Just what kind of a writer is Rebecca Solnit? It’s not an easy question to answer, given the effortless way she crosses the borders of disciplines and genres. Her irrepressible curiosity has led her to investigate and reflect on a diverse range of subjects: landscapes both rural and urban, politics, the environment, indigenous people, technology, gender, art, and photography. Each of the labels that have been used to describe her—historian, journalist, cultural theorist, critic, activist—bumps up against the others.
A look at her publication history further illustrates that capacious quality. Her ten nonfiction books have been alternately published by major houses and by small and university presses. The essays collected in her new book, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (University of California Press), have appeared over the past decade in such prominent publications as The Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, the London Review of Books, and the nature journal Orion, as well as on the left-wing blog TomDispatch (edited by Tom Engelhardt) and as introductions to art books published in limited editions and overseas. Solnit is a prolific writer who spreads the wealth.
When I read Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West upon its release in 2003, I felt like my mind was on fire. I picked up the book not knowing Solnit’s previous work and expected a dutiful, mildly interesting biography of the pioneering nineteenth-century photographer. Instead, the book flowered into a history of the origins of the modern world. Muybridge’s studies of human and animal locomotion, Solnit proposed, broke time down into its smallest components and paved the way for the invention of cinema and television; along with the railroad, the first invention capable of transporting humans faster than water or wind power, Muybridge’s work led to what she calls “the industrialization of time and space.” Solnit followed those radical shifts through to the wired world of today, and “the disembodiment and exhilaration of everyday life.”
River of Shadows introduced me to Solnit’s distinctive style: using measured, graceful prose, and relying equally on intuition and analysis, she makes thrilling leaps and connections, following tangents and linking ideas. “The straight line of conventional narrative,” she writes in the introduction to Storming the Gates of Paradise, “is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours. It is not how our thoughts travel, nor does it allow us to map the whole world rather than one streamlined trajectory across it. I wanted more, more scope, more nuance, more inclusion of the crucial details and associations that are conventionally excluded.”
Solnit’s first book, Secret Exhibition (1990), about a group of avant-garde artists in 1950s San Francisco, drew upon her early years as an art critic; her art writings were later collected in 2001 in As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Savage Dreams (1994) established her terrain—the American West—and the overarching themes of landscape and politics. An antinuclear activist at the Nevada Test Site in the 1980s, Solnit associated the human and environmental costs of the government’s bomb testing program in the Great Basin with the genocide committed against the Native Americans in the Yosemite Valley in the mid-nineteenth century.
Over the next few years, Solnit continued to write about landscapes distant and close to home. In 1997, she examined the history of her ancestral country, as well as the nature of travel itself, in A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland; three years later, Hollow City looked at the dot-com gentrification of her native San Francisco. Released in 2000, Wanderlust: A History of Walking was something of a breakout book. Solnit’s cultural history of one of the most basic human activities encompassed contemporary theories about the origins of bipedalism; Walter Benjamin’s ideal of the flâneur, the observant urban stroller; and, with foreboding, the new pedestrian walkways of Las Vegas. “Walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading,” she writes, “and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination….Walking is an indicator species for various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies.”
It was a logical step from the peregrinations of Wanderlust to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. River of Shadows won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Criticism for 2003 and won Solnit a Lannan Literary Award. Two slender books followed: Hope in the Dark (2004), her most directly political, celebrated the power of grassroots protest; A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), her most personal, elaborated on the virtues of meandering.