composite image of book cover and portrait of the author

A New Book Explores the Literary and Political Dimensions of Walking

Matthew Beaumont, author of The Walker, speaks with Metropolis about how, by simply putting one foot in front of the other, we can resist the privatization, surveillance, and isolation of contemporary life.

As a young man, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was walking with a friend after midnight when the police stopped them in Los Angeles’s Pershing Square. Content simply to wander the streets at night, this frightening experience, and a similar one several years later, led Bradbury to write “The Pedestrian,” a short story in which pedestrianism, especially at night, has become criminalized and socially marginalzied. As Bradbury biographer Jonathan Eller wrote, Bradbury “had come to see the pedestrian as a threshold or indicator species among urban dwellers—if the rights of the pedestrian were threatened, this would represent an early indicator that basic freedoms would soon be at risk.”

As this experience suggests, even relatively privileged walkers are often seen by the powers-that-be as a threat, something to dissuade, which has often been accomplished by anti-pedestrian urban design policies that make cities unwalkable to begin with. But as Matthew Beaumont argues in The Walker, recently published in paperback by Verso, we need to wander through our cities on foot, now more than ever. Beaumont writes: “it is walking that habitually makes me feel alive. It makes me feel both vitally connected to the city’s ceaseless circuits of energy and, at the same time, delicately detached from them.”

The Walker makes a grand case for the moral, philosophical, and virtue of walking through a literary history of walking characters, from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, The Walker asks people today to step out once more, to treat such perambulation as an important political act, resisting the increasing privatization, surveillance, and isolation of modern life.

“When we get sucked into the virtual world at the expense of the material world, as we move through the city staring at our phones, we forget how to forget how to interact with other people. We close ourselves off from all the smells, sights and sounds of the city.”

Matthew Beaumont, Author, The Walker

Walking clearly possesses a spiritual quality for you. What about urban walking feels so meaningful?

Walking is beautiful because it connects the body with the world, not in the attenuated, virtualized way that the body often encounters these days, but in a much more material and vibrantly disciplined way. As philosophers for centuries have argued, walking also develops interesting thought: It creates a kind of rambling consciousness, which I find immensely productive and creative.

As a kid I discovered walking at night in my late teens, not so much in London, but initially in Rome when I first went there. Because I had no money at the time, I ended up walking around the city at night, and I learned an enormous amount from that experience. It was it was slightly frightening and alarming at times. It made me conscious that the city at night is different than during the day, which sounds like an obvious point to make. But it’s not simply that we see the underside of a city at night: It’s the atmospherics that are so different. One’s sensual experience of the city is transformed.

A lot of the book is about the image of the flaneur, a very specific kind of walker who’s often white, male, and able-bodied. How does that heritage impact those people who don’t look like that?

The book is a bit too indebted to the flaneur, who emerges in the in the mid-19th century in Paris as a kind of archetype. Even though aspects of it remain desirable, allowing the walker to absorb the city, involving both an immersion in the city and a certain detachment, it remains a privilege today.  For women, people of color, and perhaps most significantly, of people with disabilities, physical disabilities in particular, access to the city to walking in the city are restricted or prohibited. For me, the dream city in one in which everyone, not just white middle-aged men like me, feel free to walk in the city.

Leaving the book aside for a moment and thinking in policy or sociological rather than literary terms, we need to take action in our cities to open up urban space to women, to people of color, to those with disabilities. That means making the city the ground level much more accessible for everyone, in lifting the kind of moral curfew that prevails in cities, which makes those relatively marginalized groups feel that they can’t be at home in the city at night. We also need to show that even for the male walker in literary history, there are challenges that need to be addressed. That that’s why the titles of chapters have these gerunds: Fleeing, Stumbling, Collapsing. Even relatively comfortable people still struggle to negotiate the city, and thus we need to think more about how it’s experienced by those who don’t have those privileges.

The experience of walkers in different cities varies dramatically. Given that you view follow Ray Bradbury’s view of walkers as an “indicator species” of urban health, what do we derive from making comparisons across places?

If we take seriously this idea the walker is an indicator species, it one can tell a lot about a social and political ecology. I think it’s incumbent on us to compare different cities, and to have a sense of how different these experiences are for walkers, and the ways in which cities promote or don’t promote the automobile. I think walkers are becoming more marginalized, despite the very superficial greening of urban planning and city policy.

When we’re sitting in a car, protected by that metal box, it’s not just that we’ve become careless of physical life, it’s that a slightly homicidal impulse seems to take over. The polarization between drivers and walkers is exacerbated by policies which promote cars over pedestrians, or which only superficially address the concerns of pedestrians and cyclists, those who tend to care much more about environmental destruction of transport.

You also suggest in the book that walking is imperiled by the rise of distractedness brought upon by smartphones and how they change our movements. Why is this a problem?

It really concerns me, both for political and broader environmental reasons. Politically, I think it closes us off to what’s happening in our cities: for example, to the fact that the greening of cities is insufficient and very limited, and the fact that pedestrians are being marginalized, and to the ways in which buildings in our immediate urban environment are being altered, destroyed, reconstructed, and privatized above all else. When we’re not looking around when we walk, we simply close ourselves off from our role in the location as I see it in in monitoring the ways in which our worlds are being changed in undemocratic ways.

Environmentally, when we get sucked into the virtual world at the expense of the material world, as we move through the city staring at our phones, we forget how to forget how to interact with other people. We close ourselves off from all the smells, sights and sounds of the city. We also forget how fun it is to interact with other people in the streets. It might sound a bit pretentious, but there’s a great art in walking down a busy street. I think it’s one of the great choreographic experiences of metropolitan modernity, that dance that we all do, individually and collectively, as we walk down the street, which involves not just shimmying and slaloming so that we don’t collide with people, but it also involves important democratic and civic values, including generousness and graciousness.

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