q and a

Room to Roam

Rebecca Solnit’s peripatetic education
August 16, 2007

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.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

Storming the Gates of Paradise draws together twelve years of essays. The paradise in the title refers to the public and private spaces reshaped by greed, fear, and sentimentality: the Western towns whose indigenous names were supplanted by those of prospectors and bureaucrats; the national borders erected in an attempt to maintain a fictional homogeneity; the nature photographs that construct a fantasy of virgin wilderness.

As you were putting together Storming the Gates of Paradise, were you able to make any observations about your writing and your career to date? I’d been anticipating at some point assembling a sequel to As Eve Said to the Serpent and expecting it to be similar because my interest in gender politics and representations of landscape in nature hadn’t died away. When I started to look at what I’d actually been writing over the last few years, I realized that the work had become much more directly political and much more urban.

What steered you toward that kind of writing? The urgency of resisting the Bush administration and some related things have placed me more in the streets than in the woods than I might have been ten years ago. Urban landscapes are still landscapes and you’re often standing up in urban places to defend rural places. I feel that it’s important not to make an urban/rural distinction, as the places become more and more interfused, if they were ever separate.

I met Susan Sontag in 2003, and she was writing a talk for a human rights award she was receiving and showed it to me. I realized that I hadn’t been speaking as directly to people as I could, not only about this moment but also about the emotional content of this moment—the interior, personal side of what is often represented purely as public life. The other thing is TomDispatch. I have a fantastic relationship with Tom Engelhardt, to whom I sent the essay that became Hope in the Dark. That original essay was written to counter the despair that had broken out when the war began, which I felt was based on a not very useful and accurate analysis of how activism works and how history works and what timelines we can expect to see results on. It was the first thing I did on the Internet. The immediacy of that, the ability to reach people directly, gave me an outlet I hadn’t had before. I’ve been plenty political even in the 1980s, but talking about what happened with nuclear testing in 1951 is very different from talking about what happened on the streets last week. So it’s partly about having a place to say those things and partly about feeling like I had gained a different kind of voice.

Could we talk a little bit about your education? You went to school in Paris at the age of seventeen. What motivated you to go overseas at such a young age? I didn’t go to high school, period, which is one of my formative influences in a sense. I knew from two years of junior high school that I was categorically a loser. I was small and skinny and poorly dressed and too dumb to hide that I was pretty smart at academic subjects and didn’t fit in. I feel like high school is mostly a kind of behavior modification center and I didn’t really want four more years of punishment. My parents were going through this epic divorce that lasted most of my adolescence. It was the seventies and nobody else was paying attention, so I went to an alternative junior high school for ninth and tenth grades and took the GED at fifteen and started junior college as an unaffiliated freshman at sixteen. Walking down the hall one day, there was one of those posters—you know, “Go to school in Paris”—with a card you send away. So I sent it away.

I’d been yearning to get out of suburbia. I knew that the world was bigger, more interesting, more complex than that version. And Paris as a social place was not particularly great, but Paris as a physical place was incredibly delightful and stimulating and rewarding at seventeen. People under eighteen could get into any museum for free, so I could just walk into the Louvre and look at one painting or one room. The place was a great adventure. There was this sense that I was in this city where doors were being flung open.

What happened when you came back to California? I really went through college as though there were some sort of award for speed. I finished up at San Francisco State University in a year and graduated right after I turned twenty.

So suddenly I was a college graduate and I was about to find out that, contrary to the beliefs of my parents’ generation, a humanities BA in the 1980s was worth nothing. I had decided to become a writer when I was six, so I didn’t have some of the complicated career decisions most people do. I realized that I’d learned how to read, which was really important, but I hadn’t learned how to write. There was some sense that the world and I weren’t ready for each other yet. So I had a wonderful year off when I went to a lot of punk shows and had a pretty good time and filled out my one and only graduate school application, which was to the graduate school of journalism at U.C. Berkeley, where I was pretty sure they’d teach me to write and to do something professional for a living. Happily, creative writing programs didn’t yet teach nonfiction, and I think I got a lot of practical and ethical things out of journalism I wouldn’t have gotten from a creative writing program.

What did you learn from journalism school? Was there anything you had to unlearn? I could never attain that perfectly flat voice that I think is as affected a style as any but that’s supposed to be the style of objectivity. But I understood what it was and when to restrain opining and expressing and florid touches and individual style. Basically I think it gave me a good sense of when that’s relevant and when it gets in the way and undermines what you’re trying to do. There was one news professor that I really drove nuts, because of my inability and/or refusal to write in that tone that I think is both Hemingwayesque and ultimately masculine in ways that are dubious. I did much better with professors like Ben Bagdikian, who said that there’s no such thing as objectivity but there is fairness.

How did you become interested in writing about the visual arts? One of the great things about the graduate program was that I got a work-study job at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art doing serious research.

I don’t know why they entrusted it to a twenty-one-year-old without an art history background and with a punk-rock haircut—because these were all nice ladies in pearls. But they did, and I had a fantastic two years researching major works of art in the collection for the fiftieth anniversary catalog, but also, with each piece, getting an education in Matisse or Duchamp or the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. And in this wonderfully practical way that also helped me understand what the actual lives of individual works of art are as I traced their exhibition history and ownership history. I think in a lot of ways the museum was as much an influence and an education as school was.

I ended up being an art critic with a review due every other week for a local weekly newspaper. I think the sheer volume of those early years was really great. In the way that musicians have to play a lot of chords, writers have to write a lot. The short review is like a very short essay. You have to set the scene, you have to lay out the facts and somehow negotiate the relationship between them and your opinions and ideas and interpretations, and you have to come up with some kind of conclusion, and a lot of times you have to do that in eight hundred words.

The essays in the new collection frequently draw upon the work of visual artists and photographers. Writing about visual arts was very liberating in a way that trying to be a literary or even maybe a film critic wouldn’t have been. Ann Hamilton, Richard Misrach, Meridel Rubenstein, and artists like that were really important early on. There was a way they would think about something and investigate something—Meridel Rubenstein, for example, picked up the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and approached it from a number of different directions with narrative and images and symbols and analogies that also modeled things for me that I don’t know that I would have gotten from writers. I didn’t know a lot of writers during my formative period, which I would say comes through in Savage Dreams. And Savage Dreams was where I really figured out who I was and where I was and what I wanted to do about it in life and in prose.

That’s the book where you hit upon your distinctive style of writing. I was finding a way to bring together the pieces that you need to describe something as complex as those subjects and to describe the act of discovery so you don’t set it up as “I know and you don’t.” It instead becomes, “This is how I found out about this struggle, about this place, about this crisis, about this bizarre history,” and so you foreground yourself not as particularly important or enlightened, but like Virgil to the reader’s Dante. And maybe this comes out of postmodernism, to establish that you’re not even pretending to be objective, that you have a point of view, and that the most honest thing you can do is make that point of view clear.

You’re often compared to Susan Sontag. It’s interesting because she was Jewish; she came from the West Coast; she was a woman; she dealt with photography. But one of the ways that I answer for myself, “Am I like Susan Sontag?” is to say, “Not that much, because I’m also like Gary Snyder” [an American poet and environmentalist]. Someday I want to write an essay comparing the two of them. I think they were born almost the same year. She grew up in Arizona, he grew up in Washington, and they did radically different things from starting points that weren’t so deeply dissimilar. Snyder chose to remain on the West Coast and to face Asia and indigenous America, to be rural and deeply anti-Eurocentric, in the same way that Sontag chose to be deeply enamored of nineteenth-century European models of the intellectual and the writer in society, to move to New York and for a long time to Paris, and to write mostly about European artists and filmmakers and books. I think being born who and when she was it was actually quite radical to try to inherit and wear the mantle of the European tradition. And that was something that it was really important to me to not do.

Are there other writers working today who have inspired you? John Berger has been an influence and a model. His work is essayistic, beautifully written, deeply politically engaged, and the fact that he corresponds with and writes about Subcomandante Marcos doesn’t seem to give him the sense that he has to stop thinking about Picasso. Lawrence Weschler’s longtime example that you can be a really good human rights journalist and also write about some really idiosyncratic artists is also very helpful.

In Storming the Gates of Paradise —and in many of your earlier books, such as Wanderlust—there are a few writers whom you keep returning to: Thoreau, for example, and Walter Benjamin. Are these writers that you grew up reading? I knew in my teens that I wanted to be an essayist, and there were models pretty early on. I read a lot of Pauline Kael. She was the first essayist I really latched onto. I think Thoreau was always present, but I didn’t really pay attention until later. When I was fifteen, my father took me to England, and in those days Penguin books were just beautiful and insanely cheap. They cost fifty pence to a pound a piece, and even for a fifteen-year-old without an allowance, that was pretty manageable. And I bought Borges’s Labyrinths, and that was a huge landmark: How creative nonfiction could be, how blurry the lines could be, the ways that you could think about these scholarly and obscure things. Borges isn’t as evident as Benjamin in my work, but he’s very, very present.

What writers came later? It’s like some sort of party where they slip in at different moments. Orwell was actually there pretty early, and Virginia Woolf in bits. Benjamin was being stuffed under everyone’s nose in the eighties and he got under my nose, too, though I think I read him differently than most academics do. And then there are other people, like Isak Dinesen, for the fable-like, lapidary quality of her short stories, which are very different than nonfiction, but she’s actually been somebody that’s been important in funny ways.

Can you see where your writing is headed next? You know, I’m not sure where I’m going. I’m doing a book now that’s much more directly about social issues and civil society than any full-length thing I’ve done before—although I can see the seeds in Hope in the Dark and Wanderlust and maybe in some ways in Hollow City. I’ll keep coming back to Thoreau and I’ll keep coming back to landscape and I’ll keep coming back to photography. I feel like I have a fixed terrain and that I don’t really leave it but move around in different parts of it; but it’s a big territory.

Peter Terzian is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.