We are in awe about how many things we find out, on a daily basis, we did not know. And for the things that we realize we want to know more about, thank goodness for longform writers of the quality that the New Yorker staff has consistently fielded since its founding. One of the great essayists of our time reviews recent writings on a history we had not the slightest clue about:
Why people walk is a hard question that looks easy. Upright bipedalism seems such an obvious advantage from the viewpoint of those already upright that we rarely see its difficulty. In the famous diagram, Darwinian man unfolds himself from frightened crouch to strong surveyor of the ages, and it looks like a natural ascension: you start out bending over, knuckles dragging, timidly scouring the ground for grubs, then you slowly straighten up until there you are, staring at the skies and counting the stars and thinking up gods to rule them. But the advantages of walking have actually been tricky to calculate. One guess among the evolutionary biologists has been that a significant advantage may simply be that walking on two legs frees up your hands to throw rocks at what might become your food—or to throw rocks at other bipedal creatures who are throwing rocks at what might become their food. Although walking upright seems to have preceded throwing rocks, the rock throwing, the biologists point out, is rarer than the bipedalism alone, which we share with all the birds, including awkward penguins and ostriches, and with angry bears. Meanwhile, the certainty of human back pain, like the inevitability of labor pains, is evidence of the jury-rigged, best-solution-at-hand nature of evolution.
Over time, though, things we do for a purpose, however obscure in origin, become things we do for pleasure, particularly when we no longer have to do them. As we do them for pleasure, they get attached either to a philosophy or to the pursuit of some profit. Two new accounts of this process have recently appeared, and although they occasionally make you want to throw things, they both illuminate what it means to be a pedestrian in the modern world.
Matthew Algeo’s “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review) is one of those books which open up a forgotten world so fully that at first the reader wonders, just a little, if his leg is being pulled. How could there be an account this elaborate—illustrated with sober handbills, blaring headlines, starchy portrait photographs, and racy newspaper cartoons—of an enthusiasm this unknown? But it all happened. For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings.
The story Algeo tells begins in 1860, at the start of the Civil War, when a New Englander named Edward Payson Weston made a facetious bet with a friend that, if Lincoln won the Presidential election, he would walk all the way from the State House in Boston to the unfinished Capitol, in Washington, in ten days. Lincoln won, and, ten days before the inaugural, Weston set off. Though he didn’t get there quite in time, his progress, chronicled by the newspapers, enthralled a nation in need of some small fun, and he became an improbable American hero, a kind of Lindbergh of the corns and calluses. Liking his new celebrity, and the money it brought, Weston decided to keep a good thing going and, when the war ended, began to engage in competitive, six-day (never on Sunday) walking marathons in Chicago, New York, and, eventually, London.
For the next two decades, while baseball burbled around the amateur edges and boxing went on in the shadows, walking really was the dominant spectator sport in America, and Weston its central figure. He had the brains to adopt a singular and consistent costume, a gentleman’s gear of hunting trousers, boots, and riding crop. In time, a poor Irish immigrant to America, Daniel O’Leary, emerged as his opposite in style, and so his great rival; together, they staged walking races, symbolic class contests, immigrant vs. native, over several long sessions in several big towns. O’Leary was, in a Jackie Robinson-like way, perceived as a credit to his race, restoring the honor of the Irish, stained most recently, in Chicago, by the episode of another O’Leary and her cow. Working-class enthusiasm for the contests was so keen that indoor stadiums were needed. In New York, P. T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome, in the East Twenties, got covered, first by a tent and then, soon afterward, by a real roof, in part to contain and show off the walking marathons. (Eventually, that Hippodrome evolved into the original, sadly lost Madison Square Garden, where walkers walked, and where, in 1879, Weston, freshly returned from his London exploits, was given a hero’s welcome.)
The sport was surprisingly open to the talents. There were African-American walkers—the real Jackie Robinson of the sport was one Frank Hart, who was a protégé of O’Leary’s and therefore called Black Dan—and there were even legendary women walkers, like Ada Anderson, who trained in Wales and then took a boat to America to walk for cash. Walkers were the first mass-culture sports stars: when a tobacco company inserted trading cards into cigarette packs, what the cards showed was pictures of the walkers. O’Leary, after a London contest, returned to his home town in Ireland and received a hero’s welcome of his own.
What accounts for the popularity of watching folks walk for long days? Algeo, discussing the moment when the craze took off in Chicago, first suggests that walking ruled because there was nothing much else for the working classes to attend. But then we are on to England, where the sport is for a time every bit as popular, and, while there may not have been much cheap popular theatre or music hall for the working classes to go to in Chicago, there surely was a lot of it in London. The truth is that many waves sweep mass society that have no more explanation than the oceanic kind: a random blast of wind drives a swell, it snags on a rock, and then the wave crashes. By the late eighteen-seventies, walking had started getting ferocious hate mail, or sermons, chiefly from New York City preachers, who thundered against it as a “gladiatorial” sport. Soon there was legislation, still on the books, prohibiting six-day walking marathons.
The contests, one comes to see, were no longer really walking competitions. Mostly, they were, or became, something crueller. They were competitions in not sleeping. The ability to walk well—to have Weston’s odd big stride or O’Leary’s right light step—had surrendered to the more brutal ability just to stay awake for six days. (Weston eventually admitted to having chewed coca leaves while racing, although, Barry Bonds-like, he strenuously denied that the drug really helped.) The crowds were not coming to watch the walkers walk. They were coming to watch them drop.
Competitive walking, in its maturity, turns out to be less a charming game from an age of innocence than one more episode in the modern fascination with rituals of human endurance, made exotic by technological advance, and fuelled by the same morbid curiosity that gives us the demolition derby, books about survival on Everest, and the ice-bound stunts of David Blaine, along with “Survivor” and “Deadliest Catch.” Our appetite for watching people stumble from exhaustion soon moves from one kind of spectacle to the next, perhaps partly because we’re ashamed of having enjoyed the previous one. This may also explain why each one, when it goes, can leave so little track behind. We keep our eyes fixed on the horizon to avoid having to look back over our shoulder in embarrassment.
“Walking is not a sport,” Frédéric Gros announces, in the very first, single-sentence paragraph of his new book, “A Philosophy of Walking” (translated from the French by John Howe; Verso), already a best-seller abroad. “But what about Weston and O’Leary and Anderson?” the newly instructed reader wants to shout. No dice. Gros is a professor of philosophy at a French university—at the finest of French universities, the University of Paris XII, and also at the great Sciences Po—and if you did not know this in advance you would not have to read much of his book to guess that it was so. He is not the kind willing to make even a minimal Google search (“Sport promenade histoire”) before writing. Instead of historical argument supported by evidence, or chronicle illuminated by interpretation, he gives us oracular assertion, supported by more oracular assertion. In this game, it is batting average that counts: if four out of ten of your oracular assertions are arresting oracular assertions, you’re golden.
And many of Gros’s oracular assertions are arresting; if they don’t exactly stop you in your tracks, they slow your leap to certainties. The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.” And so on…
Read the whole review here.