Summer is a golden season for walking, when the weather seems ideal for taking a stroll. But some of us walk with enthusiasm throughout the year, including writers who find that putting one foot in front of the other is a great exercise in literary inspiration.
It’s the prevailing theme of Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking, editor Duncan Minshull’s concise anthology of essays, letters, and journal entries from scribes old and new about the joys – and occasional perils – of perambulating.
The book is from Notting Hill Editions, a small British publisher that specializes in promoting the essay form. Distributed in the United States by New York Review Books, “Beneath My Feet” aligns nicely with Notting Hill’s mission, since walking and essay-writing both freely indulge the pleasures of digression.
“Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season,” writes Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), the great English author and critic who’s one of the book’s featured writers. “All great men of letters have, therefore, been enthusiastic walkers (exceptions, of course, excepted.)”
Note Stephen’s male-specific references, which were much in keeping with a time when walking was considered, for the most part, a manly art. But the presence of Stephen’s daughter, Virginia Woolf, in “Beneath My Feet” is an eloquent answer to the idea that a walk about woods or fields or city is just for men.
In an essay originally published as “Street Haunting” and included here under the title, “Between Tea and Dinner,” Woolf (1882-1941) recounts leaving her London apartment to go buy a pencil, an odyssey that becomes a means to consider the nature of identity, the power of departure to reshape our sense of self, and the degree to which we claim our possessions and they, in turn, claim us.
It’s vintage Woolf – a modest amble through familiar neighborhoods transformed, through her vivid imagination, into a montage of modernist reflections.
Woolf was able to weave her magic here, one gathers, because she was walking alone. Solitude figures largely in these essays, walking savored by a party of one.
The celebrated English critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) makes the case in his essay, “I like to Go by Myself.”
“I can enjoy society in a room,” he tells readers, “but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.”
Another champion of solitude, Henry David Thoreau, makes an appearance too. In an abbreviated version of “A Winter Walk,” Thoreau (1817-1862) argues that the coldest part of the year is a prime time for stretching one’s legs. “In winter,” says Thoreau, “nature is a cabinet of curiosities, full of dried specimens, in their natural order and position. … The leaves and grasses stand perfectly pressed by the air. ...”
American naturalist Edward Hoagland, a commentator from our own time, chimes in with an excerpt about Gotham from 1975, “City Walking.” “In my own case,” writes Hoagland, another loner, “aiming to be a writer, I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be; ...”
Not all of the walkers in “Under My Feet” are solitaries, though. James Boswell, famed friend and biographer of the 18th century English lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson, recalls accompanying the ever-garrulous Johnson through the streets of Edinburgh, smelly with uncovered sewers. “A zealous Scotsman,” writes Boswell, “would have wished Mr Johnson to be without one of his five senses on this occasion.”
It’s a potent reminder that walking, like any journey, is a mixed bag; the unpredictability of what you’ll discover is part of its draw.
Rebecca Solnit, a contemporary American writer, says as much in an excerpt from her 2001 work on walking, “Wanderlust.” “Walking, ideally,” she writes, “is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
Any anthology invites quibbling about omissions. One grieves a little over the absence of a sampling from Alfred Kazin’s Brooklyn memoir, “A Walker in the City,” or the naturalist Loren Eiseley’s chronicle of nocturnal wanderings in “The Night Country.” But a literary omnibus is ultimately limited by space, access to reprint rights, and other practicalities.
This volume’s modesty of scale, as it turns out, is a plus. It’s small enough to slip in a jacket or knapsack – a portable book that can, providently, be taken out for a walk. The abiding message of “Beneath My Feet” is that reading, like walking and writing, is an unending source of surprise.