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William Lindsey, "Cinder-Path Tales", 1896
William Lindsey was born in 1858 in Fall River, Massachusetts, obtained only a basic education, and became a cotton yarn salesman. Ambitious and imaginative, he moved to Boston, married, and acquired a patent on a jute webbing ammunition belt – an acquisition that changed his life. The American army wasn’t interested in it so he went to London and sold the idea to the British Army and secured a cheque for it in 1889 for £650,000 (which would have had the purchasing power of £62,690,000 in 2013), which he hung from the Christmas tree that year. His fortune was made supplying the British Army during the Boer War. He was so successful that he retired from business in his 40s and dedicated himself to writing and philanthropic work. William Lindsey was, however, a man of many parts; he described himself as “by occupation a millionaire, by inclination a successor of minstrels in Provence.” His first book was a collection of poems, songs, and verse written in a mock-seventeenth-century style – Apples of Istakhar (1895). It contained a poem entitled The Hundred Yard Dash (not written in 17thc style!), which was anthologized in An American Anthology 1787-1900, (ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman), 1900.
THE HUNDRED YARD DASH
GIVE me a race that is run in a breath
Straight from the start to the “tape;”
Distance hath charms, but a “Ding Dong” means death,
Death without flowers and crape.
One last fierce effort; the red worsted breaks,
Struggle and strain all are past
Only ten ticks of the watch, but it makes
First, second, third and the las
“On your mark,” “Set,”—for a moment we strain,
Held by a leash all unseen;
“P’ff,” we are off, from the pistol we gain
Yards, if the starter’s not keen.
Off like lean greyhounds, the cinders scarce stir
Under the touch of our feet;
Flashes of sunlight, the crowd’s muffled purr,
The rush of the wind, warm and sweet.
Also in Apples of Istakhar, was a poem by Lindsey, entitled The Hammer Throw, which was included in The Little Book of Sports (eds, Wallace and Frances Rice), 1910, one of the first anthologies of sport poetry.
THE HAMMER THROW
We are the children of the strong god Thor
We hurl his hammer through the hollow sky;
No task is this for feeble hands to try:
This is the sport that men and gods adore.
A giant race are we, who each in turn
Step in the magic circle's narrow ring
Around our heads the old god's hammer swing
And send it whirling where the sunbeams burn.
Our fingers twine the handle tightly round,
Firm as a mountain oak we plant our feet,
With one long breath, filling each cell complete,
We lift and swing the dead weight from the ground.
Around our heads we swing with quickening speed,
The hot blood pressing in each swollen vein,
Each muscle corded with its mighty strain,
The handle bending like a river reed.
A step, a turn, and staggering, we hurl
The heavy hammer whistling through the air;
We watch it in the sunbeams fly and flare;
We see it settle with a thud and whirl.
All can not win; our giant game is o'er;
'T is better to be last in such a test,
Than in a little sport to rank the best;
We are the children of the strong god Thor.
These poems show that William Lindsey was close to athletics and athletes, emotionally and imaginatively as well as physically, and this interest led him to write Cinder-Path Tales the following year (1896). Cinder-Path Tales had a print-run of 1,000, and by 1899 it was out of print, so Lindsey produced At Start and Finish, which drew freely on his material in Cinder-Path Tales, but, in his own words, “omitting some material, but adding much more that is new.” He dedicated it to “the athletic teams of old England and New England, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale, who met in London July 22, 1899, good winners and plucky losers”.
When William Lindsey retired, he immersed himself in the world of the arts and letters; he was an officer of the Boston Author’s Club and a member of the Authors’ League of New York. He published novels – Severed Mantle (1909), Backsliders (1922), and plays – Red Wine of Roussellon (1915), Seremonda (1917), and after his death a collection of his sonnets was published, entitled, The Curtain of Forgetfulness (1923).
The importance of William Lindsey in the history of Athletics literature:
Although previous writers had been interested in the athletes, and the challenges of the individual events, and focussed on training, technique, the club, the competition, athletic performance or the sport’s history, for William Lindsey, athletics provoked his imagination and sense of romance. He was fascinated by the idea of the even-time sprinter (‘ten ticks of the watch’), and for him, hammer throwers were ‘children of the strong god’. In Lindsey we see a genuine enthusiast, not stimulated by making money from his books but a man fascinated by the mystery, magic and romance of the struggle for athletic excellence. He was one of the sport’s first poets.
This book is included with considerable reservations. It purports to be the story of a dissolute even-time English sprinter who flees to the USA in the 1880s, becomes a professional athlete and later a college coach.
But running a hundred yards in even time was rare in those days, and there is no record of Lindsey in any of the records of the period. And when the book describes his American matches, their dates and venues are vague. Similarly, his period as a college coach (or even the name of the college) is not provided. Indeed, the key years are in all cases expunged, or in modern terms, redacted.
And Lindsey’s colourful account of “the Virginia jumper” raises serious doubts about the veracity of the entire book. For he describes the performances of a six metre Virginian college long jumper who suddenly launches himself out to over seven metres on the arrival of his imperious mother. Unlikely.
But on occasion reality intrudes. For the book is dedicated to the Scot, John Graham, one of the “fathers” of American athletics, who took the 1896 American team to the Athens Olympic Games.
Lindsey’s book is almost certainly a confection, a mixture of fact and fiction. It is included simply because of the dearth of material on American professional athletics.
Copeland & Day
Place of Publication:
Date of Publication:
Date(s) of Re-Publication:
1900 (London: Grant Richards). A revised, modified version was published in 1899 under the title, “At Start and Finish”.
General Reference Collection 12650.e.27
"An Athletics Compendium" Reference: