Monday, May 2, 2011

John J. Miller's "The Big Scrum"

John J. Miller writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of several books, including The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football and The First Assassin, a historical thriller set during the Civil War. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called him “one of the best literary journalists in the country.”

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Big Scrum and reported the following:
In writing this book about culture, sports, and politics, I hoped to fill the pages with colorful characters--not just Theodore Roosevelt, who is one of the most compelling men in American history, but also a number of his contemporaries, such as Walter Camp, Frederic Remington, and Knute Rockne. Page 99 is from a section that introduces longtime Harvard president Charles Eliot, a hater of football who battled Roosevelt over the future of the game. This excerpt provides a good glimpse of my narrative approach and also tells of how Harvard gained its school color of crimson.
...for a time each day all through life, sports and active bodily exercise. These are legitimate enjoyments, but if made the main object of life, they tire. They cease to be a source of durable satisfaction. Play must be incidental in a satisfactory life.”

His own concept of a satisfactory life led him to reject a career in business and gravitate toward the academy. After graduation from Harvard, he returned as a tutor--a kind of postgraduate teacher--and eventually became an assistant professor of math and chemistry. He continued to exercise and joined the crew team. His fellow boaters included four undergraduates and another young member of the faculty, Alexander Agassiz. In 1858, they took part in a three-mile race on the Charles River that would go down in school lore. Shortly before it began, all six tied red silk handkerchiefs around their heads. It contributed to their esprit de corps and also made the Harvard boat easy to spot from shore. This was the origin of crimson as Harvard’s school color. “It was the purest accident in the world,” recalled Eliot years later. “We might as well have bought blue.”

The morning of the race, Eliot began to write a letter to his fiancĂ©e: “I had rather win than not, but it is mighty little matter whether we beat or are beaten--rowing is not my profession, neither is it my love--it is only recreation, fun, and health.” He also promised not to row too hard. Although these words sounded like a preemptive rationalization for defeat, Eliot sincerely believed them. He enjoyed rowing, but more as a pleasant exertion than as an excuse to compete against others. As it happened, the debut of Harvard’s crimson was a big success: Eliot and his teammates won by several lengths. A couple of weeks later in a six-mile race, the Harvard rowers put on their red bandanas again and triumphed once more. The victory carried a prize of one-hundred dollars. In later years, Eliot joked that accepting his part of this purse had turned him into a professional athlete.
Learn more about the book and author at John J. Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue