The Art of Walking: A Conversation with William Sharpe

Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, 1818

Late this autumn, shortly after the publication of The Art of Walking from Yale University Press, I had a very pleasant opportunity to converse with the author William Sharpe about the workings of his book, the trend of “walking literature,” his ongoing interests in walking and scholarship with painting and visual aesthetics.

Since this publication, Sharpe has been delighted that his research enables him to take pedestrian excursions in many fascinating places, most recently Scotland, France, Greece, and Albania.

We first met in 2019 in Paris, when and where Sharpe began working on his book. Below is a full version of our conversation.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain: Why do you think there exists a perennial interest in “walking literature”? My question begs the assumption that there is this longstanding endeavor of writing about walking, not to mention the legitimacy of a literary history.

William C. Sharpe: Back in 1833, Balzac claimed (in Theorie de la demarche) to be the first person ever to write about walking, but as usual he was rather casual in his research. The first ambulatory essay in English, “On Going a Journey” by William Hazlitt, appeared in 1822, and before that Wordsworth’s poems and his Guide to the Lakes (published in many editions after 1810) had already sold the British public on the idea that a good walk taken in beautiful surroundings was a shortcut to self-revelation.

And Balzac really should have known about Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), which helped inspire Wordsworth, or about Xavier de Maistre’s fanciful Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794), not to mention Michel de Montaigne remark: Mon esprit ne va, si les jambes ne l’agitent. “My mind stays still, if my feet don’t get it going.” And if we look further back, what is Dante’s Inferno but a long walk through sinfulness, a narrative tactic applied allegorically in the most reprinted book in English history, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) of John Bunyan.

And then there are tales of pilgrimage, travel, adventure, and salvation, back to Xenophon or Exodus. If we look ahead to the century after Balzac, it doesn’t matter if the narrative technique is extremely demanding, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, or timelessly epic, as in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings—a walk is still a great way to take an audience on an imaginative journey.

This is all by way of saying that the story of walking is at its fullest the history of storytelling and the history of the human race. Which makes sense, since walking is the fundamental way humans explore and master their environment. Biologists and anthropologists agree that upright walking is what makes humans human, since it opened the way, about three million years ago, for rapid cranial development, sustained use of the hands, and more energy-efficient motion across long distances.

Almost as soon as there is literature, there are whole peoples on the move, armies on the march, individuals hunting and exploring and questing. As societies become more complex, we get walking in processions to demonstrate devotion or power, we get walking on pilgrimages to show religious commitment, we get displays of conquest, or elegance, or wealth, or individual expression and social position, as hawkers and prostitutes, bankers and bakers and barons, all walk certain ways to advertise themselves.

When we get to the modern period of walking, circa 1800, the big innovation is that people begin to walk for the pleasure of it; “walking for its own sake” gradually becomes a leisure activity with a double purpose. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution walking advertises slowness rather than speed, and reflection rather than production. But the production just moves inward, as walkers seek to profit from their leisure time. They walk for better health or self-understanding or a deeper connection to God and nature. And if they can, they write a book about it. Since this time, roughly equivalent to the Romantic Period in English culture (1780-1830), walking narratives have grown exponentially, merging the nascent self-help genre with the travel and adventure category of literature.

Sze-Lorrain: Self-help and travel and adventure: this sums up the so-called targeted audience of a great number of “walking” soundbites, books, and documentaries today. Do you have some personal favorites?

Sharpe: Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014) adds another layer to the walking narrative, by following in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “Great Trudge” from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in 1933-34. Hunt does not just nurse shin splints and his own psyche; he dives deep into cultural differences, the meaning of hospitality, and the changes in the European mindset caused by war, Communism, free-market capitalism, hyper-development, and modern tourism.

Right now I am enjoying Neil King Jr.’s American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal (2023), which is an extremely thoughtful record of a journey from the door of his house in Washington, DC to Central Park in New York City. King deliberately avoided walking trails, instead following roads with historical resonances, including the infamous Mason-Dixon line that separated slave-holding from free states before the American Civil War. And like almost everyone else, I am a fan of Robert MacFarlane’s books, particularly The Old Ways (2013)—all of which means that I like to read about encounters with history and culture in the midst of a challenging trek.

Sze-Lorrain: What do you think are some challenges faced by writers today in walking-related narratives, particularly among the growing number of nonfiction titles in recent years? Do you even agree that there may be some formulaic rendering or packaging for books on walking?

Sharpe: These days, the typical walking book will recount an impressive physical undertaking that is nonetheless only the outward manifestation of an intense psychological or spiritual struggle that the author hopes to win by the end of the trail and the tale. Recent examples include Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Sylvain Tesson’s Les Chemins Noirs, and Raynor Winn’s Landlines.

Almost every narrative of a trail conquered is underpinned by hard-won insights about the rewards of facing up to natural dangers and human fragility, or nature’s fragility and human dangers. For the most part, modern walking literature is a fascinating melding of autobiography and ecological discovery, and even the most city-centered flaneur will reflect on how social organization ties in to planetary health. More than ever, writers who walk are aware that “culture” has both linguistic and literal roots in soil whose cultivation require our urgent attention.

Sze-Lorrain: The title of the book speaks for itself: The Art of Walking: A History in 100 Images. The fact that you introduces the immediacy of seeing in walking, drawing connections between different senses and thought processes is a refreshing take, and dare I say, quite unlike most scholarship. The walker is the observer, and much more—the one who engages with art—an image of walking—doubling the intimacy of walking as the experience. Which comes first during your working process: the chosen image or . . . ?

Sharpe: I got interested in the visual art of walking for several reasons. First, when I walk I like to look at things for the simple pleasure of seeing how they are transformed when various kinds of light fall upon them, a curiosity that has intensified as I have learned to paint in watercolor and oil. Wordsworth talked of the poet’s mind as “creator and receiver both” of the natural world, and to paint a landscape is to create it a second time, increasing the pleasure of perception. (As a painter, I have to say that Monet’s Woman with a Parasol: Madame Monet and Her Son is my favorite image of a walk; it radiates, scintillates, vibrates with sunlight and breeze-blown clouds).

Second, it struck me that the representation of walking is as omnipresent in art history as it is in literature. Almost any time people are shown actively engaged in an activity, walking will be part of the picture. At the same time, I was intrigued by the idea that a new way of walking would logically mean a new way of representing it, whether on paper or canvas or stained glass or film. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that art history, human history, and walking history were all intertwined.

So my goal became to tell a story that would move back and forth between the history of walking images and images of walking history. That’s what The Art of Walking is all about for me, looking at milestones along the road toward the present moment, milestones of pictorial style and subject matter and social behavior, but milestones also of human creativity, from cave art to Roman bridges to high heels to crosswalks to GPS-enabled tracings of bodies wandering through time and space.

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son. Claude Monet. 1875. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Sze-Lorrain: Why 100? Is the number random? Or did you have the idea from the start that “the book must be about 100 images on walking”?

Sharpe: I chose to tell my tale in 100 images because I reckoned that if Dante could take in all of heaven, hell, and purgatory in 100 cantos, I ought to be able to say something useful about people traversing the earth in the same number of installments. But 100 images is just the first step on a thousand-mile journey. My hope is that this book will be a good starting place for anyone who wants to travel further up the visual trail of human locomotion.

Sze-Lorrain: The visual and the word are often misconceived, or conveniently taken, as a binary, a polarity, “this versus that.” Can you share a little about your painting life and how it tunes in to your writing and reading?

Sharpe: I keep coming back to a remark by the conceptual artist John Baldesari: “I tend to think of words as substitutes for images. I can never seem to figure out what one does that the other doesn’t do.”

The fact is that when we see, we read, and when we read, we see. Visual and verbal signs are inevitably intertwined in the way we process them, a topic that I went into extensively in my book Grasping Shadows (2017), where I compare how “the dark side” of objects helps to make meaning in literature, painting, photography, and film. My “English-professor” thoughts about a landscape I walk through (remembering Wordsworth’s poems or Jane Austen’s descriptions) are tangled up in retinal perception of what’s before me, plus the memory of paintings I carry in my head. So when I paint a tree or a cloud, I am calling on a visual repertory (maybe Constable or Winslow Homer or Tiepolo) as the same time that I am thinking of songs about clouds and poems about trees, and saying to myself the words “burnt umber” as I reach my brush toward a pile of paint that I want for its color, not its denotation.

Artists like to talk about “being in the zone” where a painting seems to create itself without conscious thought on the part of the painter, but I find it hard to believe that most artists can paint a picture without talking—a lot!—to themselves.

Sze-Lorrain: The knowledge, research, documentation come from such wide-ranging sources and experiences that the richness of these materials make me wonder, At what point did you decide to stop researching and start writing? Obviously you continued to walk even when writing, even if the walks or trails weren’t of the ambitious pilgrimages sort!

Sharpe: I did my basic research in Paris from 2019 to 2020, but when opportunities to walk in France were seriously curtailed in March 2020 during the pandemic, I was lucky enough to be able to retreat to my house in Vermont, where I was far from books but close to the Appalachian Trail. So in 2020 and 2021, I wrote very steadily and hiked often.

Sze-Lorrain: Did you see yourself as a historian documenting walking through visual cues, or was the curation of images more organic than expected? I ask because I’m wondering if there might have been images that you would like to include but couldn’t? And vice versa, whether there were images that you didn’t think of including but for some reason found their way into the book?

Sharpe: From the start I had more images than I could possibly discuss, so the task was to try to select each picture because it had something new to tell us about both ways of walking and ways of making images.

I deeply regret that I could not include many artworks and artifacts. To mention just a few: Giacometti’s Walking Man, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Sorolla’s Walk on the Beach, the Ampelmännchen street-crossing signals of East Germany, and a fifteenth-century bas-relief from Bourges depicting Little Red Riding Hood on her way to see her grandmother. I am sorry every day that I could not find a way to squeeze in a separate essay on zombies. My editor Amy Canonico was very helpful in getting me to think through my principles of selection, and that led to more on walking by necessity, such as The Wandering Jew and The Runaway Slave.

Sze-Lorrain: What else about walking would you like to write about?

Sharpe: I am pursuing another idea right now, about why we walk, in Western society, in certain ways and places that have to do with the past 250 years of cultural training. At the moment, I teach a course called “Walk This Way,” where we consider the cultural history of walking in regard to the triple meaning of the phrase; “walk this way” can be an invitation, an instruction, or even a certain sort of itinerary.

Leisure-related walking got its start from the aesthetics of the picturesque—people strolled in or hiked to places that looked like impressive landscape paintings. There is still a strong element of seeing and being seen in all modern walking, urban or rural, and now that walking has become a recognized form of performance art we are again witnessing ways in which artistic ideas about the body and environment influence the steps we take.

In the past few decades, humans have created a surveillance-oriented civilization, and the reality of the watched walker (a concept I introduce in The Art of Walking) means that both artists and the general public have to walk with the knowledge that they are always on stage, always acting for the camera. Walking may seem natural, but it is one of the most culturally scripted things we can do.

William Sharpe

William Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, where he teaches courses on Victorian and Modern literature. Supported by grants from Mellon, Fulbright, NEH, Guggenheim, and other foundations, his research centers on urban culture, as reflected in Unreal Cities (1990) and New York Nocturne (2008). More recently, he has combined that interest with an exploration of artistic images that are linked to the act of walking: Grasping Shadows (2017) and The Art of Walking (2023). His current project explores how the Western world has taught itself to walk in certain ways and places since walking first became a leisure activity in the eighteenth century.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a writer, poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist who writes and translates in English, French, and Chinese. Her novel Dear Chrysanthemums (Scribner, 2023) is longlisted for the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Her work also includes five poetry collections—most recently Rain in Plural (2020) and The Ruined Elegance (2016), both from Princeton University Press—and fifteen books of translation. She lives in Paris where she works as an editor at Vif Éditions.

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