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John "Walking" Stewart

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John "Walking" Stewart

John "Walking" Stewart (19 February 1747 – 20 February 1822) was an English traveller and philosopher.

Known as 'Walking' Stewart to his contemporaries for having travelled on foot from Madras, India (where he had worked as a clerk for the East India Company) back to Europe between 1765 and the mid-1790s. Stewart is thought to have walked alone across Persia, Abyssinia, Arabia and Africa before wandering into every European country as far east as Russia.

During his journeys, he developed a unique brand of materialist philosophy which combines elements of Spinozistic pantheism with yogic notions of a single indissoluble consciousness. Stewart began to promote his ideas publicly in 1790 with the publication of his treatise Travels over the most interesting parts of the Globe (London, 1790).

Over the next three decades Stewart wrote prolifically, publishing nearly thirty philosophical works, including The Opus Maximum (London, 1803) and the long verse-poem The Revelation of Nature (New York, 1795).

Stewart's works exhibit an allegedly naive arrogance, frequently asserting that their author is the "only child of nature" to have ever lived. In 1796, George Washington's portrait-painter, James Sharples, executed a pastel likeness of Stewart for a series of portraits which included such sitters as William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, and Humphry Davy, suggesting the intellectual esteem in which Stewart was once held.

After retiring from travelling, Stewart eventually settled in London where he held philosophical soirées and earned a reputation as one of the city's celebrated eccentrics. He was often seen in public ways wearing a threadbare Armenian military uniform—a souvenir, one assumes, from his many adventures.

On 20 February 1822, the morning after his seventy-fifth birthday, 'Walking' Stewart's body was found in a rented room in Northumberland Place, near present-day Trafalgar Square, London. An empty bottle of laudanum lay beside him.

Literary influence

After Walking Stewart's travels came to an end around the turn of the nineteenth century, he became close friends with the English essayist and fellow-Londoner Thomas De Quincey, with the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and with the Platonist Thomas Taylor (1758-1835).

In 1792, while residing in Paris in the weeks following the September Massacres, he made the acquaintance of the young Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who later concurred with De Quincey in describing Stewart as the most eloquent man on the subject of Nature that either had ever met. Recent scholarship has suggested that Stewart's persona and philosophical writings had a major influence on Wordsworth's poetry.

References

  • Bertrand Harris Bronson, "Walking Stewart", Essays & Studies, xiv (University of California Press, 1943), pp. 123–55.
  • Thomas De Quincey, The Works of Thomas De Quincey, ed. Grevel Lindop (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000-), vol. xi, p. 247.
  • Kelly Grovier, 'Dream Walker: A Wordsworth Mystery Solved', Times Literary Supplement, 16 February 2007
  • Kelly Grovier, '"Shades of the Prison House": "Walking" Stewart and the making of Wordsworth's "two consciousnesses", Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2005 (Boston University), pp. 341–66.
  • Barry Symonds, ‘Stewart, John (1747–1822)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, [1]
  • John Taylor, "Walking Stewart", Record of My Life, pp. 163–68


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