Why people walk is a hard question that looks easy. Upright bipedalism seems such an obvious advantage from the viewpoint of those already upright that we rarely see its difficulty. In the famous diagram, Darwinian man unfolds himself from frightened crouch to strong surveyor of the ages, and it looks like a natural ascension: you start out bending over, knuckles dragging, timidly scouring the ground for grubs, then you slowly straighten up until there you are, staring at the skies and counting the stars and thinking up gods to rule them. But the advantages of walking have actually been tricky to calculate. One guess among the evolutionary biologists has been that a significant advantage may simply be that walking on two legs frees up your hands to throw rocks at what might become your food—or to throw rocks at other bipedal creatures who are throwing rocks at what might become their food. Although walking upright seems to have preceded throwing rocks, the rock throwing, the biologists point out, is rarer than the bipedalism alone, which we share with all the birds, including awkward penguins and ostriches, and with angry bears. Meanwhile, the certainty of human back pain, like the inevitability of labor pains, is evidence of the jury-rigged, best-solution-at-hand nature of evolution.
Over time, though, things we do for a purpose, however obscure in origin, become things we do for pleasure, particularly when we no longer have to do them. As we do them for pleasure, they get attached either to a philosophy or to the pursuit of some profit. Two new accounts of this process have recently appeared, and although they occasionally make you want to throw things, they both illuminate what it means to be a pedestrian in the modern world.
Matthew Algeo’s “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review) is one of those books which open up a forgotten world so fully that at first the reader wonders, just a little, if his leg is being pulled. How could there be an account this elaborate—illustrated with sober handbills, blaring headlines, starchy portrait photographs, and racy newspaper cartoons—of an enthusiasm this unknown? But it all happened. For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings.
The story Algeo tells begins in 1860, at the start of the Civil War, when a New Englander named Edward Payson Weston made a facetious bet with a friend that, if Lincoln won the Presidential election, he would walk all the way from the State House in Boston to the unfinished Capitol, in Washington, in ten days. Lincoln won, and, ten days before the inaugural, Weston set off. Though he didn’t get there quite in time, his progress, chronicled by the newspapers, enthralled a nation in need of some small fun, and he became an improbable American hero, a kind of Lindbergh of the corns and calluses. Liking his new celebrity, and the money it brought, Weston decided to keep a good thing going and, when the war ended, began to engage in competitive, six-day (never on Sunday) walking marathons in Chicago, New York, and, eventually, London
For the next two decades, while baseball burbled around the amateur edges and boxing went on in the shadows, walking really was the dominant spectator sport in America, and Weston its central figure. He had the brains to adopt a singular and consistent costume, a gentleman’s gear of hunting trousers, boots, and riding crop. In time, a poor Irish immigrant to America, Daniel O’Leary, emerged as his opposite in style, and so his great rival; together, they staged walking races, symbolic class contests, immigrant vs. native, over several long sessions in several big towns. O’Leary was, in a Jackie Robinson-like way, perceived as a credit to his race, restoring the honor of the Irish, stained most recently, in Chicago, by the episode of another O’Leary and her cow. Working-class enthusiasm for the contests was so keen that indoor stadiums were needed. In New York, P. T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome, in the East Twenties, got covered, first by a tent and then, soon afterward, by a real roof, in part to contain and show off the walking marathons. (Eventually, that Hippodrome evolved into the original, sadly lost Madison Square Garden, where walkers walked, and where, in 1879, Weston, freshly returned from his London exploits, was given a hero’s welcome.)
The sport was surprisingly open to the talents. There were African-American walkers—the real Jackie Robinson of the sport was one Frank Hart, who was a protégé of O’Leary’s and therefore called Black Dan—and there were even legendary women walkers, like Ada Anderson, who trained in Wales and then took a boat to America to walk for cash. Walkers were the first mass-culture sports stars: when a tobacco company inserted trading cards into cigarette packs, what the cards showed was pictures of the walkers. O’Leary, after a London contest, returned to his home town in Ireland and received a hero’s welcome of his own.
What accounts for the popularity of watching folks walk for long days? Algeo, discussing the moment when the craze took off in Chicago, first suggests that walking ruled because there was nothing much else for the working classes to attend. But then we are on to England, where the sport is for a time every bit as popular, and, while there may not have been much cheap popular theatre or music hall for the working classes to go to in Chicago, there surely was a lot of it in London. The truth is that many waves sweep mass society that have no more explanation than the oceanic kind: a random blast of wind drives a swell, it snags on a rock, and then the wave crashes. By the late eighteen-seventies, walking had started getting ferocious hate mail, or sermons, chiefly from New York City preachers, who thundered against it as a “gladiatorial” sport. Soon there was legislation, still on the books, prohibiting six-day walking marathons.
The contests, one comes to see, were no longer really walking competitions. Mostly, they were, or became, something crueller. They were competitions in not sleeping. The ability to walk well—to have Weston’s odd big stride or O’Leary’s right light step—had surrendered to the more brutal ability just to stay awake for six days. (Weston eventually admitted to having chewed coca leaves while racing, although, Barry Bonds-like, he strenuously denied that the drug really helped.) The crowds were not coming to watch the walkers walk. They were coming to watch them drop.
Competitive walking, in its maturity, turns out to be less a charming game from an age of innocence than one more episode in the modern fascination with rituals of human endurance, made exotic by technological advance, and fuelled by the same morbid curiosity that gives us the demolition derby, books about survival on Everest, and the ice-bound stunts of David Blaine, along with “Survivor” and “Deadliest Catch.” Our appetite for watching people stumble from exhaustion soon moves from one kind of spectacle to the next, perhaps partly because we’re ashamed of having enjoyed the previous one. This may also explain why each one, when it goes, can leave so little track behind. We keep our eyes fixed on the horizon to avoid having to look back over our shoulder in embarrassment.
“Walking is not a sport,” Frédéric Gros announces, in the very first, single-sentence paragraph of his new book, “A Philosophy of Walking” (translated from the French by John Howe; Verso), already a best-seller abroad. “But what about Weston and O’Leary and Anderson?” the newly instructed reader wants to shout. No dice. Gros is a professor of philosophy at a French university—at the finest of French universities, the University of Paris XII, and also at the great Sciences Po—and if you did not know this in advance you would not have to read much of his book to guess that it was so. He is not the kind willing to make even a minimal Google search (“Sport promenade histoire”) before writing. Instead of historical argument supported by evidence, or chronicle illuminated by interpretation, he gives us oracular assertion, supported by more oracular assertion. In this game, it is batting average that counts: if four out of ten of your oracular assertions are arresting oracular assertions, you’re golden.
And many of Gros’s oracular assertions are arresting; if they don’t exactly stop you in your tracks, they slow your leap to certainties. The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.” And so on.
Gros’s larger theory of walking, abstracted from all the abstractions, is that there are three essential kinds. There is the root case of contemplative walking (what you do to clear your head). There is “cynical” walking (the term referring to the Cynics of ancient Greece, homeless hippies who scorned conventions, customs, clothes). And then there is the composite contemplative-cynic, the modern city walker (what is often called the “flâneur”). Gros’s thesis is that the three kinds, developed over time, can now coexist, although, no surprise, the commodifications of capitalism make that coexistence hard.
Contemplative walking is Gros’s favored kind: the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.” There’s a reason, Gros suggests, that a dominant school of philosophy in the ancient world, revived in the medieval, was called the “peripatetic.” In Raphael’s great fresco of assembled ancient philosophers, conventionally called “The School of Athens,” Plato and Aristotle are shown upright and in movement, peripatetic even when fixed in place by paint, advancing toward the other philosophers rather than enthroned above them. Movement and mind are linked in Western thought.
The Cynic philosophers of antiquity, in contrast, were often merely “circumambulant”—walking around and around the same few blocks in order to annoy other people. “All the commonplace compromises and conventions were booed, mocked, dragged through the mud,” Gros writes. “The Cynics’ philosophy is linked with the condition of the walker by far more than the superficial impression of rootlessness: the dimensions of experience inherent in those great peregrinations become dynamite when imported into towns.”
From these two begetters, contemplative country hikers and argumentative city schleppers, all other walking descends. The kind of modern city walking that we associate with the flâneur—the nineteenth-century city walking of Baudelaire and Manet, which Walter Benjamin later apotheosized—combines the contemplative walker’s escape from self-consciousness and inner noise with the Cynic’s attempted escape from social roles. The flâneur represents cynicism, but clothed and housed and only sporadically committed.
Gros’s horizons, though they contain some American writers (including, puzzlingly, Jack Kerouac, the echt American driver), are narrowly Parisian. He mentions none of the great New York walkers, from Walt Whitman to Alfred Kazin, let alone the striders in Madison Square Garden, nor does he quote any of the great New York walking books. Is there a peculiarly New York addition to the meanings of walking? Rereading the New York walkers, you find one note that eluded the cynic-contemplatives of Paris: in New York, walking, even without companions, can still be an expression of companionship, of expansive connection; a happy opening out to an enlarged civic self rather than a narrowing down to a contemplative inner one; a way of scooting toward the American Over-Soul, in sneakers.
It starts with Walt. Where the Parisian poet-walkers of his time walk to take it all apart, dissect the scene, find the skull beneath the street lamps, Whitman walks to get it all in, see what’s up, get the life of the city right. Walking in New York, Whitman says, leaves him “enrich’d of soul, you give me forever faces.” Whitman is always walking through the city. “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” he tells us of his walks, and “I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,” which says something about the state of the waters then. Making his way down the streets, leaping into the Hudson: those are Whitman’s promenades. He seeks not a glimpse inside his own mind but connection: “Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus! / Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.” This makes him a man of buses and boats and bridges as much as of boulevards; his New York is as much Brooklyn as it is Manhattan. (And there’s his ferry, connecting them.)
Alfred Kazin, whose “A Walker in the City” (1951), heavily haunted by Whitman, remains the best book ever written about New York on foot, is all about going somewhere. Kazin uses walking as a metaphor for ambition and escape; his book is a study in how ambitious kids can ascend on foot when the provinces are just across the bridge. He was walking all the time because he was getting the hell out of Brooklyn and couldn’t afford a taxi. You could take the subway—Moss Hart, in “Act One,” writes of taking the subway—but Kazin prefers to walk, because the subway is one of the chief things he is escaping from. (When Hart escaped from Brooklyn, he took taxis, Broadway hits being more helpful in that line than Partisan Review pieces.)
As Whitman is walking through, Kazin is walking to and toward. He’s going somewhere with every step. (When he retreats back to Brooklyn, it is to see how far he’s gone.) If one were fanciful, one might say that the ghosts of the old Madison Square Garden walkers moved him—or, more bluntly, that the same cult of ambition and success that made Weston turn a small bar bet into a life’s career infects the dreams of the young writer. There’s no point in walking if you’re not getting ahead, even if the track you’re walking on turns out to be a perfect oval, taking you home.
Yet we find in both Whitman and Kazin a moment when the walker delights in the pure chance of walking in New York, what Kazin calls the walking that supplies “a happy, yet mostly vague and excited feeling.” Whatever else we walk to accomplish when we walk in New York, we always hope to randomize our too neatly gridded city existence. You go where your feet take you. Buses follow routes and subways have schedules, but someone on foot goes wherever he wants.
For a long time in the nineteen-eighties, I seemed to do nothing but walk around the city. I was blessed by several bits of new technology: by the first great age of the modern sneaker, for one, which allowed even the flat-footed to stride on what felt like cushioned air. And then the Walkman made every block your own movie. Just as the period of the first flâneurs falls between the rise of gas street lighting, which opened the city to twenty-four-hour circulation, and the onset of the automobile, which made cities loud again, so walking in the nineteen-eighties lay between the invention of the Walkman, which suddenly neutralized the noise of the automobile, and the onset of the iPhone, which replaced isolation-booth serenity with our now frantic forever-on-guardness.
You could walk anywhere. Saturday all day, Sunday all day, I’d tramp through the lower-Manhattan neighborhoods. The differences, architectural and social, among Tribeca and SoHo and the East Village, to name only contiguous areas, were distinct and vivid and nameable then: cast-iron buildings shading off into old egg- and paper-carton factories sweetly interrupted by small triangular parks, and edging over, as you walked east, into poor-law tenements that were just being reclaimed by painters. I would set off on a Saturday morning and walk all day, and achieve Kazin’s feeling of vague excitement, of unearned release, in a way that I have never felt before or since. SoHo in the eighties was the finest place for walking, not only architecturally beautiful but, by accident, still beautifully composed: illuminated sidewalks, glass orbs studding the iron paving to bring light to the basements below, still actually functioned, while the pioneering businesses were as chic and widely spaced as rocks in a Japanese garden—a single one-room restaurant with a cursive menu outside, a block of old businesses, a single charcuterie, a single deli for the whole neighborhood. At twilight, you walked, so to speak, from campfire to campfire, with inviting darkness in between.
Go back to SoHo now, and the streets seem stuffed, the glass sidewalks mostly paved over. There is little room to walk amid the shoppers. Walking for pleasure in cities is an occupation of the young. Only a very few older people of great vitality walk long in cities. What changes over time is not the city alone—some twentysomething is even now walking ample and hilly Brooklyn, and writing it down. What changes is us. We start walking outdoors to randomize our experience of the city, and then life comes in to randomize us. Children are the greatest of randomizers. They make walking unnecessary; we circle them to get the same effect of chance excitement. Their walking begins and ours ends.
People are made for walking, but we are not very good at it; our backs and arches, like querulous cabinet ministers, at first complain and then resign. Perhaps this is why the evolution of walking within a life falls into the same fated pattern as the old forgotten American sport. Like Weston, we begin peripatetic, walking where we will, then become circumambulant, walking around our kids or on an indoor track; we make a pass at a pilgrimage, like Dan O’Leary in Ireland, fail, and end up immobile. Footsore, we sit down and stay there. And then even our cells begin to go random on us, producing small failures of replication that mark our skin. Eventually, we leave the room feet first, hoping only to be remembered in someone else’s head, or by someone else’s hand. Without something happening in that higher human register where things are thrown, and thought, walking is strictly for the birds.