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SIENA, ITALY, November 9, 1876.
DEAR SIR, - The battered mediaeval walls of this historic city would prompt me to write of bygone internecine struggles, rather than of the peaceful athletic contests of modern times, were my interest in those contests one jot less keen. Having lived for many years at a distance from the scenes of action, should any misstatement offend my readers, I apologize beforehand, attributing it to my precarious sources of information. However, I have to deal with principles rather than facts.
I am inclined to enroll myself among those who think that an undue prominence is given to the muscular, as compared with the intellectual, in our universities. Assuming, however, for the present, that they are wrong, and that a "stroke oar" is a more enviable man than a "summa cum laude," let us examine the question on the principle that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well.
Rowing, as practised to-day, is a science, and must be studied as such. Crews may differ from year to year in bone and muscle, but these are differences over which we have but little or no control. The energies of Harvard's leading boating-men should, then, be directed to the manner of rowing, or to what the English call "form." Much has been said and written about the famous "Harvard stroke." I do not hesitate to brand such trash with the name of buncombe, and I earnestly beg Harvard's aquatic chiefs not to be beguiled by like nonsense. There is but one good way to row; all others are bad. Why did Oxford beat Harvard? Because she was stronger? Not a bit of it. Calm and unprejudiced critics have never held but one opinion, namely, because she rowed better and with more judgment. Why did Yale beat Harvard last year? For precisely the same reason. Nothing can be farther from me than to be personal in my remarks. The anguish of defeat is too great to be augmented by harsh words; but defeat, though unpalatable, is often salutary. Had Americans, and especially Harvard men, instead of deluding themselves with patriotic excuses, taken a wholesome lesson from their plucky and honorable defeat on the Thames, more silk flags would adorn to-day our Alma Mater.
As I have already said, rowing is a science, and must be studied as such. Now, if a man wants to acquire a profession, does he not go to the headquarters of that profession, be they at home or abroad? Certainly he does. Where are the headquarters of rowing? Decidedly in England. (Even if in America, the principle would hold good.) Was not Cook, the captain of the Yale crew, shrewd enough to see that, by visiting the Mother Country and studying her oarsmanship, he could eventually whip any American college? The rowing of Yale was much admired by English critics at the Centennial Regatta. The Field says:-
"Taken as a whole, the rowing of the American four-oared crews could not compare with that of the English in finish, ease, and elegance, whatever it might do in brute strength, the class of competitors being so utterly dissimilar. No heed appears to be paid to coaching or to form, except in the College crews, - Yale, in particular, being a marked exception to the rule. This has been brought about by the captain of the College Boat-Club, who not very long ago paid a visit of some duration to England, and studied the rowing of the University crews, after which he returned to America and put in successful practice what he had learnt in this country; and there can be no gainsaying the manifest superiority of the oarsmanship of Yale over that of any other amateur crew in the States. It is still capable of amelioration, and, as strength, muscle, and pluck are not wanting, Yale crews may be made even more formidable than they are now."
Why can't Harvard follow the example of Yale, and either send a man to England to acquire the English style, or, if practicable, import an Englishman to Harvard who can coach the crews? In my own time we were fortunate enough to be coached for a short time by an ex-"'varsity" stroke from Cambridge, England, and his hints were invaluable.
Before concluding, I must walk on more dangerous ground; dangerous both from the nature of the soil and the scantiness of my information. To what extent the men use such appliances as rowing-weights, I am ignorant. For exceptional cases these weights may be essential, but I have grave doubts as to their universal application. It seems to me that the effects of such galley-slave work, eliminating, as it does, all that is agreeable in rowing, must be depressing, - a result to be deplored, seeing that the spirits of a crew should be raised by all legitimate means. I have heard many a boating-man say that he could pull a stronger oar in the repose of vacation than during the fatigues of the racing season. In former times Harvard men were proverbially overtrained, rarely coming to the starting-point with that buoyancy so essential to the sustained efforts of a hotly contested race.
Since we are looking at rowing from a scientific point of view, let the men of the present time not only investigate the question of form, but let them go a step farther and solve a more subtle problem, the mutual effects of mind and muscle. Let them study hygiene, and be conversant with the latest hygienic discoveries. By following these suggestions, Harvard would soon become the cynosure of all rowing-men on your side of the Atlantic, and, what is of infinitely more importance, would regain and maintain her supremacy with the least possible expenditure of time and strength.
Most truly yours,
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