Beefing up on culture: from weightlifting to Winston Churchill
As a teenager (a 129 pound weakling) I found a passion for weightlifting. Since “beefing up” in college I’ve been a competitive weightlifter and powerlifter for over fifty years.
About 1985 I began to apply the research and writing skills I acquired as a British historian to the newly popular academic field of sport history. My passion for it was further aroused by reading The Mighty Atom, The Life & Times of Joseph L. Greenstein by Ed Spielman. It was the inspiring story of a Polish Jew who weighed 3½ lbs.at birth and suffered from asthma but became robust after joining a circus at age 14 and learning how to wrestle. In 1911 Greenstein migrated to Galveston, Texas, and after a Ku Klux Klan beating he developed unique mental and physical powers that he displayed as “The Mighty Atom” in sideshows, carnivals & vaudeville. Oblivious to pain, he bent iron bars & horseshoes, drove tent pegs into planks, bit chains, 20-penny nails and coins in half, and pulled trucks and held back airplanes with his hair. At 5’ 4”, 140 pounds, his superhuman feats of strength surpassed any of the strongmen I had previously read about and revealed the seemingly unlimited potential of the human spirit.
Through books, I’ve immersed myself in several other cultures. Growing up in a small town in South-Central Pennsylvania in the 1950s offered limited opportunities to expand my cultural horizons. Nevertheless I found books in the local library, such as Winston Churchill’s six volume History of the Second World War and General Pershing’s two volume memoirs, which alerted my curiosity for the outside world. A true awakening occurred during my four years at Juniata College, a small liberal arts college tucked in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. We were required to take a full year freshman team-taught course, “Great Epochs of World Culture” and a complementary senior course, “Integration of Art, Knowledge, and Conduct,” which jolted me out of every comfort zone to which I was clinging.
My year working on a master’s degree at Wake Forest University expanded my intellectual scope further by providing my first taste of professional scholarship and another distinctive (Southern) culture. By this time I was becoming a writer and had chosen British history for my doctoral study at Duke University. More than any book assigned for classes, it was George Dangerfield’s Strange Death of Liberal England that I casually discovered and remember reading during a single sitting in the university lounge that most influenced my writing. Never had I encountered such vivid style and trenchant analysis. A single summary paragraph on page 393 had all the qualities of excellent historical writing, and its first one word sentence (“Rebirth.”) encapsulated the interpretation of the entire book:
Rebirth. There is the sign-post, pointing the way to that yet undiscovered reality. It is customary to think of that society as a doomed thing, calling in the traditional doomed manner for “madder music and stronger wine,” and plunged at last, with no time to say its prayers, into the horrors of war […] There is, too, a satisfying irony in this: the spectator knows what is going to happen, the actors do not; they are almost in the happy condition of Oedipus and Jocasta, before the news arrived which made the unhappy gentleman remove his eyes. And the conception is, above all, a convenient one. It is easier to think of Imperial England, beribboned and bestarred and splendid, living in majestic profusion right up to the very moment of war. Such indeed was its appearance, the appearance of a somewhat decadent Empire and a careless democracy. But I do not think that social history will be written on these terms. As has already been shown in the activities of politicians, and women, and workers, there was a new kind of energy which leavened the whole lump of society from top to bottom. You can see this energy flitting, in 1914, across the faces of those middle class people, as they are portrayed by the ingenious pencil of Punch; and you believe that you can hear it, winding its discordant horn amidst the costly merriment of the upper classes. And you know that the abandonment of respectable punctilious and worn conventions, which was such a feature of society after the war had already begun before the war. It is worth repeating once again that it was not death which gave Imperial England such a disturbing appearance in the spring and summer of 1914: it was life.
In the course of 22 research trips to Britain and dozens of publications, I’ve always tried to be as skilled as Dangerfield at my craft. Concurrently I have repeatedly shared that paragraph and Dangerfield’s book with my students as an example of what historical writing should be. I’ve always maintained that the best way to teach students how to write is by exposing them to authors who do it well.
Finally, a few years ago while researching an article on “Winston Churchill’s Search for Meaning” I discovered that Arthur Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation and other classic works of philosophy, literature, and history had an impact on shaping Churchill’s intellect while stationed as a young soldier in India. Although widely regarded for his pessimism, I found that Schopenhauer provided the most thorough explanation of the human condition and ultimately relief for the despair (called “Black Dog”) from which Churchill suffered, enabling him to become a leading statesman of the twentieth century. Lately Schopenhauer’s role as a seminal philosopher has led me to explore the impact of his ideas, especially regarding art and genius, on George Bernard Shaw and his flirtations with physical culture. These intellectual explorations continue with my current reading of David Cartwright’s biography of Schopenhauer, hoping it will lead to associations with other real life figures. While Dangerfield has helped me perfect a writing style and Spielman has deepened my passion for the sport I love, Schopenhauer has expanded my intellectual horizons to a point I never thought possible as a child in the fifties.
John Fair is a retired history professor (Auburn University, Montgomery, and Georgia College & State University) and has competed in nearly eighty weightlifting/powerlifting events, served on the national AAU weightlifting committee, and judged many physique competitions, including the 1973 Mr. America Contest. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin’s Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports. His latest book is Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon (University of Texas Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Mike Mozart.