soft City, Dutton (New York, NY), 1974.

Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1979.

Old Glory: An American Voyage, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.

Coasting: A Private Journey, Collins (London, England), 1986, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2003.

For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling, 1969-1987, Collins (London, England), 1987, published as For Love and Money: A Writing Life, 1969-1989, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

God, Man, and Mrs Thatcher, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1989.

Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America, Collins (London, England), 1990.

Bad Land: An American Romance, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1996.

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.

(Author of introduction) The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History, Sasquatch Books (Seattle, WA), 2001.

My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2006.


Square (teleplay), Granada, 1971.

A Game of Tombola, BBC Radio 3, 1972.

At the Gate, BBC Radio 3, 1973.

The Anomaly, BBC Radio 3, 1974.

Snooker (teleplay), BBC-TV, 1975.

The Water Baby (teleplay), BBC-TV, 1975.

The Daytrip, BBC Radio 3, 1976.

The Sunset Touch, produced in Bristol, England, 1977.

Also author of Mother, BBC-TV.


(Editor) Robert Lowell's Poems: A Selection, Faber (London, England), 1974.

Foreign Land (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Vintage (New York, NY, 2001.

(Editor) The Oxford Book of the Sea, Oxford University Press (London, England), 1992, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Waxwings (novel), Picador (London, England), 2003.

Surveillance (novel), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including London Times, London Guardian, New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, and Atlantic Monthly.


Passage to Juneau was adapted as an audiobook read by the author, HighBridge, 2000.


"As a seven-year-old," wrote Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor James J. Schramer, Jonathan Raban "had dreamed that he was a more timid version of Huck Finn. While the fictional Huck was off having adventures on the dangerous shore, young Jonathan stayed on the raft, ‘alone on that unreal blue, watching for "towheads" and "sawyers" as the forests unrolled, a mile or more across the water.’" Some thirty years later, after launching his career as a lecturer, journalist, and author of several books, among them the critically acclaimed Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth, Raban realized his dream with a four-month trip down the Mississippi in a sixteen-foot craft. What this Englishman learned about the American land and its people is chronicled in his book Old Glory: An American Voyage.

As influenced as he was by Huckleberry Finn, however, Raban was not a natural candidate for river travel. A self-proclaimed city dweller, the author packed a minimum of supplies for his trip (including such essentials as two pipes with a tin of Captain Black Smoking Tobacco, a Zippo lighter, a corkscrew, and a thermos flask). No seasoned boater, Raban was at first naive enough to not recognize any danger in the Mississippi. "I assumed boats are much like small cars," the author told Washington Post writer James T. Yenckel. "I can drive a car; I assumed I could drive a boat. I was wrong."

Raban also did not look forward to any challenging hardships. "Huck and Jim sleep on the raft, catch catfish, drink river water," elaborated Noel Perrin in a New York Times Book Review article on Old Glory. The author "stays in hotels and motels all the way down the Mississippi, except on the frequent occasions when inhabitants of the river towns bear him off to their homes. The one time when neither a hotel nor an invitation seems to be forthcoming, he decides that if worst comes to worst, he'll beg for a bed in the Prairie du Chien, Wis[consin], jail; anything rather than curl up in his boat or camp on Jackson's Island. Similarly, the one time he forgets a packed lunch and actually pulls a catfish out of the river, he is overwhelmed with disgust at the ‘sad, spotty, limp-whiskered thing.’ He forces himself to clean and cook it—and then eats exactly one bite: ‘Mild hunger seemed far preferable to dead catfish.’"

Single-handedly conquering the river was not the author's aim, however. Raban's "passion was people," Newsweek contributor Jim Miller noted, "and this book takes them on the run, in a parade of one-page snapshots that glance over modern life on the Mississippi. A connoisseur of offbeat businessmen and faded barflies, he collects a motley crew of river-front civic figures, from bikers and bibulous tarts to Vicksburg's Lebanese bank president." Raban's talent, indeed, was in becoming acquainted with the people he met throughout the southward trip, attending barbecues, becoming involved in a Memphis, Tennessee, mayoral campaign, even pausing for a two-week romantic interlude in St. Louis with a woman he calls Sally.

In this respect, Yenckel found it troubling "that this ostensibly charming guy can write so harshly about many of the unsophisticated citizens of the bleak river towns who befriended the foreign visitor, took him coon hunting and served up a special meal of squirrel." To illustrate his point, Yenckel singles out Raban's description of a Minnesota lockmaster's wife: "She looked like a retired lady wrestler. Slack-jawed, her eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of her glasses, she filled her outside stretch pants to the very last stitch." Yet as Raban responded in the Washington Post: "How are you going to report life if you report it as a series of wonderful people? Some people are repulsive. Some are lovable. The book is subjective. It is how one sweaty traveler happened to find the people on his travels. If there's a real villain in the book, it's the person represented by me—the villain, the victim and the hero. My own justification for writing satirically is that I came out worse off."

In contrast, Diane Johnson, commenting in the New York Review of Books, found Raban "a wonderful writer, with great powers of description, and above all the ability to interpret with elegant tact and lightness in the sort of tone one might use to criticize someone else's child without giving offense." And while Perrin said that Raban, a "master of the quick sketch," nevertheless "cannot do an extended scene," the critic also felt that "one of [the author's] triumphs is that he deals with the river in entirely fresh language. There is not a scrap of borrowed rhetoric in the book, with the exception of one sentence near the end where he deliberately echoes Huck."

The critical and popular success of Old Glory made Raban a temporary media figure in the United States; he was photographed for television re-creating some of his voyage, "with voice-over passages from the book," according to Johnson. For the television piece, she continued, "Raban stares glumly at weather reports on the motel TV, Raban revisits a couple of nice folks on their cabin cruiser. With becoming embarrassment, he sports a duplicate of the funny hat he lost. The media are full of wonder. He praises the bird life along the Mississippi; the camera finds birds." Concluded Johnson: "It's like a Twain story all right—the mysterious European stranger comes and sells to the locals something that's been theirs all along. The Midwest has been ours all along, after all, but for those who haven't known this, Raban's book makes a continuously interesting pitch."

Raban's thirst for adventure has taken him on other treks. In Coasting: A Private Voyage, readers find him sailing around the edges of the British Isles in "a kind of floating Oxbridge tutorial room called the Gosfield Maid," according to New York Times Book Review contributor John Krich. In addition to being an account of its author's trip along the British coastline, the book also serves as part autobiography, for Raban visits sites that bring back memories. The Isle of Man recalls his childhood home, for instance, while a visit to Lymington draws the traveller back to the Fifties and his dreaded grade-school years. Touching shore on numerous occasions, Raban indulges in his characteristic portraiture of the locals, rummaging, as Krich wryly noted "through England for human bric-a-brac…. Though he keeps his gaze on the navigational charts, Mr. Raban never fails to notice those fellow amateur yachtsmen who have permanently lost their bearings."

The award-winning Bad Land: An American Romance finds Raban landlocked in Montana, where he transforms the state's eastern prairies into "a profound symbol for America's sense of displacement; for its tragic romance with rootlessness, its search for identity under that big blue sky," in the opinion of New Statesman contributor Douglas Kennedy. Following the trail of the homesteaders of the early twentieth century as they participated in the final wave of settlers moving west in search of available land, Raban comments on the history of these hardy Americans, who risked everything to begin a new life in the dry climate of eastern Montana, battling the Depression, drought, poverty, and the growth of the cattle industry before giving up and abandoning their homes. Stephen Fender noted in the London Review of Books that in Bad Land Raban strays from the manner of his earlier books; while drifting in both Old Glory and Coasting, Bad Land finds its author rooted to his new home in Seattle, returning at the book's end to the place where he had begun his narrative. "Now he is no longer drifting along an indeterminate line," noted Fender, who maintained that Bad Land, with its judgmental tone, "cleav[es] to the convention of literary tourism exemplified by Dickens, Frances Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson and dozens of British writers, for whom democratic, republican America presented an appalling and comic spectacle of unruly manners and institutions." However, John Skow noted in Time that Raban "is powerfully drawn to this hard country … and the reader does not doubt that had [he] been born in 1880, he would have found himself in Montana by 1908, driving fence posts with aching city shoulders and checking the sky hopefully for rain."

Many of Raban's personal impressions of his life and travels are collected in For Love and Money: A Writing Life 1969-1989. Beginning with his early schooling, the author recalls early literary foibles and his growing desire to pull up roots and travel. He ruminates long and hard on his part-time vocation as book reviewer; several reviews are included among the early essays on family and friends, the discussions of navigation instruments and the sea, and the snippets of journalism drawn travels in both Great Britain and the United States that Raban weaves into a compelling portrait of a writer and traveller. "There is something both reckless and vulnerable, both exhibitionistic and self-effacing, about this revealing non-autobiography," contended Janette Turner Hospital in the New York Times Book Review, while Frank Kermode wrote in the London Review of Books that Raban's autobiographical patchwork is "as deftly constructed as [one] could wish: the splices are expert, and there are only a few repetitions. Raban is interesting everywhere."

In Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings Raban chronicles his 1996 solo journey up the Inside Passage, a series of protected waterways reaching from Puget Sound to the Alaskan panhandle. During his voyage, Raban retraced the route of eighteenth-century British explorer George Vancouver, who mapped the coast while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. In the work, noted Discover critic Margaret Foley, the author "gracefully weaves together first-person accounts of Vancouver's voyage … and Native American tales with his own reflections on geography, exploration, and the effect of technology on our experience of the natural world." Additionally, he recounts the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his father, both of which occurred during his trip. "A compelling meditation courses beneath the surface commotion of the book as Raban seeks solace (and himself) in the movement of the sea," a Publishers Weekly reviewer stated. According to Chris Martin, writing in Geographical, Raban "has created a profoundly autobiographical work, confronting not only the nature of this loss but also documenting his painfully intense investigation of himself and his relationships."

In addition to his nonfiction works, Raban has written a number of plays and novels. He has also served as editor of The Oxford Book of the Sea, a collection of literary works reflecting the vastness of the sea and mankind's reflections on that vastness in both prose and poetry. In the author's first novel, Foreign Land, a middle-aged man must deal with both culture shock and memories of the past when he returns to the wife and family he (happily) left behind during his many years in Africa. "Rabans's debut as a novelist is impressive, both in its verbal fluency and in the broad social portrait it deftly conveys," noted Time reviewer Paul Gray.

In Waxwings Raban offers "a sharply observed satire of the Internet boom and … a bittersweet meditation on the American dream," observed Library Journal contributor Edward B. St. John. Set in 1999, the work concerns Tom Janeway, a Hungarian-born professor, novelist, and radio commentator living in Seattle, Washington, with his disinterested wife, Beth, and their emotionally troubled young son. The bookish Tom is taken aback when Beth, a rising star at her dotcom real estate business, buys a new car, moves into a condo, and files for divorce. "Raban knows how to bridge the gap between the broad social canvas of satire and the interior life of delicate, rounded characters," wrote Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. "The Janeways' marital collapse is a socioeconomic event, a casualty of Beth's surging salary and self-confidence. Yet it's also deeply rooted in the nature of these two precisely drawn human beings." Tom later forms an uneasy partnership with Chick, a Chinese immigrant who entered the country in a shipping container and now heads a crew of illegal day laborers. After Tom agrees to let Chick renovate his dilapidated home, the contractor moves unannounced into Tom's basement, at the same time that Tom is wrongly accused of a series of child abductions. "Raban's caustic, affectionate commentary on the manic gyrations of millennial America unites these disparate plot lines," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. "This is a generous, affirming novel," Geoff Nicholson stated in the New York Times Book Review. "By its end, the self-obsessed novelist comes to embrace life, its hardships as well as its possibilities. We don't believe he'll live happily ever after, but we do believe that for all its troubles it will be a life worth living."

Surveillance "an only slightly heightened dystopia about the effects of 9/11," according to London Guardian contributor Aida Edemariam, centers on Lucy Bengstrom, a Seattle journalist who is assigned to write a magazine profile about bestselling memoirist August Vanags. While researching her subject, Lucy discovers that Vanags may not be who he claims to be, and she begins digging deeper into his past. "An air of suspenseful dread hangs over every page of this intelligent, provocative book," remarked a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Ian Sansom, writing in Spectator, wrote, "Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties."

Calling Raban "one of the most satisfying writers of his generation," Marsden observed that the author "has helped push back the frontiers of nonfiction, making an enduring challenge to the novel as the pre-eminent literary genre." As Raban told Edemariam, "‘I believe in a particular story which is threaded onto an actual journey or voyage…. And the attractiveness of that form is that it can incorporate anything. Which perhaps answers to the internal ragbag, for want of a better word for it, which is my mind.’"



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 204: British Travel Writers, 1940-1997, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Raban, Jonathan, Old Glory: An American Voyage, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1981.

Raban, Jonathan, Passage to Juneau: a Sea and Its Meanings, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1999.


Booklist, March 15, 2000, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 1339; June 1, 2001, Nancy Spillman, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 1906; October 1, 2003, Kaite Mediatore, review of Waxwings, p. 301; October 15, 2005, Brad Hooper, review of My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front, p. 4; December 1, 2006, Mark Knoblauch, review of Surveillance, p. 5.

Discover, January 1, 2000, Margaret Foley, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 102.

Economist, June 17, 1989, review of God, Man, and Mrs. Thatcher, p. 105.

Entertainment Weekly, October 3, 2003, Jennifer Reese, "Sleekness in Seattle," review of Waxwings, p. 74; February 2, 2007, Jennifer Reese, "Future Tense," review of Surveillance, p. 128.

Geographical, January 1, 2000, Chris Martin, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 70.

Guardian (London, England), November 7, 1999, Philip Marsden, "Man for All Seas," review of Passage to Juneau; September 23, 2006, Aida Edemariam, "Rootless in Seattle"; September 30, 2006, Toby Litt, "We're All Spooks Now," review of Surveillance.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of Waxwings, p. 988; October 15, 2006, review of Surveillance, p. 1041.

Library Journal, October 15, 1999, Rebecca Miller, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 92; September 15, 2003, Edward B. St. John, review of Waxwings, p. 93.

London Review of Books, December 18, 1986, review of Coasting, p. 10; November 12, 1987, Frank Kermode, review of For Love and Money: A Writing Life 1969-1989, p. 9; December 12, 1996, Stephen Fender, review of Bad Land: An American Romance, pp. 25-26.

Mother Jones, December 1, 2005, Julian Brookes, review of My Holy War, p. 73.

New Internationalist, May 1, 2000, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 31.

New Statesman, October 25, 1996, Douglas Kennedy, review of Bad Land, p. 45; September 22, 2003, William Skidelsky, "Winged Migration," p. 54; September 25, 2006, William Skidelsky, "Security Measures," p. 79.

Newsweek, October 5, 1981, Jim Miller, review of Old Glory, p. 83.

New York Review of Books, November 19, 1981, Diane Johnson, review of Old Glory, p. 10; October 22, 1987, Michael Wood, review of Coasting, p. 39.

New York Times, September 26, 1979, Anatole Broyard, review of Arabia: A Journey through the Labyrinth, p. C23; September 10, 1981, John Leonard, review of Old Glory, p. C20; November 18, 1999, Sam Howe Verhovek, "Each Voyage of Discovery Is One for the Books," review of Passage to Juneau; December 22, 1999, Richard Bernstein, "A Solitary Seaman's Voyage with a Price to Pay," review of Passage to Juneau.

New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1981, Noel Perrin, review of Old Glory, p. 1; February 1, 1987, John Krich, review of Coasting, p. 14; October 1, 1989, Janette Turner Hospital, review of For Love and Money, p. 20; November 10, 1996, Verlyn Klinkenborg, review of Bad Land, p. 11; November 7, 1999, Michael Gorra, "Staying Afloat," review of Passage to Juneau; September 28, 2003, Geoff Nicholson, "Sleepless in Seattle," p. 26; January 29, 2006, John Leland, "United States of Anxiety," review of My Holy War, p. 17; March 18, 2007, Bob Shacochis, "Headline News," review of Surveillance, p. 16.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2, 2000, review of Passage to Juneau.

Publishers Weekly, October 4, 1999, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 53; December 4, 2000, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 33; September 1, 2003, review of Waxwings, p. 65; October 3, 2005, review of My Holy War, p. 64; November 13, 2006, review of Surveillance, p. 34; November 27, 2006, Allen Appel, "PW Talks with Jonathan Raban," p. 28.

Reference & Research Book News, August 1, 2006, review of My Holy War.

San Jose Mercury News, September 23, 2003, review of Waxwings.

Spectator, August 30, 2003, Eric Anderson, "Settling in Seattle," review of Waxwings, p. 33; September 23, 2006, Ian Samson, "Spycams in Seattle," review of Surveillance.

State, November 6, 2003, review of Waxwings.

Time, November 11, 1985, Paul Gray, review of Foreign Land, p. 92; November 25, 1996, John Skow, review of Bad Land, p. 118; December 13, 1999, Eugene Linden, review of Passage to Juneau, p. 110.

Washington Post, October 30, 1979, John K. Cooley, "The Perfumes of Araby," p. C7; October 31, 1981, James T. Yenckel, The River's Tale," p. C1.


Loggernaut,http://www.loggernaut.org/ (December 19, 2007), "Jonathan Raban: Home and Away."