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In a masterful work of cultural history, Charles Sprawson, himself an obsessional swimmer and fluent diver, explores the meaning that different cultures have attached to water, and the search for the springs of classical antiquity.
In nineteenth-century England bathing was thought to be an instrument of social and moral reform, while in Germany and America swimming came to signify escape. For the Japanese the swimmer became an expression of samurai pride and nationalism. Sprawson gives is fascinating glimpses of the great swimming heroes: Byron leaping dramatically into the surf at Shelley’s beach funeral; Rupert Brooke swimming naked with Virginia Woolf, the dark water “smelling of mint and mud”; Hart Crane swallow-diving to his death in the Bay of Mexico; Edgar Allan Poe’s lone and mysterious river-swims; Leander, Webb, Weissmuller, and a host of others.
Informed by the literature of Swinburne, Goethe, Scott Fitzgerald, and Yukio Mishima; the films of Riefenstahl and Vigo; the Hollywood “swimming musicals” of the 1930s; and delving in and out of Olympic history, Haunts of the Black Masseur is an enthralling assessment of man—body submerged, self-absorbed. It is quite simply the best celebration of swimming ever written, even as it explores aspects of culture in a heretofore unimagined way.

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