Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Review

Joseph Amato

Wanderlust: A History of Walking. By Rebecca Solnit. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, viii, 326pp.).

This work is not quite a history of walking nor is it a study of Wanderlust. Rather, title notwithstanding, it is essentially a perceptive cultural commentary about what writers, thinkers, protesters, and Solnit herself have made of their walking in the last two centuries.

This book has for its center a handful of modem thinkers ranging from Rousseau and Longfellow, Baudelaire to Kierkegaard, and Walter Benjamin. It reflects on walking in England and English literature (a well-studied subject). It treats select intellectuals’ encounters with Paris. And it devotes a considerable number of pages to the condition of walking in the contemporary United States and Solnit’s favorite American cities, San Francisco and New York, whose walking centers have survived.

Wanderlust has its first source in Solnit’s recognition that walking as a chosen activity, only recently stepped into the world. It was largely an elite and idiosyncratic activity. Both its literal and metaphorical genesis (for the purpose of Solnit’s knowledge and economy of writing) was the eighteenth century English garden that stands for a tamed, controlled, and selected environment. The second source of her book (not always in harmony with her first) is Solnit’s conscious romantic and democratic passion to defend the places people meet and assemble. She frequently conceives of walking as an activity that, although being displaced from and even squeezed out of society, also constitutes an instrument for reclaiming the world.

Solnit’s undisguised allegiances are with all those who would liberate the countryside and the city. British walkers confirming traditional walking rights across private lands, women striving to take back the night they never had, the Sierra Club protesting west coast logging, Chinese protesters at Tianamen Square in 1987, or people trying to institute a street festival, are all Solnit’s kind.

Her politics do not impair her insights into the circumscribed condition of walking in contemporary society. She keenly elucidates the integral relationship between suburb and treadmill, points out those who walk for the sake of establishing senseless records, and comments on the contemporary mountain climber who drives his car three blocks to practice rock climbing in a three-story glass store front situated along a major inter-state highway.

Solnit’s work contains significant omissions. She omits German walkers and naturalists who account for a substantial amount of both select walking and travel literature. She fails to explore the range of means and tools the eighteenth century society used to transform the countryside into a garden. She doesn’t pay attention to the roads, transportation companies, bridges, parks, promenades, broad walks, canals, and state authority that made her romantic walkers possible in large numbers.

Having chosen to focus on cultural walking she left out the greater part of the history of walking. Solnit offers no commentary on the myriad forms of walking that occur in diverse places, conditions, vocations, and classes. She searches out none of the connections between walking and nutrition, medicine, and orthopedics. She provides no insights into the history of human carrying and haulage that shaped so much human walking throughout the past. She does not trace walking’s relationship to use of animals. She provides no overview of the history of surfaces, roads, and transportation, and communications that so profoundly defined walking and marching through time. While she is acutely aware of how city planners have shaped the contemporary environment of urban pedestrian in France and the United States, she does not examine the effects of architecture on walking.

At the end of the road, it can be said that Solnit has written an insightful reflection on contemporary walking. She has left untraversed the more universal, and finally more democratic story of being on foot, a terra incognita. Yet she has proven to be a fair companion and a bright guide over the distance she has taken us.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group