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Robin Jarvis, Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel.

Monday, May 17, 1999 - 07:58
Robin Jarvis, Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel. London: Macmillan, 1997. x + 246pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-65814-0).

Reviewed by
Anne D. Wallace
University of Southern Mississippi

In this contribution to the ongoing critical discussion of mobility and literature in the modern world, Robin Jarvis significantly refines our understanding of the material histories of walking and these histories' conjunctions with literature in Britain during the crucial period from the 1780s to the 1820s. Many of his most important claims concern "pedestrian travel," the long-distance touring he characterizes as "fluid, improvised, open-ended walking" (90). But he also surveys the varieties of motivations, forms and expressions of walking during the period so that, rather than advancing one master thesis, Jarvis collects related observations of

the ways in which intellectual processes and textual effects are grounded in the material practice of walking. . . . This is not to imply some organic oneness of sense and expression in peripatetic literature, but to insist that in the displacement from physical experience to the order of imagined reality and literary representation the rhythms and modalities of walking remain a visibly determining influence. (33)

Without being reductive, I think it is safe to say that Jarvis attributes what he later calls "the potential of the genetic link between walking and writing" (91), in the specific case of pedestrian travel, to what he identifies as the freely directed, irregular, underdetermined physical qualities of such movement. These qualities, which Jarvis posits as inhering in the materialities of pedestrianism itself, mean that such travel can embody resistance to cultural categories from the personal to the aesthetic to the political, and at levels ranging from the oppositional to a suspension of resolution resembling Keats's "negative capability." Jarvis also argues that these free, resistant material and psychological conditions of pedestrian travel can be traced in the formal and thematic textual effects of writers who were themselves pedestrian travelers (or whose walking, for some reason, approached that specific modality). Like several recent critics—although no work of this kind had been published when he began his inquiry—Jarvis locates the release of pedestrianism's positive textual potential in the Romantic period, agreeing with Leslie Stephen's classic claim that "'the literary movement at the end of the eighteenth century was . . . due in great part, if not mainly, to the renewed practice of walking.1

At this point, I feel I should call attention to my position as an unusually interested reader. I am one of three critics (the others are Roger Gilbert and Jeffrey Robinson) whom Jarvis identifies as having "initiated the scholarly debate" about walking and literature, all of whose work he engages throughout his study (ix). Any reader of Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel will quickly understand why I take this uncustomary precaution: in the first two chapters, Jarvis so thoroughly confronts my readings of peripatetic and its origins that the usual polite elision of a reviewer's voice would be disingenuous here. As you will see, I have serious reservations about Jarvis's return to phenomenological accounts of how walking in literature means, because I think such accounts—a staple of peripatetic itself—work to obscure the very historical processes Jarvis and I have both attempted to trace. But in many respects this book is just the sort of study I hoped our earlier wave of work would provoke, challenging and nuancing our formulations in fruitful ways.

Jarvis's most persuasive argument, in my view, is that a "first generation" of pedestrian tourists during the 1780s and '90s, a generation heavily though not exclusively drawn from middle-class intellectuals, countered the "deeply-sedimented history of associating walking with indigence, necessity and fate, and in later centuries with the illicit freedom of the road and the deterrent force of the still-active vagrancy laws" by choosing to tour on foot (23–24). As Jarvis formulates it, "their walking was a radical assertion of autonomy" undertaken because "they were intent upon clearing their own ideological space" outside of the various contexts of "their upbringing and education, . . . parental expectations and class etiquette, . . . a hierarchical and segregated society. . . . [and] a culturally defined and circumscribed self" (28). This first generation's subjective intention toward autonomous selfhood originates pedestrian touring as a "distinctive subculture" even at this early date (17), and characteristically infuses later peripatetic literature (a term Jarvis broadly uses, if I understand him, to mean literature arising from the practice of walking).

Jarvis foregrounds the intentional, confrontational character of pedestrian touring in the 1780 and '90s as a corrective to what he at one point calls the "crudely materialist calculus" which seems to him the consequence of my own arguments about the role of the transport revolution in enabling positive practice and perceptions of walking (22). In particular, he argues that real improvement in speed and ease of travel could not have had a decisive effect until the 1820s or '30s, so that while the transport revolution might have fueled the establishment of mainstream pedestrianism in the late Romantic period, it cannot account for this first generation's revolutionary practices. In part our different readings are precisely that: different interpretations of the same historical evidence, at least so far as the transport revolution goes, in which I foreground the gradually gathering force of changes in transport and Jarvis notes the slowness of those changes. Despite his general discounting of improved ease of travel, in fact, Jarvis cites the improvement of main roads as a mechanism of political consolidation and control—the repressive implications of improved transport—as a potential motivating factor in the early pedestrians' characteristic "decision to exploit [their] freedom to resist the imperative of destination" by walking at large or following fieldpaths and lanes instead (30). In my own defense, too, I would note that I do not attribute the shifting attitudes toward walkers solely to the transport revolution but to a mutually amplifying field of changes in transport, agriculture, topography (specifically enclosure), landscape viewing and literary representation—changes in all these areas being observable to greater or lesser extents from 1750 or earlier, as Jarvis also demonstrates at length in his analysis of eighteenth-century literary shifts toward a pedestrian aesthetic.

But despite my different sense of these histories, I think Jarvis's repopulation of the 1780s and '90s with deliberate walkers, and his recognition that these early pedestrian tourists must necessarily "have been confronting the still dominant prejudicial assumptions about walking" (19), develop an important distinction within the longer period of attitudinal and practical changes that "ended" with the hardening of literary and popular ideologies of walking from the 1820s on. Such a distinction implies—as Jarvis's following discussions may be intended to demonstrate, though he does not say so—other potential distinctions in the period—differences, perhaps, between the "early" pedestrian tourist William Wordsworth Jarvis emphasizes and the "mature" (Jarvis's term) excursive Wordsworthian walker on whom I focused, all of which might simultaneously contribute to changing notions of walking.

Jarvis advances this argument in his first chapter, following it up in the second with an account of the "loose assembly of motives and desires constituting [the] historical figure" of the pedestrian traveler as that figure develops in his first generation (33). Considering in turn the radical walker, the pilgrim, the philosophical walker, and the aesthetic walker, he closes his "anatomy" of the pedestrian traveler with a brief consideration of "pedestrianism and the picturesque" which carries over into his third chapter, "Pedestrianism and Peripatetic Form." Jarvis's contention that the picturesque preference for irregularity, and its advocacy of the free rearrangement of landscape elements, mark important congruities between picturesque and pedestrian touring was, for me, most edifying. I cannot follow Jarvis so far as to find picturesque only or even predominantly consonant with pedestrian aesthetics, because I remain convinced that the picturesque preference for fixed views—freely arranged or not—is quite different than the contiguous, moving views I think are characteristic of the (literary) pedestrian aesthetic. Jarvis himself cites "Coleridge's habit of referring to viewpoints as 'Resting Places' in place of the customary picturesque term 'station,'" as evidence of a "freedom from picturesque conformity stem[ming] from a physical immersion in the landscape that can arise only from walking through it" (131). But Jarvis's analysis fruitfully recomplicates the relationship between picturesque and pedestrian aesthetics, suggesting our discussions of these tensions are by no means exhausted.

It is in his third chapter that Jarvis fully develops the second, phenomenological strand of his argument. Moving from his discussion of picturesque aesthetics toward his readings of individual writers in later chapters, he prepares to discuss how such writers "give purposeful expression to the ways in which pedestrian motion can condition or mediate thought and perception" by "establish[ing] some of the distinguishing features of walking . . . specifically as a way of experiencing landscape or as a form of consciousness-in-motion." Such distinguishing features, Jarvis claims, "should be readily recognized by anyone who has done any long-distance or endurance walking"—that is, they inhere in such walking itself and are always/everywhere available for use. Without rehearsing his entire inventory, I'll extract some samples of the celebratory language Jarvis uses in describing these inherent experiential features, language which (in very familiar terms) constructs walking as a superior perceptual mode. A walker is "in constant sensuous contact with the environment" and is "entirely responsible via voluntary movements of the limbs for what s/he perceives of the natural surroundings"; because of their "moderate, steady pace," walkers move "in a broader, more finely-grained perceptual envelope that provides complete freedom" to stop, look back, and otherwise select perspective; because of the "regular, alternating rhythm" of stepping on and on in a long journey, they enjoy "enhanced mental excitation . . . because walking has a remarkable ability to purge the mind of its habitual, everyday clutter"; and so forth (67–68).

Jarvis then traces what he regards as the characteristics of "peripatetic form"—which include such things as the "'free association' or recombination" of actual experience evident in the development of William Wordsworth's "Salisbury Plain" poems (119), and the Romantics' preference for "the intuitive correspondent form of peripatetic," blank verse (109)—directly to this phenomenology of pedestrian travel. Despite his conscientious returns to phrases such as "speculative" and "often highly mediated" as he describes the relationship between walking and writing, Jarvis develops the particular relationships his phenomenological argument clearly privileges: "the range of means . . . by which walking generates writing" (89). That is, Jarvis's account of the "genetic" relationship between the two locates the origin of walking's positive interpretations in the actual experience of walking itself.

My problems with this argument, though manifold in detail, can be summed up as its (dis)juncture with Jarvis's other, historicist argument. If Romantic and post-Romantic peripatetic is generated by qualities inherent to pedestrian touring, then these qualities cannot be the motivating force in the historical sea-change Jarvis and I (and Roger Gilbert, and Jeffrey Robinson, and Celeste Langan) have differently described. If, as Jarvis reiterates in his reading of William Wordsworth, "anyone who has participated in the activity will recognise the salient (positive) perceptual experience which finds expression in peripatetic literature (120), then why didn't Samuel Johnson? Thomas Coryate? William Shakespeare, for that matter (assuming he really did spend that time touring the countryside)? It should not require some critical mass of mutual experience to discover such virtues, if the virtues directly and unmistakably result from the physiological and psychological nature of walking. Even if such positive perceptual advantages have always been objectively present, just waiting to be discovered when conditions finally became more favorable to our subjective recognition of them (a possible progressivist history), it remains the case that some other thing(s) about and around pedestrian touring must have changed to create such favorable conditions.

Early on, as I indicated, Jarvis advances the subject's search for self, with its corresponding desire for autonomy and resistance to cultural categories, as such another motive force. But this explanation, though entirely sensible in its general form, begs other questions—such as how and why "self" begins to function as it does during modernity. To make this stick as a historical explanation, in which the intention toward autonomous selfhood triggers or develops coevally with the first wave of pedestrian touring, Jarvis has to historicize modern subjectivity, rather than merely appeal to it as an understood (natural) feature of human experience.

I want to make it clear that I do not reject phenomenological arguments out of hand, indulging in an "inconsolable dualism of mind and body," as Jarvis worries (120). I, too, posit that the physical experience of walking has some nearly irreducible forms which it lends to the positive interpretations constructed by Romanticism—sequentiality (a property Jarvis gives full and interesting attention), contiguity, naturalness (for most humans, though not all). But to go beyond such stripped down descriptions (and even these carry some evaluative sense) is to enter the realm of interpretation of material phenomena—and the whole problem is just how interpretations of walking became predominantly positive. As it stands, Jarvis's argument primarily repeats the dehistoricizing argument of peripatetic itself: Leslie Stephen's argument (Jarvis's acknowledged starting point) that walking produces (Romantic) writing, or the implicit and explicit arguments of the Wordsworths that walking constitutes composition, arguments in which walking itself naturally contains the positive interpretative and expressive possibilities attributed to it in texts about walking. In my view, these arguments are what "disappeared" walking from literary critical view in the first place. To renovate them now seems—to me—counterproductive if our aim is to take some historical view of the subject.

Nonetheless, Jarvis's readings of individual authors in the following chapters are extremely interesting in their own terms. Though his choice of authors is not surprising—William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth, John Clare, William Hazlitt and John Keats—he occasionally supplements these with others farther from the usual frame—Sarah Hazlitt, for instance—and often chooses less-studied texts, such as William's "Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches" and Dorothy's travel journals, for his main readings. I was sorry to see Dorothy's Alfdoxden and Grasmere journals treated, once again, as a simple record of everyday life, in which "walking is more a given of existence than a conscious aesthetic choice" (162)—not a judgement that sorts well with the gorgeously worked Alfoxden entries for January 1798, for instance. Nor can I understand how Jarvis can praise William's poetry for its sustained, unresolved expression of "two poles of a complex sensibility . . . the itinerant and the settled, the vagrant and the domestic, the free and the bounded" (124), and then characterize Dorothy's "powerfully ambivalent yearnings towards both mobility and emplacement" as "fundamental contradictions in the writer's mental and emotional life," so that her domestication of exotic space somehow limits rather than expands her liberty (170). But his sustained analysis of the process of domestication in the travel journals is very helpful.

Another edifying expansion of our sense of walking in Romantic literature is Jarvis's discussion of Keats' epistolary account of his summer 1818 pedestrian tour to the Lakes and the Scottish Highlands. Drawing on Jeffrey N. Cox's account of the Cockney School, Jarvis argues that "Keats's travel writing might be taken to depict an urbanising excursion into the wilder parts of the country, an ironic counterpart to the 'ruralizing imagination' at work in much literature of the city" (206). Jarvis's following account of urban literary walking in John Gay, Thomas De Quincey, Leigh Hunt, Walter Benjamin, and Charles Baudelaire suggests the wealth of work yet to be done with these quite distinct histories of walking.

New work on literature's relationship to modern practices and ideas of mobility, travel, and walking is now appearing regularly, with no sign that we are near the end of our rethinking of these apparently timely subjects. Robin Jarvis joins this effort with a thoughtful, provocative study which also contributes to Romantic studies at large.

1 Leslie Stephen, In Praise of Walking [no citation], quoted in Jarvis, ix.