Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero

by Charles Sprawson

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In a masterful work of cultural history, Charles Sprawson, himself an obsessional swimmer and fluent diver, explores the meaning that different cultures have attached to water, and the search for the springs of classical antiquity.
In nineteenth-century England bathing was thought to be an instrument of social and moral reform, while in Germany and


In a masterful work of cultural history, Charles Sprawson, himself an obsessional swimmer and fluent diver, explores the meaning that different cultures have attached to water, and the search for the springs of classical antiquity.
In nineteenth-century England bathing was thought to be an instrument of social and moral reform, while in Germany and America swimming came to signify escape. For the Japanese the swimmer became an expression of samurai pride and nationalism. Sprawson gives is fascinating glimpses of the great swimming heroes: Byron leaping dramatically into the surf at Shelley’s beach funeral; Rupert Brooke swimming naked with Virginia Woolf, the dark water “smelling of mint and mud”; Hart Crane swallow-diving to his death in the Bay of Mexico; Edgar Allan Poe’s lone and mysterious river-swims; Leander, Webb, Weissmuller, and a host of others.
Informed by the literature of Swinburne, Goethe, Scott Fitzgerald, and Yukio Mishima; the films of Riefenstahl and Vigo; the Hollywood “swimming musicals” of the 1930s; and delving in and out of Olympic history, Haunts of the Black Masseur is an enthralling assessment of man—body submerged, self-absorbed. It is quite simply the best celebration of swimming ever written, even as it explores aspects of culture in a heretofore unimagined way.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sprawson, an English art dealer who swam the Hellespont, has produced a delightful, profound cultural and literary history of swimming, bathing and the social meanings of water from ancient Greece to the modern Olympics. Swimmers, he contends, frequently fall prey to delusions and neuroses spawned by their solitary training. Flaubert and Shelley had an ``erotic, neurotic affinity with water''; Swinburne took a masochistic delight in being scraped by pebbles and pounded by waves; and novelist Baron Corvo (Frederick Rolfe), a passionate swimmer, bathed in ``morbid self-admiration and absorption in a fantasy world.'' Sprawson deftly probes the differing values associated with swimming by various cultures. The English, who swam naked until the Victorian Age, saw bathing as a means of social reform. Germans from Goethe to Thomas Mann linked swimming to a Faustian quest for knowledge, to spiritual perfection and, in Leni Riefenstahl's films, to a cult of athleticism. In the U.S., according to Sprawson, swimming has been associated with refuge and withdrawal, citing as examples F. Scott Fitzgerald's fiction and David Hockney's paintings of Southern California. This invigorating excursion affords a fabulous dip with the likes of Poe, Byron, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima, Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Photos. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In this poor execution of an intriguing idea, Sprawson, an art dealer who is himself an avid swimmer, attempts to explore swimming and swimmers from both a literary and cultural viewpoint. He quotes extensively from such writer/swimmers as Shelly and Byron, focusing primarily on English literature but adding chapters on German, American, and Japanese swimming experiences. He also considers modern film and architecture. Unfortunately, his book stands in need of extensive editing: the sentences are awkward and obtuse; the quoted excerpts do not fit smoothly into the text and are not adequately prefaced. Not recommended.-- J. Sara Paulk, Concord P.L., N.H.
Donna Seaman
Sprawson has been intrigued by the "peculiar psychology of the swimmer" since childhood. He writes evocatively about our eternal infatuation with rivers and the sea, from the worshipful, luxurious bathing of the Greeks and Romans to the English fanaticism for feats of aquatic daring and endurance. Sprawson combines history with literary and psychological analysis in his creative exploration of the myths and metaphors swimming has inspired. He muses upon the eroticism of bathing, the exalted state achieved by long-distance swimmers, and swimming's abrupt depreciation from a nearly divine status to being considered simply shameful after the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity. Numerous biographical profiles illuminate the psyches of poets, writers, and painters enchanted by water and the mystical aspects of swimming. There's Shelley, who gave his life to the magnetic deep, and Byron, a famously athletic swimmer, and the feverishly masochistic Swinburne as well as Flaubert, Goethe, Rupert Brooke, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Thomas Eakins, and Jack London. From the Roman baths to Hollywood beaches, from the joy of a nude midnight swim to the ferocity of swimming across the English Channel, Sprawson articulates the voluptuousness, athleticism, and aesthetics of swimming with eloquence, originality, and perception.
Iris Murdoch
Packed with fascinating tales of swimming exploits in history and literature and with accounts of immersion in lochs, fjords, straits, and torrents all over the world, Sprawson's splendid and wholly original book is as zestful as a plunge in champagne.
New York Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
One of the strangest and most stylish books of the year: a cultural history of swimming, by a dealer in 19th-century paintings. Sprawson learned to swim as a boy in India, at a school where his English father was headmaster. He still swims today, and one of the many pleasures of this aquatic rhapsody is his occasional foray into autobiography, as he struggles across the Hellespont (now clogged with ships) in homage to Byron, or paddles in pools where Tennessee Williams once trolled the waters. Like his natant heroes, Sprawson belongs to a singular society, "divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed." In the 19th century, the British were the champions of this worldwide fraternity, favoring the breast-stroke and using frogs as their model for kicking. Sprawson dives lustily into the English tradition of the poet as water sprite, which reached its apotheosis with Byron, who exemplified muscular, endurance swimming, and Shelley, who was obsessed with water but never learned to float and who died by drowning. Rupert Brooke swam as a celebration of youth; for Baron Corvo, it was an expression of homosexuality. Meanwhile, across the great briny, Eakins's paintings, Whitman's poems, and London's tales Americanized the sport; later, it became a staple of southern prose as an expression of decadence or sexual release (Sprawson's title comes from a Tennessee Williams story and refers to an incident in a bathhouse). Swimming had its glory days in other nations, too, mostly those that celebrated physical prowess. In Germany, swimming became for Goethe, and later Leni Riefenstahl, a declaration of freedom and beauty. InJapan, it expressed the samurai ideal. But whether East or West, the swimmer is always "in a continuous dream of a world under water"—a poet of the deeps. Positively liquescent with brilliant images and insights. (Photos—16 pp. b&w—not seen.)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Meet the Author

Charles Sprawson studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and currently deals in nineteenth–century paintings. He recently swam the Hellespont.

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