A Skating Treatise From A Fallen Civil War Soldier


Theodore Winthrop... Why does that name sound vaguely familiar?  I'll give you the abridged version. Winthrop was a descendent of both Governor John Winthrop (one of the leading figures in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the second settlement in New England) and Puritan philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. He was a Yale graduate, world traveller and aspiring author. Sadly, in life much of his writings were largely ignored. It was only in death, as one of the very first - and I mean very first - Union soldiers to be killed during the American Civil War, that his writing was published and widely acclaimed.


In his anthology "Life In The Open Air And Other Stories" which was published posthumously two years after his death, Winthrop wrote a passionate treatise about the art of skating:

THE FINE ART OF SKATING

"The world loves to see Great Artists, and expects them to do their duty.

It is hard to treat of this Fine Art by the Art of Fine Writing. Its eloquent motions must be seen.

To skate Fine Art, you must have a Body and a Soul, each of the First Order; otherwise you will never get out of coarse art and skating in one syllable. So much for yourself, the motive power. And your machinery, your smooth-bottomed rockers, the same shape stem and stern, this must be as perfect as the man it moves, and who moves it.

Now suppose you wish to skate so that the critics will say, "See this athlete does his work as Church paints, as Barley draws, as Palmer chisels, as Whittier strikes the lyre, and Longfellow the dulcimer; he is as terse as Emerson, as clever as Holmes, as graceful as Curtis; he is as calm as Seward, as keen as Phillips, as stalwart as Beecher; he is Garibaldi, he is Kit Carson, he is Blondin; he is as complete as the steamboat Metropolis, as Steers's yacht, as Singer's sewing-machine, as Colt's revolver, as the steam-plough, as Civilization." You wish to be so ranked among the people and things that lead the age; consider the qualities you must have, and while you consider, keep your eye on Eichard Wade, for he has them all in perfection.

First, of your physical qualities. You must have lungs, not bellows; and an active heart, not an assortment of sluggish auricles and ventricles. You must have legs, not shanks. Their shape is
unimportant, except that they must not interfere at the knee. You must have muscles, not flabbiness;
sinews like wire; nerves like sunbeams; and a thin layer of flesh to cushion the gable-ends, where you will strike, if you tumble, which, once for all be it said, you must never do. You must be all momentum, and no inertia. You must be one part grace, one force, one agility, and the rest caoutchouc, Manilla hemp, and watch-spring. Your machine, your body, must be thoroughly obedient. It must go just so far and no farther. You have got to be as unerring as a planet holding its own, emphatically, between forces centripetal and centrifugal. Your aplomb must be as absolute as the pounce of a falcon.

So much for a few of the physical qualities necessary to be a Great Artist in Skating. See [Benjamin] Wade, how he shows them!

Now for the moral and intellectual. Pluck is the first - it always is the first quality. Then enthusiasm. Then patience. Then pertinacity. Then a fine aesthetic faculty, in short, good taste. Then an orderly and submissive mind, that can consent to act in accordance with the laws of Art. Circumstances, too, must have been reasonably favourable. That well-known sceptic, the King of tropical Bantam, could not skate, because he had never seen ice and doubted even the existence of solid water. Widdrington, after the Battle of Chevy Chase, could not have skated, because he had no legs, poor fellow. But granted the ice and the legs, then if you begin in the elastic days of youth, when cold does not sting, tumbles do not bruise, and duckings do not wet; if you have pluck and ardour enough to try everything; if you work slowly ahead and stick to it; if you have good taste and a lively invention; if you are a man, and not a lubber; then, in time, you may become a great Skater, just as with equal power and equal pains you may put your grip on any kind of Greatness.

The technology of skating is imperfect. Few of the great feats, the Big Things, have admitted names. If I attempted to catalogue Wade's achievements, this chapter might become an unintelligible rhapsody. A sheet of paper and a pen-point cannot supply the place of a sheet of ice and a skate-edge. Geometry must have its diagrams. Anatomy its corpus to carve. Skating also refuses to be spiritualized into a Science; it remains an Art, and cannot be expressed in a formula."

Winthrop was clearly of the belief that though skating required great physical tenacity, it was first and foremost an art form. Even if he looked at skating through a different historical lens, he absolutely 'got it.' And take that last sentence: "Skating also refuses to be spiritualized into a Science; it remains an Art, and cannot be expressed in a formula." I think any of us who have laced up a pair of skates and stepped on a blank canvas on ice can relate to that cathartic quality of carving out edges; that sense of skating being about that intangible 'more' than mere athletics. No matter what the era, no matter through whose eyes, skating has always evoked that same sense of magic as it did to this brave author and soldier who helped shape America's future.

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