Books

The Path in 'Beneath My Feet' Is Too Narrow to Follow

It would seem high time to put together an anthology of literary voices that have been marginalized in the grand tradition of walking. Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking is not that anthology.

Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking
Duncan Minshull ed.

Notting Hill Editions / New York Review of Books

Apr 2019

Other

"Hello. Just back from your daily walk?" asks editor and walking enthusiast Duncan Minshull at the start of his new anthology, Beneath My Feet: Writers on Walking (xi). If you're most people, the answer is probably no. Who has the time anymore to take a constitutional and follow it with a healthy dose of pleasure reading? Lucky retirees, maybe.

But for the chipper Minshull, walking ought to be an important part of any literato/a's daily routine. After all, the greatest writers were great walkers, too. Take the Romantics, who spent a lot of time hoofing it through nature, or later, the Modernists, who would do the same in cities. In fact, the figure of the flâneur -- that intrepid man (always a man) about town first theorized by the philosopher Walter Benjamin with the help of the poet Charles Baudelaire -- has become the archetypal literary subject of the last century and a half.

But the fact is that most writers and readers don't resemble Benjaminian flâneurs at all and haven't for a very long time. In the United States, where the automobile is king, people have to drive most places, and on the off chance that you do have the time and energy to take a walk, where do you go? There's less and less public space, and private space is increasingly forbidding. Going on foot can be dicey, depending on where you are -- and who you are. For women and people of color, even walking around your own neighborhood can risk attack or worse. And for the differently abled, walking might not even be an option.

It would seem like high time to put together an anthology of literary voices that have been marginalized in the grand tradition of walking. Beneath My Feet, unfortunately, is not that anthology. What it wants to be is a lighthearted promenade where readers will stop and admire the excerpts, some as long as a chapter, others as short as a sentence. What it becomes, in spite of itself, is a glimpse into just how narrow a literary conception of walking can be.

Anthologies are windows into the biases of both their editors and the canons they curate. Minshull's wheelhouse is meat-and-potatoes Anglo-American lit from the last 200 years or so, though he does get a little crazy and throw some French chevaliers in the mix. Of the 36 writers excerpted in Beneath My Feet, less than a quarter are women, and only one that I'm aware -- one -- is a writer of color. Obviously, we could drag Minshull until the end of time for this utter lack of effort. It would be almost funny if he didn't repeat this mistake in tragic miniature in the book's afterword, where he assembles a bunch of zippy one-liners about walking, like some kind of quotable dessert cart.

However, of the 40 individuals to whom the quotes are attributed, only five are women. The 41st and last quote printed in the afterword is the only one attributed to a group of speakers, the Kalahari Bushmen, to whom Minshull politely tips his hat as if he were saying "Cheerio" to the entire universe of culture that falls outside of his pathologically old-fashioned taste. "And when we die, the wind blows away our footprints," say the bushmen, although footprints are not the only things that have been swept away in this book.

Minshull has mainly selected texts not just from white men, but from white men who champion his romantic notions about walking. A lot of the selections are from guys like naturalist and author John Muir who, with the help of colorful local guides, go hiking into unknown territory, which is a metaphor for the creative process, in case you weren't sure. Don't get me wrong: there can be value to reading Muir and other nature writers. But Minshull provides no such critical frame and no rationale for the book other than "writing + walking = good". We get the sense though, through his choices and omissions, that certain forms of writing and certain kinds of walkers are better.

There are plenty of white, male walker-writers who don't make the cut: the Surrealists, the Situationists, and Michel de Certeau, for example. Even the controversial flâneur -- is he an eccentric cosmopolite or just a middle-class jerk? -- doesn't really get proper treatment. This is because Minshull seems uncomfortable with the idea that, for a lot of people, walking can be a complex practice in which one confronts the power one doesn't have rather than consolidates the power that one was born into. The Pakistani-British novelist Kamila Shamsie -- who has the dubious distinction of getting the anthology to meet its quota for "woman", "POC", and "contemporary" -- helps illustrate this complexity with her entry, entitled "Trepidation", which ends with the line: "A woman walking alone after midnight is always too conscious of being alone to properly inhabit that space which is solitude" (135).

An observation like that ought to have made Minshull think a bit more about Beneath My Feet and what kinds of awareness it might raise. But no. Minshull's primary concern remains "the classic desk-dweller" who goes "out into the world -- to meet with others, explore things, observe closely" (xi). Others. Things. This is maddeningly vague. Kudos for making space for Shamsie; but ultimately, Minshull does her a disservice by not engaging with her point, by just dangling her remarks out there without seeming to hear them.

Minshull might have also taken a cue from Lauren Elkin, whose 2016 Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Toky, Venice, and London is briefly excerpted in Beneath My Feet. Elkin, who has argued for a recuperative history of a tradition of female literary walking, gets short shrift: Minshull cuts her off right as she announces herself to be a flâneuse, without giving her the space to start unpacking what that means. If he had read a bit further, he would have found that Elkin is onto something exciting and that writers in the 21st century are thinking about walking in potentially expansive ways. That's an anthology to look forward to.

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