- Walking and the French Romantics. Rousseau to Sand and Hugo
Walking and Romanticism are two inextricable cultural achievements, or so it would appear from C. W. Thompson's recent book. The modern form of recreational walking, which, first in England and Germany, and later in France, prompted a new generation of poets and painters to repossess their national landscapes on foot, had a measurable impact on the evolution of Romantic art. Thompson's book sets out to trace this impact on a handful of major and minor French Romantics, and starts from the slightly discouraging premise that while the French wrote more travel books than the English and German, they also walked less, with less enthusiasm, and more silently, so that a solid body of written evidence seems lacking. Yet from Rousseau to Hugo and Sand, through Senancour, Nodier, and Nerval, with scenic detours to the less well-known Charles Didier and to the Swiss Rodolphe Töpffer, we find that there runs an unbroken thread of francophone pedestrianism, a genuine if often muted enthusiasm for walking that translated into a stock of literary themes and formal practices. These are treated, not systematically, theoretically, or historically (as evolving symbolic forms), but more modestly and traditionally by author, so that after being walked through a series of mini-studies on the pre-Romantics, we are then, in the second part, given more thorough studies of walking in Sand, Nerval, Hugo and Töpffer. This organization of the study around a few major peaks perhaps echoes the experience of walking itself, but it [End Page 159] also has some drawbacks, since we neither discover the broader cultural discourse that no doubt accompanied the growth of pedestrianism, nor find a well-drawn map of the topoï, forms, rhythms, themes, and figures associated with it.
The decision to center the study traditionally on a few canonical authors, rather than to sketch a cultural history of walking (based on a much wider corpus), while more modest, also imposes a greater burden: we need to be shown, not just that each author walked (as he or she also slept, dressed, and went to the opera), but also that it had a meaningful impact on their writing. Is the stamp of walking visible in their poetic practice? On this score, Thompson strives to make the case that much formal inventiveness, as well as some typically Romantic meditations, owe a debt to the peculiar rhythms and patterns of ideas imposed on the walker. Just as Rousseau, the great ancestral figure in this genealogy, had found himself unable "to meditate otherwise than on the move" (27), so the twists and turns of Senancour's agonized prose, his "style of fragmentation, digression and progressive accumulation" (37) correspond to his and to Oberman's ramblings. Sand's "cult of improvisation" (90) would also be indebted to her love of the road. Similarly, in Hugo, the rhythms of walking can be plausibly linked to the slow elaboration of a poem, as they are in prose to his digressive practice, and to the mythical vagrancy of Jean Valjean. The pages on Valjean as an errant "passant," as an ambulant Christian witness, testifying to random injustices, are some of the strongest in the book. Thompson also makes the case that pedestrianism affects content: Nerval's tangled projections of time, folding in upon each other, arguably draw on the walker's penchant to gaze into the past, and to project the spatial itinerary through the landscape into the meanderings of reminiscence. For Sand, on the other hand, the road beckoned as a space of freedom, and conjured up the attractions of bohemian vagrancy, promising liberation from the norms of bourgeois society and its rigid gender hierarchies. Thompson also explores, in Töpffer and Didier, how walking provided a vehicle for a genuine encounter with the Other – peasants, laborers, tourists, foreigners – outside the social constraints of class, gender, and profession.
These revelations about the role of walking for the French Romantics seem at once well worth making, and slightly...