Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Companions for the Trail: Walking Classics


We take pleasure in sharing with readers selections from literary classics on subjects of interest that have given us enjoyment over the years.

The Great Outdoors--and they are indeed great in every sense of the word--are remarkable in that they can be enjoyed as much in solitude as in the company of good companions. On the one hand, you have the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, to gain new insights into old wisdom, and to partake of the bountifulness of nature as you choose. In the company of others, however, you are able to discover the mysterious alchemy that makes an amalgam of disparate individuals in the catalyzing world of nature.

Here and now we are concerned with recording some of the priceless wisdom of the world's greatest thinkers and writers who were also walkers, hikers and campers. How and where you approach these selections in Postscripts will determine just how much you will be able to extract from them. No matter whether you stroll in the city, roam in the country, saunter, climb, hike, backpack or camp--here is a compact anthology selected from the works of some of the best companions you'll ever have along the trail.

In creating this modest anthology, we have made our own rules: Nothing would be included that is already too familiar or too accessible. Nothing that is merely inspirational; nothing sentimental; above all, nothing cynical; finally, nothing that would not be worth re-reading. We think we have succeeded, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. The conventional anthology usually starts with the earliest works and comes forward in time. We have made ours a journey backwards through the years to demonstrate that nothing has really changed in our enjoyment of the outdoors. As the French proverb has it, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Our journey begins with John Kieran's "A Spring Walk." A polymath, he was widely known and respected for his daily sports column (the first signed column to appear in The New York Times), which began in 1927 and ran for many years. In 1938 he became an instant celebrity on "Information Please," a weekly radio quiz program. The range of Kieran's knowledge invariably amazed listeners; he seemed to know everything there was to know about anything and everything.

Books are perhaps the only companions possible for the solitary hiker. The selection titled "Books" began life as a chapter in Stephen Graham's delightful volume The Gentle Art of Tramping, long out of print. Graham knew whereof he spoke, for he had tramped in the Caucasus Mountains, in the Crimea, in the Urals, and once he even made a pilgrimage all the way to Jerusalem.

On the death in 1905 of Mr. William Sharp, a Scottish gentleman, biographer, novelist and poet, the world learned that it was he who had written about nature under the feminine nom de plume of Fiona Macleod. His "Where the Forest Murmurs" is a sensitive example of "her" work.

John Muir was born in Scotland and was brought to Wisconsin at an early age. By dint of great effort he managed to attend the state university at Madison, and an interest in nature he acquired there led to ambitious walking tours through neighboring states. He once walked from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico; later in life he became a prime mover in the campaign to create Yosemite Park. In our excerpt he recounts his meeting there with the great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, "as serene as a sequoia."

Poet, essayist, novelist-and physician--that was Oliver Wendell Holmes. Exerting a strong influence over the practice of medicine in his time, literature was never more than an avocation for this energetic doctor. Holmes's major literary achievement lay in the essays he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine he helped to name. The first of these were collected in a memorable volume entitled The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, whence our selection comes.

Robert Louis Stevenson's background was prosperous middle class. Regrettably, he is regarded by many as "a children's writer," and his ability to create character, to write clean prose and to handle difficult material has been largely overlooked. His delightful Travels with a Donkey is a veritable gem of a book, blue-white and perfect. Our selection is from his informal essay, "Virginibus Puerisque."

As Mark Twain, Samuel L. Clemens achieved writing fame with his 1869 account of his travels in Europe and the Holy Land, The Innocents Abroad, which sold 40,000 copies in its first year. In the preface to it Clemens said he intended to describe for the reader "how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him." In our excerpt, "The Ascent of the Rigi-Kulm," taken from his 1880 sequel, A Tramp Abroad, he casts himself as an unaffected traveler from the Show-Me state of Missouri who intends to do things his way, even if it means taking three days to climb a modest-sized mountain.

Intended for a career in medicine, Francis Richard Stockton chose to become a wood engraver. Abandoning art for journalism, he is remembered primarily for a single short story, "The Lady or the Tiger," written in 1884. Our selection is from Rudder Grange, a burlesque account of an expedition in a houseboat.

Henry David Thoreau's writing can be likened to a New England crazy quilt pieced together with brilliant passages of variegated prose. His still-read classic, Walden, showed him at the top of his form; no one before or since has used such eloquence to plead for the simple life and to indict the twin evils of "busy-ness" and materialism. We reproduce an excerpt from his book Excursions, published posthumously in 1863, a year after Thoreau's death. (Only two of Thoreau's books were published during his lifetime, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers in 1849 and Walden in 1854. Neither was a commercial success.)

Bringing up the rear is our last walker, William Hazlitt. Because he found it difficult to express himself literarily, at 21he turned to another form of expression, portrait painting. Only after he had painted a now-famous portrait of the writer Charles Lamb did his interest in writing revive. Hazlitt suffered a nervous breakdown when his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte, was defeated at Waterloo (although he later wrote an impressive four-volume biography of his hero). When he died at the age of 52 in 1830, his last words were, "Well, I've had a happy life."

If one quality is evident inour gallery of walkers, it is that our group of ten has included a large number of unconventional types, yet ideal companions along the trail. Our wish is that you will enjoy the pleasure of their company. Their like may not pass this way again.

Editor's note: Each of the ten above-described classic selections will be published at intervals.


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