“Walks with Aquinnah” from William Styron’s My Generation
The revered author of Sophie's Choice discusses the value of walking.
On June 2, My Generation: Collected Nonfiction by William Styron was released. My Generation is the definitive collection of Styron’s writing, shedding light on the artist’s life, from his emergence in the 1950s to his passing in 2006. This volume, edited by Styron’s biographer James L. W. West III, includes 33 works never before published and all the pieces collected in two previously published volumes of nonfiction: This Quiet Dust and Havanas in Camelot.
Walking with Aquinnah
For the last four or five years, whenever I am home—which has been most of the time—I have been accustomed to taking long daily walks with my dog, Aquinnah. Our walks are for business and pleasure, and also for survival—interlocking motives that have somehow acquired nearly equal importance in my mind. From the professional point of view, there is nothing better than walking at a brisk pace to force oneself into a contemplative mood. I say force because there is, I’m sorry to relate, an early resistance. I am not by nature a very active person and it’s a little embarrassing to confess that after many years of walking, with all sorts of dogs that preceded Aquinnah, it still takes at least a mild act of will to get started on my daily journey. For unlike most purely athletic activities, there is at the outset an element of joylessness in the walking process.
Strange that this is so. It requires absolutely no skill save the natural one that we all acquire at infancy. Why should the mere act of consecutively putting one foot ahead of the other for mile after mile be in itself so unpleasant an idea as to inspire a reluctance still difficult for me to surmount? But once I get myself going there always comes a breakthrough, after the boredom that usually envelops me like a dank mist during the first quarter of a mile or so of my hike. At the start it is like a faint palpable ache, not in the feet or legs but somewhere around the rim of the cranium. I wonder why, once again, I am engaging in this ponderous movement. My mind is cluttered by a series of the most dismally mundane preoccupations: my bank balance, a dental appointment, the electrician’s failure to come and repair a critical outlet. Invariably the first five or ten minutes are filled with sour musings—a splendid time to recollect old slights and disappointments and grudges, all flitting in and out of my consciousness like evil little goblins. They are the grimy bits and pieces of the initial boredom.
Yet almost without fail there comes a transitional moment—somewhat blurred, like that drowsy junction between wakefulness and sleep—when I begin to think of my work, when the tiny worries and injustices that have besieged me start to evaporate, replaced by a delicious, isolated contemplation of whatever is in the offing, later that day, at the table at which I write. Ideas, conceits, characters, even whole sentences and parts of paragraphs come pouring in on me in a happy flood until I am in a state close to hypnosis, quite oblivious of the woods or the fields or the beach where I am trudging, and finally as heedless of the rhythmic motion of my feet as if I were paddling through air like some great liberated goose or swan.
This, you see, is the delight and the value of walking for a writer. The writer lounging—trying to think, to sort out his thoughts—cannot really think, being the prey of endless distractions. He gets up to fix himself a sandwich, tinkers with the phonograph, succumbs weak-mindedly to the pages of a magazine, drifts off into an erotic reverie. But a walk, besides preventing such intrusions, unlocks the subconscious in such a way as to allow the writer to feel his mind spilling over with ideas. He is able to carry on the essential dialogue with himself in an atmosphere as intimate as a confessional, though his body hurries onward at three miles an hour. Without a daily walk and the transactions it stimulates in my head, I would face that first page of cold blank paper with pitiful anxiety.
I am lucky to have, in the colder part of the year, a house in the New England countryside, and in the summer a place by the sea. Thus on my walks I am exposed to manifestations of Nature in several of its most seductive moods; the aspects of pleasure and survival I mentioned are connected with being able to walk through serene, lovely, unpolluted landscapes while at the same time feeling throughout my body a diurnal blessing. As any knowledgeable doctor will testify, walking three to six miles or more at a steady pace—fast, energetic, taxing one’s self but not to the point of exhaustion—is a motor activity of the most beneficial sort; privately, it is my view that any more arduous form of perambulation (for the middle-aged nonathlete, at least) must be a danger.
A case in point—perhaps more meaningful because this narrative is about warfare, and specifically the Marines—would be my recollection of Major General Brenton Forbes, United States Marine Corps, whose poignantly familiar countenance peered out at me from the top of the obituary page of The New York Times one summer morning in the mid-1970s. The face of General Forbes, then in his early fifties and recently photographed (one could see the two stars on his epaulet), was the same face, only slightly larded over by the flesh of maturity, of Private “Brent” Forbes, who had shared with me a double-decker bunk at the Parris Island boot camp in 1944. The magisterially handsome man with the heavy eyebrows and humorous eyes and dimpled chin was the grown-up boy who had been the star recruit and superjock in our college-bred platoon, crack rifle shot and natural leader, inevitably destined to make the Marine Corps his career. It is striking how, if one is at all attentive, one rarely loses sight of the trajectory of the brilliant friends of one’s youth, and later I had seen Forbes’s name celebrated more than once: during the Korean War, in which as a captain he had won the Medal of Honor, and as a regimental commander in Vietnam, where by way of television one evening I saw, to my exquisite surprise, good old Brent standing beneath the whirling blades of a helicopter, pointing out something on a map to Henry Kissinger. The obituary stunned me—so young, so soon! Now the gorgeous ascent had been arrested close to its zenith, and the commanding general of the First Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, California, had dropped dead, found sprawled on the back lawn of his house in his jogging clothes!
I don’t mean to mock the dead—a residual part of me admires such a man—but I can’t help thinking that a program of walking, not jogging, would have allowed him to be alive today. Besides, there is something about jogging that is too trendy, verging on the effete; certainly it is un-Marine. It is inconceivable that an old-time Marine general—Smedley Butler, for instance, that salty old warrior of the early decades of the century—would have ever donned the uniform of a jogger. Walking, yes. Butler was as tough an egg as was ever hatched and—so the chronicles have it—an inveterate walker. Thus one does not visualize him jogging or, God forbid, running; one fancies him, rather, striding purposefully through some Coolidge-era dawn at Quantico or San Diego, thinking important thoughts about the destiny of the Corps, or of Caribbean skirmishes in bygone days, and the tidy machine-gun emplacements, and the bodies of Haitians and Nicaraguans mingled with those of his own beloved marines. Jogging would have appeared to Butler an absurdity, not only because the added exertion is unseemly and unnecessary (and, as we have just seen, sometimes lethal) but because it precludes thinking. Many of history’s original and most versatile intellects have been impassioned walkers who, had speedier locomotion appeared to be a desirable adjunct to the idea of mens sana in corpore sano, would surely have adopted it, and so it is grotesque to think of Immanuel Kant, Walt Whitman, Einstein, Lincoln, Amiel, Thoreau, Vladimir Nabokov, Emerson, Tolstoy, Matthew Arnold, Wordsworth, Oliver Wendell Holmes, George Gissing, John Burroughs, Samuel Johnson, or Thomas Mann ajog. “Intel¬lectual activity,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, “is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.” The italics are mine, but they could as well have been supplied by Hawthorne, who was a notorious devotee of walking.
But enough of that. Because it may be already apparent, I have not mentioned an aspect of walking that for me, at least, is absolutely essential: one must be alone. There are communal walks that are fun, but I am not referring to these, only to the ones where some sort of creativity can take place. Here a dog may be a welcome exception to the rule of solitude; one’s dog—whose physiology prevents it from being a chatterbox—can be a wonderful companion, making no conversational demands while providing an animated connection with one’s surroundings. On a walk the writer doesn’t want to get so totally absorbed in his thoughts that he loses sight of the countryside; despite the rewarding trancelike periods I have mentioned, one must also enjoy the scenery—otherwise an indoor treadmill would suffice. This is where Aquinnah becomes important to me—important as I am to her, I might add, since her enthusiasm for walking is persistent and obvious, verging on the frantic as she waits for the stroll. The offspring of a black Labrador sire and an incredibly sweet-tempered golden retriever, she acquired her mother’s tawny hue plus a large measure of her gentle saintliness, while the paternal genes gave her pluck and boisterousness. At the risk of an absurd anthropomorphism, I must say that the result is a bit like an amalgam of Mother Teresa and Muhammad Ali: moral grandeur and fierce tomfoolery in one beast, with just a touch of the lunacy of each model.
Aquinnah—the name is Wampanoag Indian from Martha’s Vineyard—has been surgically deprived of her capacity for motherhood, and the transformation has made her neither less feminine nor rudely masculine but somehow pleasantly androgynous, mixing all the maddening and beguiling singularities of both sexes: timorousness and reckless courage; an almost feline fastidiousness combined with the gross corruption of a creature whose greatest joy is to dive, sleazily grinning, from a hayloft into a towering pile of cow manure; a docile homebody one day and a swaggering wanderer the next—and so on. I delight in the remarkable variety of Aquinnah’s many natures—never more so than on our hundreds of walks together, whether she be trotting ladylike by my side or streaking out across a field for some prey that her nose detects far more quickly and surely than my vision. At that instant, with her caramel hair abristle and her white muzzle glued to the spoor, she appears to my somewhat nearsighted eyes as fierce and as fleet as a lioness of the Serengeti, although I must confess that not once, not a single time, has she tracked down so much as a chipmunk.
From the bookMy Generation: Collected Nonfiction by William Styron. Copyright © 2015 by Rose Styron. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.