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This review is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Catching Human Tides james canton, Out of Essex: Re-Imagining a Literary Landscape (Signal Books) £12.99

One of the many merits of James Canton’s Out of Essex is that the writer has the integrity to wonder what he’s engaged in making. To one questioner the author explains that the book revisits ‘the paths of writers through the wilder reaches of Essex. ‘“It’s a kind of literary psychogeography of the Essex countryside,” I added and started to wonder if that made much sense…’ (p. 22).

Out of Essex is a phrase cut from John Clare’s Journey Out of Essex (1841). From Epping Forest, Clare made his increasingly vulnerable way north. Eighty miles of striding later – Clare decided to stride, not wander – he found home, but bereft of his childhood sweetheart Mary, to whom Clare believed he was still married, it wasn’t the home he imagined (‘my home is no home’ he wrote, heartbreakingly), and five months after leaving Essex, Clare was admitted to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he would die twenty-six years later.

Essex finally comprised a set of psychological realities from which Clare felt he had to escape. Canton traces not only the geography but the psychology of Clare’s journey (chapter 2, ‘Relics’), but Canton’s method is both distinctive and typical of this book: he writes not merely as a literary cartographer but as an empathetic colleague whose psychogeography is claimed by, even merges with, the literary minds whose imaginative realities and trajectories precede it. Out of Essex is not, then, a ‘travel book’; it is a mapping of intersecting memories. In chapter 2, for instance: ...


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