Tramping With Virginia

A seminal essay about walking the streets of London can present challenges in the classrooms of today

Illustration by Diego Mallo
Illustration by Diego Mallo

I’m a devoted fan of Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting.” For many years, I’ve taught it in my personal essay workshops, not only because it’s a marvelous piece of writing but also because it demonstrates nearly everything the form can do. It creates an immediate connection between author and reader, one that grows deeper as the essay goes on. It encourages students to disregard the hoary prescription that the writer should show, not tell: Woolf spells out her themes explicitly, and shows us everything, too. But its most striking feature, and the one I make the most of in my presentation to my students, is its inflatability. It starts out small—charmingly and insistently local—but toward the end, it surprises the reader by ballooning into universality. Let me teach it now.

As “Street Haunting” opens, the reader finds the author at home, alone and feeling restless, surrounded by objects whose provenance she knows almost too well. She cherishes the memories these familiar belongings call up, but just now she wants to escape them. If only for a few hours, she longs to cast off her identity and join the “republican army of anonymous trampers” who walk the streets of London. But before she can embark on her expedition, she must invent an errand: the purchase of a pencil will do. Why does she need this pretext? The question is allowed to hang, to be addressed only near the end of the essay.

Out on the street at last, the reader feels a thrill of effortless momentum. Woolf’s mind carries us: she’s a Virgil to our Dante, and we gladly let her lead the way. At first, it’s the loveliness of the London street at dusk, with its “islands of light, and its long groves of darkness” that she commends to our attention, but we won’t linger long in the realm of pure beauty. Our nature, she observes, does not allow us to subsist on the “simple, sugary fare” of the visual. As our walk continues, she charges us to go deeper, to enter and explore the regions of human meaning. We need, Woolf tells us, an excuse “for folding up the bright paraphernalia of the streets,” to seek out “some duskier chamber of the being.” And so we duck into a store where we watch as a dwarf tries on a pair of shoes.

The dwarf wears the “peevish yet apologetic expression usual on the faces of the deformed.” (The baldness of this description unsettles a present-day reader. Deformed is a word we no longer use. And dwarf   has fallen out of favor in many quarters, as well.) She’s accompanied by two full-size companions toward whom she seems to feel a certain resentment. She needs these chaperones, Woolf surmises—without their endorsing presence she would get no service—but can’t quite feel grateful to them. (Neither would the reader, in her place.) But once her attendants have summoned the saleswoman, who brings the dwarf one of those special mirrors that reflect only the customer’s feet and ankles, she’s in her glory. These are the parts of her that are normal size and well formed, the parts she’s proud of, and her visit to the shoe store allows her to show them off. Her sulkiness vanishes; suddenly she’s confident, even triumphant. “Look at that! Look at that! she seemed to demand of us all, as she thrust her foot out. … She raised her little skirts and displayed her little legs.”

As the dwarf pirouettes in front of the mirror, Woolf takes the liberty of penetrating her consciousness. “She was thinking that, after all, feet are the most important part of the whole person: women, she said to herself, have been loved for their feet alone.” The reader can’t help smirking here, and Woolf’s authorial attitude seems to sanction this reaction. But then we remember with a guilty start that in the hundred-odd years since Woolf wrote this essay, the world has undergone an enlightenment: we understand that because fate and humanity have been so unkind to her, the dwarf is entitled to any compensatory comfort she can find, even self-deception. And can we deny that we, too, lie to ourselves in just this way, by allowing the part to substitute for the whole? This is such a familiar human failing that we feel a true sympathy for the dwarf.

But now the dwarf’s companions are growing impatient. They’re ready to leave, and she must choose a single pair of shoes and surrender the magic mirror. Without it, she can no longer dream of being loved as a woman: she must return to being a dwarf. The reader’s sympathy grows still deeper: we know the pain of relinquishing a fantasy. The dwarf and her retinue of “giantesses” depart, followed by Woolf and the ghostly reader. The question that Woolf posed as we entered the store—“What, then, is it like to be a dwarf?”— has been answered. It’s like being ourselves.

But out on the street, our newfound solidarity with the dwarf is thrown into radical doubt. Suddenly it seems that everyone in the crowd of “anonymous trampers” has picked up the rhythm of her hobbling gait. Looking around, we see that we’re surrounded by the blind, the halt, the feeble-minded. It’s as if the dwarf’s defectiveness had followed her out of the shoe store and spread into the world—as if abnormality had become the norm. The terms of our identification with the dwarf have been reversed: it’s no longer that she’s like us, but that we’re like her. This reversed perspective makes a mockery of the self-congratulatory moment when the reader presumed to grant the dwarf full equality. How can we welcome her into the human community when, at bottom, we feel so freakish that we can’t be sure we belong in that category ourselves?

Over the course of the next few sentences, Woolf’s emphasis subtly changes: physical deformity morphs into economic marginality. We’re surrounded now by the poor, by people who have “queer names” and keep themselves alive by practicing obscure trades like gold beating and accordion pleating. A defensive class guilt creeps into Woolf’s tone: she assures herself that the poor “must find life tolerable” if only because their existence is too unknowable to be tragic: “They do not grudge us, we are musing, our prosperity.” Needless to say, we should not take Woolf at her word here: her self-parodying irony is unmistakable.

As she turns a corner, Woolf encounters “a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery.” She recalls an earlier walk when she came upon the corpse of an old woman “flung abandoned” on the steps of a public building. “Often enough,” she remarks, “these derelicts choose to lie not a stone’s throw from theatres.” Readers are bound to be jarred by this passage. The “bearded Jew” reference has an authentic ring of anti-Semitic disparagement, and we’re genuinely shocked by Woolf’s flippant line about where these unfortunates “choose to lie.” Are we to take this in the same spirit that we did her earlier remark that the poor “must find life tolerable”?

As her walk continues, Woolf reverts to the previously forsworn pleasures of noticing the surfaces of things. She admires the luxury goods displayed in the windows of Oxford Street and imagines furnishing a house with the carpets and mirrors and alabaster bowls she sees there. This self-soothing diversion leads her away from the realities of the street and into a vivid reverie about the hidden lives of the wealthy and powerful. From an imagined balcony, she surveys the mansions and gardens of Mayfair. “There are a few lights in the bedrooms of great peers returned from Court, of silk-stockinged footmen, of dowagers who have pressed the hands of statesmen.”

Just now a reflexive thought stops Woolf in her metaphorical tracks. Her walk is taking place “between tea and dinner” on a winter evening, but in her transporting Mayfair fantasy, it’s summer, and late at night. How, she asks herself, can she inhabit both moments at the same time? Her answer amounts to a full statement of the essay’s theme: no human being is ever all of a piece. When Nature made man, Woolf explains, “she should have thought of one thing only.” But in a moment of distraction, she turned away, and her lapse left him “streaked, variegated, all of a mixture.” From the start, then, a person is divided, his imagination at war with his conviction that he inhabits a single identity by which other people know him and by which he knows himself. We’re always subject to this disintegrative tendency: it’s as integral to our humanity as our need to make the self a permanent home. Periodically, we must break free from our settled identities and enter imaginatively into other worlds, other minds: “Is the true self,” Woolf asks, “this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?”

Woolf’s walk through London is an enactment of the human compulsion to wander beyond the recognized boundaries of the self.

Because they’ve grown up regarding Woolf as a goddess in the feminist pantheon (even if they haven’t yet gotten around to actually reading her), they approach this essay eagerly. They want to like it.

As I say, “Street Haunting” is a supremely useful pedagogical model, but in recent years a certain number of my students have found it “problematic.” This group—small but growing, mostly composed of younger students—can be expected to register even stronger objections to a number of other essays I’ve taught regularly. They’ve judged James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” for all its thundering passion, to be unacceptably accommodationist, and an increasing number of workshop participants tell me they’re alienated by Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I”—another essay I particularly love. Their negative judgment rests on a misinterpretation that would have bewildered its author: they take Ginzburg’s comically deadpan portrait of her marriage to the dilettante Gabriele Baldini to be a narrative of spousal abuse. “Why does she put up with it?” they say. Or, “I hope she finds help!”

But oddly enough, their troubled reaction to “Street Haunting” is rather muted compared with their forthright condemnations of other readings: they seem more pained by it than angry at it. Because they’ve grown up regarding Woolf as a goddess in the feminist pantheon (even if they haven’t yet gotten around to actually reading her), they approach this essay eagerly. They want to like it, so when they come upon Woolf’s treatment of the dwarf and the derelicts, they’re not quite ready to condemn her. (Interestingly enough, they don’t have much to say about her very real and very English anti-Semitism, even when I make a point of alerting them to it.) Race and gender have long sat at the top of the hierarchy of intersectional categories, while “disability” and “poverty” have been seen as less important. Accusations of racism and sexism are always at the ready, but “ableist” and “classist,” though they’re more commonly used these days than they were a few years ago, must be rummaged for.

When the discussion stalls, I sometimes restart it by admitting that I, too, have always felt a little shocked by Woolf’s tone. I go on to suggest that her seemingly callous attitude might be understood as a deliberate provocation: perhaps she means to challenge her readers to examine and acknowledge their own censorable reactions. Can we honestly deny that when we see a derelict lying in the street, we feel—if only for an instant before we call down shame upon ourselves—a visceral revulsion? (Or worse: we feel resentment.) Why does Woolf insist that her readers face this squarely? Because a writer whose subject is human nature must tell the truth about it, starting with herself.

But perhaps I’m giving Woolf too much credit here. From her biographies, we’ve learned that she was arrogant and not very nice. Certainly she lived and wrote in a time before niceness became a law that constrains everyone, especially writers. But even if Woolf’s harshness was more a reflection of her personality than a conscious literary strategy, it still has the effect of forcing the reader to examine his own uncharitable heart.

This argument doesn’t always convince my students. But never mind. I’ve got another defense of Woolf at the ready, and I consider it a clincher. I tell my students that like all great literature, “Street Haunting” works against itself. Even as Woolf shocks us with her hardheartedness, her descriptive language creates a powerful undertow of literary sympathy, continually evoking the humanity of the suffering people about whom she speaks in such flippant tones—the dwarf with her deluded dreams, the hunger-bitten Jew, the idiot sucking the knob of his walking stick. Having made this point, I support it by reading aloud her remarkable description of the progress of “[two] bearded men, brothers, apparently, stone-blind, supporting themselves by resting a hand on the head of a small boy between them. … On they came with the unyielding but tremulous tread of the blind, which seems to lend to their approach something of the terror and inevitability of the fate that has overtaken them.”

Woolf’s walk continues. Her next-to-last stop is a secondhand bookshop, a roost for “wild books, homeless books” and a haven where she and the reader can escape the buffeting extremes of the streets for a little while. She is immediately drawn to the drastically discounted volumes placed on high shelves, the ones nobody buys and nobody reads. These tend to be simple accounts, often self-published, of travel—a once-in-a-lifetime journey, for example, to Egypt or Greece or China—after which the author returns “to lead a parochial life at Edmonton.” Woolf’s interest in these books is an oddly personal one; she doesn’t want to read them so much as to “meet” them. To her they embody the people who wrote them, people whom she seems to consider kin. Like her (in a much smaller way, of course, and less brilliantly), they’ve taken walks through the world, noticing and describing all the while. Woolf shows her democratic instincts here: perhaps she’s not entirely the aristocratic snob we’ve taken her to be. And like every other human being, she’s lonely.

Briefly out in the street again, we are carried along by a fast-moving, homeward-bound crowd. Woolf’s ear catches ambient shreds of gossip about a woman named Kate and bits of speculative chatter between two raggedly dressed men who live in hope that a lucky bet at the racetrack will make them rich. The reader, who has been absorbed in following Woolf as she negotiates her wide associative swerves, has forgotten that her walk through London started with a purpose. Woolf herself has forgotten. “But we are come to the Strand now,” she announces, “and as we hesitate on the curb, a little rod about the length of one’s finger begins to lay its bar across the velocity and abundance of life.”

The pencil! It may have begun as a pretext, but in the end it’s the whole point. Just as, after the Fall, God punished Adam by declaring him mortal and obliging him to eat his bread “in the sweat of [his] face,” so Woolf must find and buy the tool by which she does her life’s work. The “little rod” brings her back with a jolt to the terms that existence imposes on us all. Before she ends her walk, she must fulfill a mission, instrumental and arbitrary though it seemed when she conceived it. “Really I must—really I must. … Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil. Let us go then and buy this pencil.”

Even so, she hesitates. When she remembers the pencil, she is reminded that for her, as for all of us, there is no escaping real time, that even as she walks a looping route through the streets of London, she is also walking a straight line through her life, heading inexorably toward its end. As she looks out at the river, her perspective changes: for a moment she sees it through the eyes of a past self. This is not, as we might have expected, a child-self, but the self—arbitrarily chosen, it seems, from a near infinitude of time-stamped Virginia Woolfs—of six months earlier. The present-day Woolf regards this self as enviable and somehow innocent. From the perspective of the slightly older Woolf, the younger one is protected from the fear of death by the later Woolf’s knowledge that she will survive until the present moment. This is a wildly irrational assumption, but the reader understands it. Perhaps because we all long for a place of refuge—even if it’s one from which we were exiled long ago—we too tend to see our past selves as sealed off, protected from the onrushing future that assaults us in the present moment. The earlier Woolf enjoyed “the happiness of death,” but the Woolf of right now suffers “the insecurity of life.” As she contemplates a Thames that is darker and choppier than she remembers, the mood of the scene turns bleak.

Her walk completed, Woolf turns toward home. She takes care of the business of buying the pencil at a stationer’s store, where she brokers a silent reconciliation between the quarrelsome old couple that runs it. This is the only moment in which Woolf interacts with anyone but the reader: it restores the essay’s intimate scale and offers a little human warmth after Woolf’s grim ruminations on the Thames embankment. Then, pencil in hand, she makes her way through quiet, empty streets. Like most return journeys, hers is smooth and nearly featureless, not a continuation of the evening’s adventures, but a review of them. She remembers the dwarf, the blind men, the party in a Mayfair mansion. Her walk has cured her of her restlessness, relieved her of the burden of her loneliness, and reacquainted her with “those wild beasts, [her] fellow men.”

When she reaches home, she finds comfort. After her walk, she no longer feels imprisoned inside its walls, but “sheltered and enclosed.” There’s a quiet triumph in her tone as she surveys the familiar furnishings she fled a few hours earlier: “the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet.” She has returned from an adventure, and like the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero, she has brought back a prize: the pencil she will use to write.

In recent years, I’ve kept an anxious watch on what I say at the seminar table. I continually bite my tongue. Simultaneously, I berate myself for my cowardice. It’s quite possible, I know, that I’m overplaying the danger that something I say, or that an author says, will result in an explosion of offense. But workshops are delicate mechanisms, easily thrown out of gear by conflict; I know from experience that a single passage in a single essay or a single ill-judged remark from me can introduce a destabilizing wobble that will ramify until the class collapses. My job as leader is to keep the group on an even keel, to exercise tact and stay politically neutral (not easy when neutrality itself is construed as a political position), to promote trust among the members of the workshop. I’m not alone in my sense of constraint: I can tell from their hesitant tone and constant preemptive apologies that my students are anxious, too: like me, they fear the judgment of the others. What I hope for are those moments, more precious as they grow rarer, when the group relaxes and honest discussion becomes a little more possible.

Sometimes I’ve been tempted to dodge trouble by making a literary land-for-peace arrangement with my students. How much essayistic territory would I be prepared to cede in order to avoid provoking some student’s disruptive outrage? Would I remove “Such, Such Were the Joys” from my syllabus because in it Orwell casually quotes the following schoolboy mnemonic, which helped him recall the order of the battles of the War of the Roses: “A black Negress was my aunt: there’s her house behind the barn”? Would I spike Juno Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows” because the author confesses that he’s repelled by the dusky tone that underlies the apparent whiteness of Japanese skin?

The answer in both cases is no. Only one student has ever flagged the Orwell mnemonic, and I’d be ashamed to preemptively cancel a great essay because of something so minor. Even so, whenever I teach “Such, Such Were the Joys,” I feel like a driver stopped by guards at a border checkpoint. Will they shine their flashlights into the trunk? As for “In Praise of Shadows,” I’ve always made a point of bringing up the whiteness-darkness allusion in class discussion because it’s central to the essay. Ten years ago, most of my students were able to appreciate the poignancy of Tanizaki’s color shame. Now many read it without appreciating the irony in his tone.

Why can’t we be simultaneously offended and delighted, or offended and moved, or offended and enlightened, or for that matter, offended and honestly uncertain about the ethical status of whatever it was that caused the offense?

I haven’t yet eliminated anything from my syllabus for good—certainly not “Street Haunting”—but I must admit that I’ve begun to avoid certain essays that had been staples of class discussion for years. It’s been a while, for example, since I’ve assigned Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.” The last time I did, many of my students found it delightful, an object lesson in the loosening up and risk taking I’d been urging them to try, but “Me Too” was in the air, and a core group of women vehemently objected to the piece, particularly to Lopate’s distinctly unchivalrous account of making love to his first wife: “I would stroke her breasts,” he writes, “and she would get a look in her eyes of quiet intermittent hunger, like a German Shepherd being petted.” The classroom reaction was explosive; it ended the discussion. In an effort to restart it, I pointed out that in his farcical depiction of marital sex, Lopate takes care to make himself look ridiculous as well (awaiting his “treasure” in a tumescent state, he has “all the consciousness of a sun mote”). When this argument failed, I made the usual tactical concession. I admitted—truthfully this time—that, like them, I couldn’t help being shocked by his comparison of a woman to a dog. But I omitted to mention that the passage in question made me laugh. It makes me laugh even now. Lopate’s candor, as Sven Birkerts puts it, is “straight gin.”

I should have confessed my amusement and gone on to challenge my students to tell me why taking offense should always constitute the last word. Why can’t we be simultaneously offended and delighted, or offended and moved, or offended and enlightened, or for that matter, offended and honestly uncertain about the ethical status of whatever it was that caused the offense? But I was too timid. The fact is that I’m even more terrified of my own anger than I am of my students’. If I hadn’t been so fearful of losing my temper, I might have anticipated the wit of the staircase and spoken my mind there in the classroom, where my students would have profited by it. Yes, I should have said, the German Shepherd passage is offensive. Yes, it’s over the top, but candor is essential to the personal essay. Can we no longer be candid? Then the form is finished.

In my darker moods, it seems to me that the personal essay is indeed vulnerable to extinction—more so than any other literary genre. Its soft spot is its intimacy. The essayist is not an omnipotent world maker like the novelist: he depends on the reader. His creation spins out of a conversation with that reader, an imagined one, of course, but a true connection nonetheless. This bond is not forged from ethnicity or gender or group membership—although these categories can always enter the essay in the form of topics or themes—but from a shared understanding of what is deepest and most universal in human nature. If the reader fails to pick up his end of the string—or, more precisely, if the essayist can no longer believe in the possibility of a reader who is capable of picking up the string—the essay itself will fail.

In “Street Haunting,” Woolf’s connection with the reader grows closer as their walk together proceeds. At the start, she takes the lead like a tour guide, tossing observations over her shoulder as she and the reader push through the densely peopled London streets, the reader struggling a little to keep up. But gradually the crowds disperse. By the time Woolf ushers the reader into the bookstore, we’ve entered the intimate spaces of her mind: in the quiet of the shelves, her tone has turned from authoritative to confiding. And a little later, when Woolf undergoes her crisis on the banks of the Thames—her sudden confrontation with the reality of her own death—the moment is both universal and intensely personal. The London walk has ended now; the crowds have disappeared. Here on the desolate Strand, only Woolf and the reader remain.

As I’ve noted, some of my students—often the ones who most delight in denunciation—seem a little baffled by “Street Haunting.” Their reaction to it is uncharacteristically low key but more plainly diagnostic than any ideological harrumphing. In the case of Woolf’s essay, the problem, if I’m right, is a hopeless one: they simply don’t get it. They’re unequipped to appreciate the honor that Woolf has done them by addressing them on terms of intimate equality.

I wonder whether things have changed so much that we are losing our understanding of human nature—or at least in the way that Woolf and the modernists who followed her understood it. Sometimes I fear that in our obsession with group identity, we’re losing the notion of psychological complexity. Certainly our obsession with group identity is incompatible with Woolf’s insight that our essential divisions are internal to individuals, and that this condition is exactly what we have most in common with one another.

I’m tempted to say that the identity movement will be the end of literature, but that’s too strong. I don’t mean that narrative will disappear. Novels that are written to survive the scrutiny of the “sensitivity reader” will most likely be dull. Their conflicts will be crudely Manichean; they will lack complex characterization and tend toward demonization or hagiography. They will have the feel and function of foundational myths, endlessly repeated to reinforce social solidarity. Nevertheless, we’ll continue to read them because we never tire of stories. Like children, we’ll demand to hear the same one over and over. Sophisticated fiction grows rarer, but what Woolf calls “the ancient sea of fiction” will never dry up. And despite my fears for the personal essay, I also don’t mean to say that nonfiction in general is doomed. The internet will go on teeming with fact and opinion pieces, thin and flat and overlong though they may be.

What really seems at risk is introspective writing. Whether fiction or nonfiction, this kind of literature springs from the modernist imperative to identify the contradictions that cut through each of us, and to do so with reference to a large, shifting, amorphous something that we recognize as human nature. In my reading, writing, and teaching, I carry on as though the liberating rule of modernism still continues, but as the years go by, I can no longer deny that something less humane has almost fully replaced it. Even so, I wait for its return: without it, how can I read or write or teach? When and how will the world reorder itself so that my students can receive the legacy of “Street Haunting”?

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Emily Fox Gordonis the author of two memoirs, a novel, and a collection of essays, Book of Days. Her second novel, Madeleine and Jane, was published last September.


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