BOOK REVIEW / Great books, and the plod of weary feet: Walking, Literature and English Culture - Anne D Wallace: Clarendon, pounds 30

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The Independent Online
I SUPPOSE there is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that anyone not in a lit crit faculty will stay awake while reading this book only by going for a walk at the same time. It has a promising main title and a lovely opening, with the author standing on top of Silver How, looking over the vale of Grasmere toward Windermere and 'watching the setting sun ignite the grey clouds with faint, flaring pink'.

But be warned. This is the fruit of an American PhD thesis, more preoccupied with refuting rival critical claims than discussing the joys of lake water lapping against the shore.

Wallace has discovered 'a disturbing interpretative gap' in the treatment of walking 'as a crucial metaphorical and narrative structure' in literature. She sets her stage by claiming that walking, once a despised and dangerous method of progress, was reassessed as a vital and therapeutic way of staying in touch with a pastoral inheritance and regenerating and inspiring an individual's life. These preliminary chapters work well enough, though Morris Marples' 1959 Shanks's Pony: A Study in Walking is referred to so often that one can't help suspecting it is the book one should be reading.

The rot sets in seriously with Wordsworth, the hinge of the book. Before he wrote his Excursion, musing in solitude 'on Man, on Nature, and on Human Life', writers were more concerned with arriving than with the process of setting one foot in front of the other. Wallace evaluates later writers by considering whether or not they produce 'explications of the account of walking implicit in Wordsworthian peripatetic which abstract peripatetic practice from its historical origins, making excursive walking's presumed benefits seem inherent effects of the practice itself rather than expectations derived from particular material and textual conditions'.

Now you see what I mean about staying on your feet while reading this. Since we do not give a damn about the explication of the peripatetic, why bother with this book at all, you may well ask. Partly because it provides an excellent survey of literary walkers and walkers in literature, and a most enticing bibliography. It is studded with unusual jewels, starting with Thomas Coryate, who travelled from Somerset to Venice and back, largely on foot, and produced the deliciously titled Coryat's Crudities: Hastily gobled up in five Moneths travels in France, Italy, etc in 1611, and John Gay's 1715 Trivia, or the Art of Walking in London, and winding up with James Plumptre's satirical parody of tourers in search of the picturesque, The Lakers, a Comic Opera in Three Acts (1798) and Stevenson's exhilarating Walking Tours (1881). Wallace's subject matter (though not her treatment of it) reminds us of the rich diversity and essential Englishness of the writers and poets who have chosen to take as their subject the pad of foot on the ground.

A different, but equally important reason for hauling a book like this into the public eye is that it is about time we complained much more loudly and forcibly about the application of nonsensically opaque language and pseudo-scientific theories to the humanities. 'The appreciation of art and literature has no scientific basis whatever; one is dealing in the unquantifiable coin of feeling, intuition and (from time to time) moral judgement,' writes Robert Hughes in his excellent diatribe against cant and hypocrisy, Culture of Complaint.

There is plenty of evidence that somewhere inside this book an author sensitive to all that is good in English literature is struggling to get out. I liked those initial impulses on Silver How, her nicely curious historical sense, and more than a few perceptive asides. But Wallace shuffles along, in artificial limits of her own making, tidying greatness to fit obsessive detail, too preoccupied with parts to illuminate the whole.