Deep, deep down, everyone knows that William Saroyan was right: "The bicycle is the noblest invention of mankind." But until James E. Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University, wheeled onto the scene with this anthology of the world's sprightliest literature on the bicycle, few had any idea that a roadful of great writers have been recording their thoughts about the machine and its pleasures.
You could eliminate the writers of the past 100 years who did not produce prose or poetry about the bicycle and still have a vibrant literary world with those who did: Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw, Iris Murdoch, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Alan Sillitoe, Henry Miller, Heinrich Bo ll, D.H. Lawrence, Kenneth Rexroth, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway and S.K. Narayan.
These are a few in the cycle of entertaining selections that Starrs has chosen. His book could have been triple the size and not suffered in quality.
When Starrs began his research, "it never dawned on me that suitable materials would be found in such galactic profusion." While thumbing through the card catalogue at the Library of Congress, he discovered that long-distance cyclists were a major grouping themselves: The Library was "crammed with books extolling this hero or that of cross-country or round-the-world bicycle travel. One husband-and-wife team went so far as to claim the round-trip cross-country speed title for a tandem."
Starrs, 53, has put in his own miles in three journeys across the United States by bicycle. A Springfield, Va., resident, he commuted 30 miles a day, in all weather. Three of his children joined him on one Washington-to-California trip. The experience seems to have sharpened the spirit of his daughter, Monica, who made the trip at age 15 and wound down by writing this poem:
Pick up those burrowed thoughts,
as you scrape out pieces of caged-in mind.
Seek out and attack that point of no return
where you'll smother empty miles
with spreading wings
to pass secluded car dreams
On a 10-speed freedom flyer.
Starrs takes the title of his anthology from a line in Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." ("Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,/Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray/Along the cool sequester'd vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.")
It wasn't that Starrs discovered that bicyclists were buried in Gray's churchyard, but that as "Gray's poem focuses on the unheralded lives of the Everymen of society, this book speaks of the proletariat of wheels. The bicycle is the common man among vehicles, for which an ode, not an elegy, is in order . . . The words noiseless tenor suggest the subdued whirring of the bicycle in contrast to the noisome clamor of other more modern forms of vehicular conveyance, whose din derives from the action of the internal combustion engine. The word noiseless was carefully chosen by Gray; it was substituted for the word silent in an earlier draft of the poem. The term is a particularly apt modifier in the title to this volume, too, for it has a power that silent lacks, and it sets the bicycle apart from the ceaseless clamor of modern society."
Starrs, a modest man who cherishes a modest machine, makes no claims of covering the whole of bicycle literature. But he hasn't missed much. His introductions to the seven sections of his book are lay-bys of facts that would otherwise rest forever on the shoulders of literature's main roads.
Edmund Wilson was a lifelong cyclist who never learned to drive a car. Tolstoy took up the bicycle at age 67, partly to put some joy into his life in his grief over the death of his 7-year-old son, Vanichka. Henry Adams, also in mourning, following his wife's death, learned to bicycle at 50 "as a means of new life. Nothing else offered itself." In "The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway has a long section on bike racing and concludes that "the Tour de France was the greatest sporting event in the world." In 1913, Will Durant, then courting Ariel and not sure if they should marry, bicycled 150 miles from New York City to Albany for a brief, trial separation. The trip helped, and they married two years later. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were another biking couple. Alan Sillitoe, who wrote of bicyclists before lonely long-distance runners, quit school at 14 to work in a bicycle factory.
Perhaps the most famous collision in Western literature occurred when George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell upended each other. In "Portraits From Memory," Russell writes: "At this time [Shaw] and I were involved in a bicycle accident, which I feared for a moment might have brought his career to a premature close. He was only just learning to ride a bicycle, and he ran into my machine with such force that he was hurled through the air and landed on his back 20 feet from the place of the collision. However, he got up completely unhurt and continued on his ride; whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train. It was a very slow train, and at every station Shaw with his bicycle appeared on the platform, put his head into the carriage and jeered. I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism."
Unlike Shaw, Starrs isn't out to prove anything. Why should he? Nothing is doubted. "The bicycle," he writes in undeniable truth, "frees the mind for ruminations which the workaday world suppresses. Without the bicycle to liberate such thoughts, they might well go unnoticed and uninvestigated." And this sparkling anthology uncollected.