Friday, January 9, 2009

Books: Cinder-Path Tales & From Start to Finish

I've been running for a few decades now and I've always been a voracious reader, so it's natural that I would have sought out books about running. I prefer reading fiction, so I've spent quite a bit of time over the years looking for running novels. Don't bother to tell me about Once a Runner (Parker, 1978); I've already found it as well as other much more obscure works like Staying the Distance (Loader, 1958) and Duel on the Cinders (Porter, 1960).

Ages ago, using Florida State University's research library, I was able to turn up two books of track-and-field short stories by William Lindsey, Cinder-Path Tales (1896) and At Start and Finish (1899). Florida State doesn't actually own a "real" copy of either of these volumes; the university's copies are on microfilm. I suspect that very few copies were ever printed, but I did see one in the Boston Public Library back in 1989.

As it turns out these aren't really two different books. At Start and Finish is mostly an expanded edition of Cinder-Path Tales. The story "Paddy the Leaper's Probation" has been left out of Cinder-Path Tales while three other stories have been added: "Old England and New England," "His Name is Mud," and "The Charge of the Heavy Brigade." As a reader, your best strategy would be to read all of At Start and Finish, and then go back and read "Paddy the Leaper's Probation" if you're hungry for more Lindsey.

The stories are episodes in the life of the character Walter Brown, a British emigrant to the United States of the 1860s who found himself with no salable skills in the New World other than his speed as a sprinter. His "descent" into the sordid world of professional athletics is the subject of the story "My First, For Money." This is a puzzling story to the modern reader and historically interesting for the light it sheds on attitudes regarding amateurism versus professionalism in athletics. Brown had apparently run as an amateur in Britain with no harm to his character or reputation. Once need forced him to run for money in the United States, though, he felt loss of status and shame so deep that you'd think he had been selling his body to sailors in back alleys instead of footracing. Depressed after winning his first professional race, he reflects that "for the 'red pottage of Esau' I had sold my birthright." Recalling that same day later in life he states that "...well did I remember my sorrow when I dropped the 'Mr.' from my name." From the 21st century, this seems like an obsessive concern over class distinctions that no longer exist.

Brown eventually becomes too successful competitively to be successful financially as a professional runner, and turns to training for his bread-and-butter, first of other professionals and then of collegians. The stories from this period in Brown's career tend to be upbeat or even whimsical--an attempt to fix a highland games hammer throw with a lightened implement, a drugstore girl takes the favorite out of a one-mile race with an ice-cream soda, and roller-derby tactics used to win a handicap race, for example. Lindsey occasionally tries for pathos, as in his story of a middle-distance runner rendered invalid by the race of his life.

Having read his athletics stories, I wondered how Lindsey had come to write them. This took me to Lindsey's unusual biography. Lindsey had been born in Massachusetts in 1858. Unlike his character Brown, he was unable to attend college. Instead, he made his living in sales until he designed an ammunition belt that he was able to sell to the British army. It was hard to do better than selling arms to the British Empire during the Victorian Era. The outbreak of the Boer War assured Lindsey's fortunes, and he was able to retire at a relatively young age and devote himself to arts, mostly the written word. His writing included some plays that received kind reviews that than good ones, some poetry I'd rather not be called on to judge, and his track-and-field stories. I'm still not sure what part of his background prompted him to write about athletics. His daughter, Leslie Lindsey Mason, died with her husband during their honeymoon voyage in 1915 when their ship, the Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk. William Lindsey and his wife donated the land and money for the Leslie Lindsey Chapel of the Emmanuel Church in Boston in her memory (the chapel is a short walk from the finish line of the Boston Marathon if you're interested in visiting). In a more secular gesture, the Lindseys willed their home to Boston University, where it is now known as The Castle, and a pub serves beer in the basement.

Both Cinder-Path Tales and At Start and Finish have been out of print for over a century, but they've turned up on the internet, having been scanned into Google's online library. You can find them in all their Mauve Age glory at these links:

Cinder-Path Tales

At Start and Finish

The Cinder Path at Start and Finish

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