Review of The Self-Propelled Voyager

Jamieson, Duncan R. The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xxv + 193. Bibliography and index. $86.00 hardcover, $81.00 electronic book.

Reviewed by Zachary R. Bigalke

It has now been over a decade since the last time I went on a self-supported bicycle tour. While Lance Armstrong won a record sixth straight Tour de France thousands of miles away, I spent a summer customizing a steel Panasonic touring frame, adding racks and lights and modifying the gearing. Most nights after work, I would test the changes to the bicycle on moonlit rides through Grand Teton National Park. As the months passed, the plan coalesced to ride with a friend through Wyoming and beyond completely under our own power. I began stockpiling supplies for the journey ahead.

Once October rolled around and the resort closed for the winter, we pedaled past the Tetons and southward through the state. Though I had traveled across Wyoming many times for debate tournaments just a few years earlier, the ride allowed me to finally understand each rise and descent of the state’s topography. The destination quickly became far less significant than the journey as the land came fully into focus for the first time.

The_Self-Propelled_Voyager_cover

Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Ashland University history professor Duncan R. Jamieson is also intimately familiar with the way that the bicycle allows individuals to connect with the world. Jamieson writes in the preface to The Self-Propelled Voyager: How the Cycle Revolutionized Travel of his own experiences as a youth traveling by bicycle across his home state of New York and riding throughout his life. Jamieson’s personal experiences churning out mile after metronomic mile in the saddle translate throughout this well-researched and enthusiastic look at the history of bicycle touring.

Jamieson, it seems, was driven to write this book in order to understand why cyclists were motivated to write about their adventures on long-distance journeys. As a cyclist himself, he works from the premise that the liberating impacts of self-propelled travel is a given. The Self-Propelled Voyager is interested as much by what has motivated generations of cyclists to write about their experiences on two or three wheels as what drew them to pedal away in the first place. Whether riding a high-wheeler or a modern carbon or aluminum frame, Jamieson managed to find authors who wrote for profit or pleasure about their experiences pedaling across the land. Some pedaled around the globe, while others journeyed across the United States and Europe.

From the outset, Jamieson is conscious to note that his monograph is focused only on the impact of the bicycle among English-speaking cycle tourists. The bibliography upon which Jamieson draws is exclusively English, which is not necessarily a drawback given the wealth of source material from English speakers around the globe that was available to Jamieson. The work the author has done, rather, offers a blueprint for scholars who might be interested in a comparative analysis of cycle touring among French, Italian, and other non-English-speaking populations where the bicycle has had a long influence.

The book works forward through time from the 1870s onward, demonstrating the fluctuating popularity of cycle touring over time. Structuring his monograph around six chapters, Jamieson spends the first four discussing early cycle touring at the end of the nineteenth century. As bicycles became more accessible to the public and technology improved at a rapid pace, more people took to the wheel and wrote about their experiences.

Once the history reaches the twentieth century, the book focuses less on individual exploits and more on the shifting relevance of the cycle more generally. Six decades of history are condensed into chapter five, which centers on the rise of the automobile. As more people turned toward internal combustion for individual transportation, cycling waned in popularity among both participants and those who had once followed the exploits of cycling pioneers in the press.

The last chapter dives into a rebirth of cycle touring beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the present. Improved bicycle technology and greater affordability helped spur the popularity of both individual and group touring. Over this period, the bicycle became a tool for everything from charity fundraising to visiting places such as Vietnam that have hold an indelible position in American history.

In crafting this monograph, the author draws upon a rich corpus of literature about the bicycle. Jamieson’s research focuses primarily on 140 years of touring narratives. This includes a range of around-the-world journeys, from the two-volume saga of Thomas Stevens’s journey published in 1888 and continuing through Anne Mustoe’s memoir published the end of the twentieth century. Jamieson also incorporates dozens of accounts about regional rides that have been produced over the decades. He also pulls information from a series of travel guides, how-to cycling books, and cycling fiction along with the limited historiography of secondary sources on the subject to flesh out the storyline.

Though the focus on Victorian-era cycling in the English-speaking world means there is little discourse on subaltern cycling cultures, the most enlightening contribution of this book is the way in which it illuminates how the bicycle and tricycle provided locomotive liberation for women. Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Fanny Bullock Workman offered an early example of female participation in long-distance cycle touring, as they traveled throughout Europe alongside (or sometimes on tandem cycles with) their husbands. Female cyclists like Pennell and Workman demonstrated the physical as well as intellectual abilities of women at a period when suffragist and other feminist movements were emerging in the late nineteenth century. They also served as a vanguard for future generations of women such as Mustoe, Dervla Murphy, and Josie Dew to take their own solo voyages.

While Jamieson diligently traces the technological advances that also helped the cycle revolutionize travel, the central argument of the book is that the specific components of any individual bicycle or tricycle matter less than the general liberating value of the cycle. The advancements in frame geometry, pneumatic tires, multi-speed gearing, and braking systems provided a more convenient and comfortable journey for riders. But in any of its forms, the cycle has consistently motivated individuals to journey to new places and write about their travels.

Jamieson’s book provides lasting value for scholars focused on cycling history as those with more casual interest in the subject. It is at once a history of cycle touring and of cycle touring literature, providing several layers of relevant cultural analysis. The Self-Propelled Voyager will resonate with anyone who has ever began pedaling with a destination in mind and quickly become lost in the journey. 

Zachary R. Bigalke is a recent M.A. graduate from the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at bigalkez@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Review of The Self-Propelled Voyager

  1. This is an excellent review on what seems to be an excellent book, but I am bothered by the inexcusably high price for it, both for the hardcover and the ebook version. The publisher has done a disservice to both sport history scholarship in general, to the public, and to the author. The book is less than two hundred pages!

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