I much prefer smaller history: An interview with Wayne Curtis


In 1909, on the afternoon his 70th birthday, Edward P. Weston set out to walk from New York to California. His feat is chronicled in journalist Wayne Curtis’ latest book, The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco and Why It Matters Today. Curtis will present this work at a Happy Hour Salon also featuring Catherine Lacey from 6 – 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).

The Last Great Walk covers a lot of territory, and not just the 3,925 miles that Weston walked, averaging 35 miles a day over the spring and summer. At the time Weston traversed the country, people were just beginning to abandon their evolutionary mandate to walk and let the automobile take over. How has this radical shift in the way we move around shaped our bodies, minds, and the landscape? Curtis tries to find out, weaving history, anthropology, biology, neuroscience, cultural criticism, urban planning, and more around the trajectory of Weston’s journey.

Curtis follows a line of inquiry that’s often surprising, from the Italian Futurists’ need for speed and the politics of jaywalking to the insidious dangers of the La-Z-Boy recliner. Assiduously researched and full of insight and humor, The Last Great Walk has been compared to “John McPhee in his prime,” one of the most meaningful accolades a nonfiction writer could hope for.

Curtis is probably best known for his writing on another activity that has profoundly shaped our culture: drinking. In addition to his previous book, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, he’s published dozens of articles, many of them internationally researched, on the art of the cocktail and the histories of various spirits. A contributing editor at The Atlantic, Curtis has also written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, American Scholar and many other places. He lives, drinks, walks and bikes in New Orleans.

Room 220: You pulled together a lot of threads for this book. At what point did you decide to use the story of Edward Weston’s 1909 walk to explore the biological, psychological, historical, and cultural dimensions of walking?

Wayne Curtis: It started simply as Weston’s story. About 25 years ago, I stumbled across a newspaper reference to him while scrolling through microfilm in the course of researching another topic. I decided it was worth the 25¢ to nab a copy of the article about him, and I filed it away. And when I had some time, I started gathering some more information about Weston and filing it away. I wrote a short piece about him for a nonprofit magazine called American Hiker, which I was editing at the time, but I couldn’t let him go and kept thinking about him and his 1909 feat. I started researching him in earnest about five years ago, and it struck me that these huge crowds came out to see him, and I wondered why? That’s when I started thinking about this as a sort of John Henry tale, a competition between the past and the future, and so I kept broadening my focus to get a better view of context. And somewhere along the line, it just struck me that we humans sort of gave up the act of long distance walking as a matter of regular routine, and I started wondering about the impact of this. And that’s when the idea for how to write about Weston began to gel.

Edward Weston in 1913

Edward Weston in 1913

Rm220: Weston seems a very American figure, fulfilling his own East-to-West manifest destiny. And your discussions of how we’ve radically shaped our environment—which in turn is shaping us—also seems distinctly American. How much did American cultural identity figure into your approach to the book?

WC: I wasn’t overtly thinking about American cultural identity, but it was certainly the foundation. At one point I actually thought, well, really, I should write about Weston’s 1910 walk when he actually did the amazing thing of walking west to east in 78 days. But as Thoreau noted, nobody’s really interested in going west to east. Much the same might be said for my history rum—it fascinated me because it didn’t really exist until the “New World” was settled, and then it persisted, both changing out political and cultural history, and being changed by it.

Rm220: Weston’s epic walk also turned out to be the perfect framework for discussing a moment of transition in American culture, from past to future, from having a more natural relationship with our environment to being dependent on machines and systems. Was that one of the things that drew you to his story or was that more of a byproduct of researching the era?

WC: Much of the framework emerged out of my reading up on the 1909 walk and thinking about it for too long, so I’d consider it a byproduct. But it also felt like coming home in some ways. The influence of the past on the present—what we’ve chosen to keep from the past and what we’ve decided to discard—has always fascinated me, and is what can maintain my interest in a topic past the normal expiry date. It’s what kept me interested in rum for the two years I worked on the rum book, and it’s why I still enjoy writing about cocktail culture today. And, in large part, it’s why I chose to move to New Orleans—the sifting process is really layered and complicated here.

Rm220: Do you see other connections between this book and And a Bottle of Rum?

WC: Both books explore the relationship between the past and present. I’ve always liked history, but I’ve never been drawn to Big History, focusing on outsized people and Very Important Events. I much prefer smaller history, the way various trends (economic, technological, political, sociological) impact our lives and the lives of those who came before us. And by “lives” in this context, I mean what we drink and how we get around.

A Google map of Edward Payson Weston’s 1909 walk.

Rm220: Towards the end of The Last Great Walk you posit that, nearly a century after Weston’s feat, we are in another period of transition, a circling back towards “walkable cities” and away from cars. This is illustrated in a really wonderful way with the 21st century return to “the verge.” Can you talk a little about that?

WC: In reading about the life of streets and looking at pictures from around 1890 – 1920, it’s striking how the ecosystem of street life was very different. We could walk on the streets if we needed to get somewhere, sharing it with horse carts and cars and bikes, and the sidewalks seemed to be more an extension of shops and homes, at least in better weather. And in between was another zone, the verge, where people could sit out of the way of movement, a sort of third place between sidewalk and street. And then along came cars and they displaced people from the verge, and it shifted from public space to temporary storage for private goods. People are now reclaiming parking spaces for “parklets” in a number of cities, and this is often greeted as some strange, new thing. I like that it’s really more a return to an earlier era.

Rm220: Did writing the book change your own relationship to walking and the built environment?

WC: If anything, working on the book changed my relationship in terms quantity, not quality. I walk more, and I tend to walk more in cities, so I see more of urban life and architecture. But I’ve always enjoyed walking through cities and trying to figure out their stories—I think I’ve gotten pretty good at dating neighborhoods based on architectural styles and spatial patterns, and that’s a good place to start figuring out how the city grew and developed, and what happened since.

Rm220: Rodale, who’s putting this book out, is a very different type of independent publisher.  What was it like working with them?

WC: Rodale was great to work with. I had a wonderful editor in Alex Postman, who had just come from the magazine world. She hadn’t yet figured out that book editors don’t actually do much editing these days, and she was very thorough and diligent and really helped me pull a lot of the threads together. Rodale’s publishing business started about 70 years ago when it launched Organic Gardening, and today is best known for its health and wellness titles, like Men’s Health and Prevention. Rodale’s book division puts out a lot of related how-to titles, but also takes on broader topics, including Al Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth. I was lucky to find a home there.