Thanks to the Olympics and one Michael Phelps -- maybe you've heard of him? -- swimming suddenly has new cachet in the United States. With exquisite timing, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University is here to remind us that -- in addition to its physical and philosophical attractions-- swimming has a literature all its own.
Willard Spiegelman picked up his own passion for the sport as a graduate student at Harvard, he explains in an essay in the latest American Scholar, having decided that his life a pure scholar -- a brain without a body -- had to change. He vomited after his first doggy-paddle across Malkin Pool, but later stroked respectably alongside Harvard luminaries Erik Erikson and John Kenneth Galbraith.
The former performed an elegant breaststroke, never putting his leonine head of silver locks into the water; the latter, what seemed like all eight feet of him, simply pushed off from one end and arrived at the other almost immediately, effortlessly.
Spiegelman is a specialist in the Romantics and, as it happens, Lord Byron may be the most famous swimmer in the English literary tradition. Like sex, swimming helped him to forget the club foot that was his humiliation. In "Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos," Byron recounted his ostentatious retracing of the route of the legendary Greek Leander, who swam the Hellespont every night to visit his lover Hero -- until he drowned. Byron, in contrast, caught a tragic cold: "Sad mortal! thus the Gods still plague you! / He lost his labour, I my jest: / For he was drowned, and I've the ague."
In Spiegelman's eyes, however, the greatest poem about the sport is "Swimming Chenango Lake," written in the 1960s by Charles Tomlinson, an Englishman who taught at Colgate for a while and who himself did not swim. But he knew that "to swim is also to take hold / On water's meaning, to move in its embrace."
Spiegelman also singles out "Splash: Great Writing About Swimming," a 1996 anthology edited by Laurel Blossom, whose highlights include John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" and Laurie Colwin's "Wet." In both stories, swimming serves partly as a metaphor for loneliness, yet on the whole Spiegelman thinks swimmers, for all their solitude, are happier than their earth-bound peers. "After all," he writes, "what does 'buoyant' mean?"
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