River of Shadows, which won Rebecca Solnit the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, is more than a lyrical biography of photographer Eadweard Muybridge; it’s a meditation on the peculiar origins of modern-day California, where Solnit makes her home. Much of her work touches on the temptations of wandering, from A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, to Wanderlust: A History of Walking (where she describes herself as the daughter of “a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew”). Her latest, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, interweaves stories of search and rescue teams, Renaissance painting, her grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island, and other intimate memories of family and friends. The first chapter riffs on a quote by Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling.”
Where have you wandered?
Everywhere. I walk a great deal in cities and in the countryside near my home. I like the standard walks I take in the city to run errands and see friends, and things. But even there, there are discoveries; there are things that you’ve never seen before. I play with getting lost a lot. I haven’t had a lot of occasions in which I’ve been truly, profoundly, direly lost. I never warranted a search and rescue committee.
But also, who I am is very different than who I was brought up to be and where I started out, and I’m as interested or more interested in journeys as metaphors for how we live, and so in that sense, I’m somebody who has traveled a lot.
Where did you grow up?
We moved a lot. I was born on the East Coast but lived the first years of my life in New Mexico. The first things I really remember were in Lima, Peru, then a little bit in the Midwest. And then we got to Marin County, which is famously affluent and liberal. But Novato in the 60s was where the San Francisco cops lived, this very conservative town that had lots of John Birch and the Klan. A lot of kids in the neighborhood chose to be wholly suburban; I don’t think they got off the asphalt much. But everything to the north was this fabulous landscape with no limitations. I would even go out my bedroom window after dinner and go back into the hills, ride bareback on other people’s ponies. And so it was this funny world split between real beauty, freedom, enormous pleasure, and then this place that was not particularly welcoming. I got picked on as much for being a bookworm as because my family was a bunch of liberals. As one of the neighbor kids once said to my lovely Democratic Irish Catholic mother, “Go back where you came from, you dirty Commie kike.”
The Walter Benjamin quote you invoke in A Field Guide to Getting Lost also comes up in Wanderlust.
Benjamin just said it so beautifully, and by making that distinction between not finding your way, which is sort of negative, and getting lost, which is not just a lack of knowing how the hell to get to the dentist, but a positive experience of discovery. But just to mention Benjamin is to also mention that larger world of wandering, of walking, of flanerie, or meandering, of this wonderful kind of nearsighted shuffling but absolute rich discovery.
You also start Hope in the Dark with an epigraph by Benjamin.
Yeah, he’s a big, totemic figure for me for a number of reasons. He’s astoundingly original and brilliant and incisive, but also he’s a very beautiful, lyrical writer. He’s operating in this wonderful territory between scholarly writing and a more poetic, intuitive kind—that, I think, is where I try to operate as well. Some of his subjects about politics and geography and place and cities and walking and things have also been important to me. And then, of course, his story I find enormously moving. Last year, I walked his final walk from France to Spain.
What did you find?
It was a landscape that, except for the fact that the ocean was to the east rather than the west, bore a truly astounding resemblance to my home landscape, to the coastal hills of the Bay Area, down to having not only the same kind of contours and rock outcroppings but a great many plants I had never known weren’t unique to California. Things like rattlesnake grass. The route is shaped like an inverted question mark, and it’s so beautiful. It’s such a perfect thing that Benjamin’s final route was a question mark, that his final sentence was a question.
It was a very beautiful walk—although, of course, if you’re worried about the Nazis getting you, you might be a little less tuned into that. We got lost, actually, because I couldn’t believe the walk was so short.
Field Guide opens at a childhood seder, where you’re scolded by your mother for drinking from Elijah’s cup. Why haven’t you told this story before?
I haven’t written that much first-person stuff. A Book of Migrations is personal in a lot of ways. Through my mother I have Irish citizenship. Of course, the great key figure for thinking about wandering in Ireland is Leopold Bloom, which I loved. When I went to Ireland, people would ask me if I was Irish, and I’d say, “Half,” and what does it mean to be half of an identity? And they’d say, “What’s the other half, then?” and I’d say, “Russian Jew,” and they’d just kind of look at me like I was some kind of exciting sea monster or something, because identity is so much more stable in that very homogenous, very Catholic, very old country. And they’d say, “Which religion were you raised in, then?” And I’d say, “Neither,” and they’d look at me and say, “You mean you’re nothing?” with this kind of thrill of horror at the idea. So, I got tired of that after a while, and I just told everyone I was Jewish, and that took care of that.
It’s a funny thing, because I’ve always said that I’m Jewish to Christians, and Christian to Jews, that my identity in some sense is the other side of whatever side the person regarding me is on. And I think that that’s a burden at times, if you want to fit in, but I think it’s also a gift. Here we get into a kind of Buddhist paradox, being neither Jewish nor not Jewish, if that makes sense.
You write that the very elusiveness of your own family history may be a reason you become a historian.
I think that’s a really common experience for immigrants, and notably for Jewish immigrants, that there’s this sense of the Old World we escaped from, this real refugee status that there’s no going back, that it was never truly our homeland. Certainly for my father, it was the melting pot idea of the 1950s, that meaning and purpose and identity could all lie in the future rather than in the past, that you could just discard it and somehow get away from it, that it was a burden to shed.
I’m a blue-eyed blonde in California, where nobody really has a past, and my ethnicity doesn’t matter in that sense that it seems to much more on the East Coast, what tribe you’re from and how long you’ve been here and where you went to school. But it’s still very present. It shaped my father, who shaped me in a lot of profound ways, a lot of which was quite dark—that anxiety and insecurity and uncertainty in the sense of not having a place in the world. There’s often a sense of if you’re not being faced with major anti-Semitism, then being Jewish in some sense doesn’t matter. But I also wonder: There’s a kind of instability in being Jewish in a country with massive anti-Semitism and pogroms, but there’s another kind of instability in coming to a place where who you are and what is possible are completely different.
Many of the characters in River of Shadows are also shaped by dislocation: Muybridge comes from England and reinvents himself in California. Then there was Joshua Norton. He declared himself Emperor of the United States, didn’t he?
And Protector of Mexico. He tried to corner the rice market, and I think it was 12 cents a pound, and then this Peruvian ship came in with rice at 3 cents a pound, and he gambled everything and lost it. It sounds like he lost his mind because of this financial thing. And then he reemerges into a really glorious way of functioning, and the city responds with a very celebratory embrace of his eccentricity. He basically earned nothing, lived entirely on handouts, but it was all done very elegantly. He printed up bonds for his empire that people bought. I think the printers and tailors and restaurateurs and stuff essentially allowed him to freeload. And he had these funny visionary things. He announced that they should build a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, and in the 1870s the idea of building a bridge that would be multiple miles long was just wildly inconceivable. He may be almost the only Jew in River of Shadows. I hadn’t thought about that.
Why did San Francisco attract people like Muybridge and Norton?
When San Francisco was founded, it was very cosmopolitan, urbane, and multiethnic, with Chinese and Argentinean, Chilean, and native Hawaiian, presences. Being a Jew wasn’t a problem the way that it was on the East Coast. You look at these old families like the Haases, who owned Levi Strauss, and a lot of other Jewish families that were among the prominent families, it wasn’t like in the Edith Wharton novels where they were prominent in the Jewish community but had nothing to do with the old Anglo-Dutch aristocracy. It was much more intermingled.
And that’s something that I think Norton and Muybridge are both about, and in some sense my family is about. California allows you to be whoever you want to be. I think that freedom is the positive side of it. The negative side of it is, it’s often about rootlessness and forgetting and erasure.
To what extent is A Field Guide to Getting Lost a guidebook?
The title is a paradox, or a conundrum, because you can’t guide people to get lost. If anything, all I could guide people to do is to pay attention: How do you navigate through your life? How do you navigate through a universe in which we don’t really know what will happen next? What are the rewards of being a little bit more open to the uncertainty? And what are the risks? I think my disappeared great-grandmother, my institutionalized grandmother, my friend who died of an overdose, are cautionary tales in a way, that absolute abandon, absolute loss of control. Because I think the fears I’m talking about—the fears of wandering, of going outside, extending yourself—have some real basis. There are real dangers. You can get really lost in the tragic way, where you starve to death in the wilderness, or metaphysically lost. But the antithesis is being so contained by the familiar, the predictable, the controlled, that there’s no adventure, no discovery, no growth in your life. For me, I think it’s about balancing the contradictions and the paradoxes, and finding that middle ground for yourself.