Poets, tramps and a town planner: a survey of Raymond Unwin’s on-site persona: Brian Ward
In a critical sentence from Raymond Unwin’s 1909 publication Town Planning in Practice, the image of a mobile, homeless vagrant is evoked. To the modern reader, it is an unlikely image in a book which is held to be instrumental, first in the creation of the town planner as a respectable figure embedded in the political structures of twentieth-century Britain and, second, in the design of large swathes of residential landscapes. To his contemporary readers, Unwin’s usage of the term would have been understood within a wider discourse. The Edwardian tramp was a character that sustained two distinct bodies of writing – an official literature devoted to his control, and a romantic literature casting him as a figure of escape. Dovetailing with this discourse was the practice of ‘tramping’, the particular iteration of walking to which Town Planning in Practice refers. It was an activity which drew upon the duality of the Edwardian perception of the vagrant. Practitioners of tramping laid claim to the supposed innocent world-view of the vagrant, whilst simultaneously using an association with a figure on the margins of society to overlay their hiking with a political intent. While Unwin’s invoking of the tramp in Town Planning in Practice can therefore be understood within the general context of British Edwardian culture, this essay seeks primarily to situate his usage of the term within the particularities of his intellectual formation. In doing so, it identifies the figure of the tramp as a key determinant in Unwin’s conception of the relationship between the town planner
and the society in which he operated. The emulation of a vagrant, through the activity of tramping, involved a construction of identity that Unwin exploited to present the planner as a representative of those on the edge of civil society. This essay examines how Unwin employed tramping to democratise the design process of Arts and Crafts architecture so that it could be useful at the scale required by the new activity of municipal planning. The expansion of the self that he proposed and its democratic aspirations are best understood within an intellectual genealogy that runs from Walt Whitman through Edward Carpenter to the Ethical Socialist milieu in which Unwin matured. Unwin’s construction of his town planner relied on tactics which Whitman had deployed in his creation of the poet. Our survey of the town planner’s on-site persona will therefore begin with an examination of the manner in which a radical vision of democracy was brought from America to England through Carpenter’s re-writing of Whitman. The nomadism of Whitman’s figure of the ‘great poet’ will be identified as one of the prime reasons his work could be widely disseminated in this way, but the essay will question whether Unwin’s subsequent use of the tramp in his construction of the town planner mitigated against the role he had identified for it – namely the expression in built form of the common life of local populations. Many of these tensions between the global and the local and the peripatetic and the static were identified in early discussions about the reception of Whitman’s poetry. In the preface to Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman had famously positioned himself as the object of the mid-nineteenth-century search for an American poet who would express the qualities of the burgeoning nation. The irony that his poetry, consciously linked to America in this way, had its greatest early impact in England was one that caught the attention of the American essayist, John Jay Chapman. In his 1899 essay, ‘The Soul of a Tramp’, Chapman suggested that a substantial component of the poetry’s transatlantic appeal lay in the figure that Whitman presented to the English. He felt that the ‘uncouth and insulting’ figure that emanated from Leaves of Grass ‘corresponded to the English’ desire for ‘everything in America’ to be ‘unpleasant and [rampantly] wild’ (Chapman 1960: 68). Whitman used an engraving of himself in worker’s clothes as the frontispiece to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, asserting the poet as ‘the equalizer of his age and land’ (Whitman 1959: 8). During a period when gulfs between the rich and poor and the North and South were calling into question the viability of the United States, Whitman attempted to invent an everyman character expansive enough to contain and solve the contradictions of his nation.1 Constructed from the language he heard on the streets, Leaves of Grass presents the poet as an amalgam of the individuals he encountered in the teeming crowds of his daily life. ‘[T]he book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853,’ Whitman declared, ‘absorbing a million people … with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled’ (Reynolds 1996: 82-3). Romantic and transcendentalist conceptions of the poet/prophet had found renewed expression in Whitman, but for Chapman, the figure who stared at him
from the frontispiece was particularly redolent of a tramp (Chapman 1960: 70). In depicting Whitman in this way, Chapman utilised a term endowed with similar ambiguities in America as in Britain, the essential difference being that the tramp was seen as a relatively new figure on the American landscape.2 Dating from the Civil War, when large numbers of men ‘had been removed from their normal contexts and introduced to the possibilities of extended mobility’, America’s tramp population had been bolstered by the boom and bust cycles of the economy in the ensuing decades (Cresswell 2001: 34). By the late nineteenth century tramps were associated in the mainstream press with a moral panic – the ‘tramp scare’ or ‘tramp evil’ – and were frequently the recipients of beatings as they were chased out of town. Attempting to counter this vilification was a less voluminous literature of romanticisation. In poetry, dime novels and labour newspapers, the tramp was cast as a figure of liberation from the social mores of the Gilded Age. America’s ambivalent attitude towards this modern nomadic figure finds expression in Chapman’s essay. The tramp is criticised for his laziness and moral baseness while the attractions of his vagrant life are also described – ‘the infinite pleasures of life in the open air … [with] the joy of being disreputable’ (Chapman 1960: 69). In attempting to unite a vast nation into a single whole, Whitman had described his ‘great poet’ pacing bodily across the country. Chapman believed that Whitman was giving utterance to a person enjoying an innocent freedom not afforded to those engaged in the responsible relationships of society. He contended that the way in which the poetry ranged across, rather than grounding itself in, America created placeless literature likely to appeal wherever the life of a tramp engaged the public’s imagination. Any man on a holiday in the open air, ‘sure of ten day’s release from the
cares of business and housekeeping’, could gain access to the direct relationship with the universe that Whitman described (Chapman 1960: 72). Chapman proposed that Whitman’s claims to patriotism were therefore disingenuous:
Does all the patriotic talk … about the United States … poetically represent the state of any … American citizen towards the country? Or would you find the nearest equivalent to this emotion in the breasts of the educated tramp of France, or Germany, or England? … [H]is metaphors and catchwords are apparently American, but the emotional content is cosmic. He put off patriotism when he took to the road.