(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Did the large brain of Homo sapiens, enclosed in its bony case and balanced quite improbably on top of the column of the body, develop before or after the species began to walk erect? What is the relationship between bipedalism—walking on two feet—and the development of human communities? One might expect these questions to be the concern of anthropologists and scientists exploring the nature of evolution, but it is a measure of the scope of Rebecca Solnit’s curious and lively survey of the history of walking that the ordinary reader can traverse the distance between the terrain of early hominid study and the streets of modern San Francisco, roaming on the byways of the early romantic poetry and the alleys of nineteenth century Paris along the way, with scarcely any disorientation or strain.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking is described on its dust jacket as “the first general history of walking.” This seems an unlikely claim, given the fact that the author herself cites previous works on the subject that seem to fit the description, but it is certainly an elegant, comprehensive, and extremely readable contribution to the genre, however small that may be. Written by an author whose previous published works have been about landscape and public space, Wanderlust is a meditation in narrative form on the meaning of a human activity that traverses both yet is so basic that it seldom registers on the conscious mind. Despite its formal title, the book is not a traditional history but rather a leisurely journey along a winding road that occasionally winds back upon itself but reaches, in the end, a destination that has been at times invisible to the traveler but well known to the guide. The reader stops to observe fine vistas, paces a few steps down pathways off to the side that tempt further exploration, twists about a bit in labyrinths set up by the creator for a bit of diverting exercise, and finally arrives at the goal willing to go a bit further and perhaps sorry that the excursion has come to an end.

If the above paragraph seems to depend too much on metaphors of travel, such is the inevitable result of embracing one of the author’s central convictions: Walking is so much a part of historical existence that humans describe much of their conscious experience in terms of physical movement through space and time. Life, people say, is a journey; narrative is movement toward a goal. People explore, they follow a course, they ramble, they detour, they progress. Solnit’s sensitivity to the hidden and visible meanings of everyday language—displayed in her fluent and imaginative prose as well as in her discussion of the implications of everyday discourse—enriches her approach to the historical subject and lifts the book into the realm of literary exploration.

The structure of the book carries the reader from the early eighteenth century—when walking was valorized as a subject of public culture in Enlightenment Europe—to the end of the twentieth century when walking as a source of pleasure and means of transport seems to have lost its capacity to inspire thought. Henri Rousseau and Søren Kirkegaard are the “walking” philosophers who lay the path, linking in their autobiographical writings the exploration of physical space and the development of ideas as they, respectively, roam the countryside of Switzerland and stroll the streets of Copenhagen. The connection of body to mind they articulate allows Solnit, then, to report on the often very funny anthropological debates about the evolution of human locomotion “If it [walking] once separated us from the rest of the animals,” she concludes, “it now—like sex and birth, like breathing and eating—connects us to the limits of the biological.”

Solnit often begins and ends her chapters with personal experiences. Her discussion of pilgrimage—the walk in search of something, a tradition with ancient roots—is set within a description of her own trip with friends to the Santuario de Chimayó pilgrimage in New Mexico. The topic encompasses the history of the Peace Pilgrim, an unnamed woman who set out in 1953 to march against war and died, still moving; nearly thirty years later, the Selma-to-Montgomery march during the Civil Rights years; and the fundraising walkathons of the 1980’s and 1990’s. A chapter on labyrinths moves from a contemplation of the movement from literal experience to abstraction in the...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)