This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.
LifeSpan, a maker of fitness equipment, claims that a treadmill desk will boost my creativity. The company’s website, where I can purchase its basic model for $1,099, features an inspirational quote from Nietzsche: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Researchers agree on the connection between an acute mind and legs in motion. Studies have shown that we do better on tests of memory and attention during or after exercise. Studies have also shown that a walker’s mental meandering is unusually conducive to innovation. “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk,” Søren Kierkegaard advised, and I’m hardly the only writer who has heeded the call, putting one foot before the other in search of fresh insights and breakthroughs in knotty arguments.
Before the advent of scientific evidence and philosophical guidance on the subject, literary odes to the creative and health benefits of walking flourished. No one has been more tireless in reviving the history of exhortations to join the “Order of Walkers” than the British editor and BBC producer Duncan Minshull. Back in 2000, he co-edited The Vintage Book of Walking: A Glorious, Funny and Indispensable Collection, which could also boast of being the most comprehensive anthology of such proselytizing, spanning fiction and nonfiction. It was reissued in 2014 as While Wandering: A Walking Companion.
Minshull has now followed up with the considerably trimmer Beneath My Feet: Writers On Walking, which gathers 36 testimonies to walking’s invigorating literary power in particular. Writers from Petrarch to Franz Kafka to Will Self have recorded their enthusiasm for, in Minshull’s words, “ambling, rambling, tramping, trekking, stomping and striding.” Higher-quality endorsements of the creative value of walking than these would be hard to find. Yet the more I read, the more questions this 21st-century renaissance of pedestrian evangelism raised in my mind. No, I haven’t lost my desire, Kierkegaard, but I think about my desire differently—and wish I didn’t.
Beneath My Feet, though it reaches back to the 14th century, hits its stride in the Romantic period. That’s when walking and writing became inextricably entwined. In a 1902 essay, the critic and biographer (and Virginia Woolf’s father) Leslie Stephen argues that Romanticism, with its sublime visions of the natural world, “was obviously due in great part, if not mainly, to the renewed practice of walking.” It’s easy to picture William Wordsworth—who wrote in his preface to Lyrical Ballads that “the essential passions of the heart find a better soil” in a rustic environment—stomping out The Prelude, his legs serving as his metronome. In an 1822 essay, William Hazlitt writes of how Samuel Taylor Coleridge could “convert a landscape into a didactic poem or a Pindaric ode.” Putting boots on the ground was a way of pledging allegiance to a poetic freedom available only in open space.
Even among writers who soon exchanged the country for the city, the Romantic conception of walking as the essential literary act persisted. The figure of the flaneur, whom Charles Baudelaire defined as a “passionate spectator” of the urban scene, emerged in late-19th-century Paris and produced a literature that turned its back on nature, immersed instead in grime and city steam. Wordsworth aspired to an unshackled imaginative vision, Baudelaire to a voluptuous delirium, but they shared the physical mechanics of literary production: walk, observe, write.
The image of the writer-walker was well enough entrenched by the 20th century that a walk could be consciously undertaken as a literary apprenticeship. In a 1975 reminiscence about New York, the novelist and essayist Edward Hoagland recalls how he stalked the streets of his hometown, first “to smell the yeasty redolence of the Nabisco factory” and then “to West Twelfth Street to sniff the police stables.” The author was inhaling the raw stuff that would fuel creativity: “I knew that every mile I walked, the better writer I’d be.”
Literary walking took on a new political energy at the turn of the 21st century. “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-orientated culture,” Rebecca Solnit writes in an excerpt from her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001), “and doing nothing is hard to do … the something closest to doing nothing is walking.” Viewed from this perspective, a walk is not just good creative exercise. It’s a form of protest against buying and selling, against goal-directed busyness. It’s an autonomous march in opposition to the stream of conformity. And like the slow-food movement, slow-transport literature posits walking as an important part of imagining a more sustainable future.
In his new book, Walking: One Step at a Time, the Norwegian writer and explorer Erling Kagge follows Solnit in highlighting the political implications of walking. Not that his kind of walk remotely resembles “doing nothing.” Kagge is the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge (North, South, and Mount Everest) on foot. He’s traversed the New York City sewer system, cultivating “inner silence” along his grueling way and enjoying the familiar litany of inspirational benefits. He celebrates “a healthy stretch of [the] legs, a kick of endorphins,” which evoke meditations unavailable to nonwalkers, who also “don’t notice the wind, the smells, the weather, nor the shifting light” from within their cars. While walking, he feels his thoughts freeing up, “a bubbling between my ears, new solutions to questions that have been plaguing me.”
What Kagge wants to stress, though, is that he writes in reaction to the modern menaces of high speed and convenience that threaten inner silence. “Sitting is about the desire of those in power that we should participate in growing the GDP,” he writes, “as well as the corporate desire that we should consume as much as possible and rest whenever we aren’t doing so.” To walk is to strike out against the culture: “It is among the most radical things you can do.”
But just how radical is the writer-walker resurgence that Minshull hoped for 20 years ago and has watched come to pass? Like protesting, walking ought to be among the most democratic of activities. Look closely at the genre, though, and you’ll find that the writer-walker has a way of claiming a surprisingly exclusive status.
Henry David Thoreau—whom Kagge salutes as “one of the most central proponents of walking” and whom Minshull grants plenty of space in both of his anthologies—makes a lyrical companion as he strolls beneath the “pure elastic heaven” of a wintry sky. But dipping further into Minshull’s excerpt of his essay “A Winter’s Walk,” I found the “traveller,” as Thoreau calls himself, not quite as inclusive as I had thought. In the “wild scenes” of nature, Thoreau comes upon a group of poor laborers out in the open air. He pauses to observe how one of the men “does not make the scenery less wild, more than the jays and muskrats, but stands there as a part of it”—more natural backdrop than fellow traveler. Even as Thoreau grants that the man “too is a worshiper of the unseen,” he suggests the writer-wanderer is a type apart.
Minshull nods to the fact that this restless, creative adventuring isn’t available to all. An excerpt from the writer Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (2016) points out that the feminine form of flaneur doesn’t even appear in most French dictionaries. To walk alone in 19th-century Paris, George Sand had to disguise herself in men’s clothing. The costume gave her a freedom that activated her imagination: “I could create a whole novel going from one end of town to another.” Very briefly, Virginia Woolf looks as though she will be the heroic exception, as we see her stepping out alone into “the champagne brightness of the air” to relish “darkness and lamplight.” And yet, she tells us, this daring nocturnal stroll takes place between 4 and 6 p.m.
The Pakistani British novelist Kamila Shamsie’s words remain true: “A woman walking alone after midnight is always too conscious of being alone to properly inhabit that space which is solitude.” In a similar vein, the writer Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black”—which you won’t find in Minshull’s recent anthology—describes the “cop-proof wardrobe” that enables safe public walking: “Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt or T-shirt with my university insignia.” His essay asks us to consider how a literary creation can germinate on a stroll when “the sidewalk [is] a minefield.”
As I sampled the genre, as well as countless articles and ads attesting to the creative effects of walking, I began to feel uneasy about the proselytizing mission. Is membership in the “Order of Walkers” quite the liberation it seems? Even those lucky enough to belong to its ranks might ask themselves how undistracted solitude and untethered mind-wandering can prosper when walking is constantly justified in terms of productivity. The 21st-century walking revival may have begun as a political critique, but it has found itself co-opted by the very forces it seeks to resist.
The more conscious writers become of its creative benefits, the more walking takes on the quality of goal-driven labor, the very thing we are meant to be marching against. The hazard was always there. William Hazlitt gestures toward it in his entry in Beneath My Feet. “When I am in the country,” he writes, “I wish to vegetate like the country.” If he begins to feel that he has to produce a piece of writing from his walks, like “my old friend Coleridge,” then he’s “making a toil of a pleasure.”
Solnit champions something like Hazlitt’s vegetating when she writes that walking “produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” And yet again and again in the literature of walking, a stroll is portrayed as a working method. Minshull tempts us with the possibility that while walking, “thoughts are stirred, which leads to creativity, to a verse or a paragraph,” so how can a writer ever walk for walking’s sake? Even Hazlitt, who suggests what it might mean to vegetate, made an excellent piece of writing from the idea. Solnit, too, put her thoughts, experiences, and arrivals to use in her book.
Much of this essay was conceived while I was walking. Sometimes I would deliberately set out to inhabit solitude, hoping my ideas would cohere. At other times, I found myself mulling over paragraphs like this one as I went about my day—strolling to the coffee shop or grocery store. Somewhere along the way, I realized that as a writer, I never walk without working. On Wordsworth’s better soil, I’ve built an office. In Kagge’s inner silence, my keyboard chatters away. I don’t need to buy anything from LifeSpan, because I already walk upon an invisible treadmill desk, constantly channeling the powers beneath my feet into the next paycheck. What would it mean, for once, simply to walk and say nothing about it?
This article appears in the August 2019 print edition with the headline “How Walking Became Pedestrian.”