(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The seeds for Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero were sown, the author tells us, in the four years he taught classical literature in what is identified only as “an Arab university.” Deprived of the refreshing pleasure of recreational swimming in a parched climate, the young Englishman spent long afternoons in his shadowy quarters and nights on the rooftop beneath the stars tracking down and making extensive notes on references to springs, pools, and bathing in the books that came his way. In the “strange, unnatural climate” in which he lived, he explains, “novels and poetry seemed to revolve around water and swimming, in a way that was quite out of proportion to the author’s intentions.” From this temporary obsession arose a curiosity about the psychology of the swimmer, and about what 1956 Olympic Champion Murray Rose described to Sprawson as the “feel for water” that motivates humans to immerse themselves in a medium that is simultaneously threatening, soothing, and seductive.

The somewhat sinister overtones of Sprawson’s title are as misleading as the academic implications of the subtitle and colon. In fact, Haunts of the Black Masseur-the phrase comes from a Tennessee Williams story-is the kind of informal and personal rumination over a subject that only a nonacademic Englishman could write. It is more like a travel book than a history, as the author moves through time and across geographical borders, pausing to explore anecdotal byways and amusing biographical side roads, dipping in a rock-strewn pool here and splashing there beneath a waterfall. The dominant tone is far from ghoulish: The book is as cool and refreshing as its subject.

Swimmers, Sprawson argues, are solitaries. The great swimmers, those who have been described and remembered, have engaged in a Homeric endeavor that is fueled as much by the mind as by the body. The long and lonely hours of training induce meditation and dreams. “So intense and concentrated are his conditions that he becomes prey to delusions and neuroses beyond the experience of other athletes.” It is not clear whether or not a lonely person is particularly prone to this sport above others, but Sprawson sees in literary culture the evolution of a symbolic swimmer, a figure who has come to represent “characters with a heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” The book thus simultaneously presents the reader with a somewhat arbitrary but fascinating history of swimming and its development as an international sport and an imaginative analysis of the idea of the swimmer as it has appeared in fiction and poetry.

Wherever one turns, it seems, there are swimmers. Although he later delves into the classics for references to the bathers of secular mythology, Sprawson begins with “The English Ascendancy”- his chapter heading-in the nineteenth century. In this period pools and floating baths were spread like cerulean carpets about England. Swimming galas were held in coastal towns. The winners of international races-most of them English-were greeted as national heroes. Contrary to popular beliefs about the period, swimming naked was the rule rather than the exception, and only the breast-stroke was deemed acceptable. People were drawn by the thousands to the seaside, and mermaids captured the popular imagination, as did such strenuous performers as Annette Kellerman, an Australian who swam up the Thames, the Seine, and the Danube while spectators lined the banks and who in 1911 was the second person to swim the English Channel. The first, Captain Matthew Webb, swam it thirty-six years earlier; continued his career performing public feats of endurance, and died in a futile attempt to cross the Niagara River three miles below the falls.

It was to the Romans and the Norsemen that the English looked for examples of their new national pastime. The Greeks may have peopled their springs and waterways with deities, but the Romans built baths, sometimes of enormous size, created vast fountains and water gardens, created grottos around wilderness pools, and embraced all things having to do with water with a previously unknown voluptuousness. To the Christians who followed, this was abhorrent: Swimming was associated with decadence, water regained its older meaning as a means of purification, and the swimmer; no longer a hero, became dependent for survival on divine grace rather than skill.

Benjamin Franklin, who...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)