Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Self-Propelled Voyager

“You can ramble and roam more easily on a bicycle than by any other conveyance.”
--Winfred Garrison (1900)

I’m excited about this book. Duncan R. Jamieson’s The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel (Rowan and Littlefield, 2015) is the first serious, book-length, historical study of cycle travel and its literature. Jamieson is an historian at Ashland University in Ohio, and he brings an academic thoroughness to this research project while managing to strike a completely accessible—and, at times, surprisingly personal—tone. The book’s aim is to trace the “rise and development of long-distance bicycle travel through the narratives of those who travelled.”

One of the most impressive things about this book is how Jamieson truly seems to have read pretty much everything in the world of cycle-travel literature, from the 1860s to the present. And the book does a wonderful job of not just summarizing these texts but providing vivid anecdotes, telling details, and short, representative quotations that convey the tone and spirit of the works, from globe-circling Thomas Stevens’ spending an entire day whistling “Yankee Doodle” to Erika Warmbrunn’s evocative description of “the flying abandon of a bicycle, legs pumping, body and wheels skimming above the land, cycling for the sake of cycling.” As Jamieson explains in his excellent preface, the book sets out to capture how long-distance-cycling writers have, over the course of about 150 years, articulated the particular “joy of self-propelled mobility.” And it succeeds in this regard, wonderfully.

True, a lot of the content of this book is descriptive, as opposed to analytical, and some academic readers may take issue with that. But not me. The academic study of cycle-travel literature is relatively new, and one of the first steps in exploring a new field is making primary texts accessible. Jamieson’s book begins that process. It’s a survey and it really does provide a taste of many of the most important texts in this emerging field. After finishing the book, I had my own list of texts that I plan to go out and explore more thoroughly for myself. If that’s the primary effect of this book, then it’s a great success, in my view.

The tone of this book is academic but unpretentious—it’s easy reading, and, in places, refreshingly personal. Jamieson, who is himself a seasoned long-distance cyclist, talks about his own experiences in the preface, and then, in the body of the book, sprinkles in more personal anecdotes in the notes at the end of each chapter. (For instance, in a discussion of how many cycle-travellers like to name their bikes, he inserts an end note telling us the names of his own bikes). You don’t often see these kinds of personal asides in an academic book, but I liked them—they’re perfectly relevant and often funny. Academia could use more of this. 

The first half of the book is devoted to literature from before 1900, which may seem strange but actually makes sense, given how copious, rich, and generally ignored the cycling literature is from the 1880s and 90s especially. These chapters, which discuss the narratives of early cycle-travel figures such as Charles Pratt, George Thayer, Frank Lenz, and Annie Londonderry, were the most interesting to me, personally.

I have a particular interest in the cycle-travel writing of Elizabeth Robins Pennell and her husband Joseph Pennell, two of the most prolific and accomplished cycle-travel writers in the late nineteenth century. So I was curious to see what Jamieson would have to say about them. The answer is plenty. Too often in discussions of cycle travel in the 1880s, the Pennells get second billing to Thomas Stevens, who authored the hit Around the World on a Bicycle. The thing is, as Jamieson rightly points out, Stevens was a one-hit wonder when it came to cycling, while the Pennells travelled by cycle and wrote about it for twenty years.

In fact, Jamieson offers the most extensive and illuminating discussion of the Pennells’ contributions to cycle travel literature that I’ve encountered. I even learned a few things. (For instance, I loved the detail about Elizabeth, who was from Philadelphia, adopting an English accent when she lived in London. I thought I’d read everything about the Pennells but this lovely anecdote came from an article that was new to me.)

That said, I do have a few quibbles with the early chapters. I noticed a couple of factual errors. For example, in his account of the Pennells’ travels in Europe, Jamieson says they rode their tricycle first from Calais to Florence and then from Florence to Rome. But that’s not quite right. As Elizabeth explains in her biography of her husband, they took the train from London to Florence, and rode the France portion later. Only in the 1890s did they fill in the final stage in the London-Florence route by crossing the Alps on bicycles.

But that’s a minor error. The more serious concern I had with the early chapters of the book is Jamieson’s omission of any serious discussion of Karl Kron (aka Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg), the eccentric author of Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle (1887). True, Kron was an oddball, and his massive book (900 pages of tiny type) is somewhat bizarre in its obsession with statistics and indices, but Kron probably wrote more about the first generation of long-distance-cycling than anyone, aside from the Pennells. Yet Jamieson only mentions Kron in passing a couple of times in the book. I’m not sure why. Jamieson has clearly read everything in the field, including Kron’s book, I’m sure, but he chooses not to say much about one of the most significant early voices in self-propelled voyage literature.  

The second half of the book is devoted mostly to consideration of cycle-travel narratives from the twentieth century. In this part, Jamieson takes us swiftly through some large historical periods, providing insightful commentary on big names such as Bernard Newman (“the most prolific cycle author”), Dervla Murphy, Bettina Selby, and Barbara Savage. (Incidentally, Jamieson does an admirable job of addressing the gender divide in cycle-travel literature, where, interestingly, male authors dominate in quantity, but female authors more than hold their in quality.)

The final chapter, “Renaissance 1961-“, however, feels a little piecemeal, divided up into short sections on trends or sub-themes in cycle-travel narratives, from “Pilgrimages” to “The Companion Bicycle” ( a reference to cycle-travellers’ tendency to name their bicycles.) Each is interesting in its own way, but the sections feel a little disconnected. Jamieson pulls it together in the Conclusion, however, and offers some insightful observations on the continuing appeal of self-propelled journeys on two (or three) wheels.

None of which has really changed in 150 years, Jamieson points out. As Elizabeth Robins Pennell puts it, to quote from Jamieson’s own wrap up, “The world is one great book of beauty and romance; and on your cycle you can gradually master it, chapter by chapter, volume by volume.” Think of Jamieson’s book as a kind of primer to all the books written by self-propelled readers.   


  1. Sounds like a real find, Jasper! I love the ERP quote in your closing paragraph!

  2. Looking forward to attending the launch of your new edition of the Pennell's pilgrimages. My own wife subscribed to Elizabeth Pennell's view: "We preferred to explore countries where our machines would carry us -- not where we should have to carry them -- and where there were civilized beds and food and comfort."


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