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Tracing the History of the Bicycle and Its Impact on Society (November 2016): Cycling Fiction and Poetry

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Cycling Fiction and Poetry

Christopher Morley (1890–1957) viewed the bicycle as “the vehicle of novelists and poets.”1 Justin Daniel Belmont’s The Art of Bicycling: A Treasury of Poems and James Starrs’s The Noiseless Tenor are edited collections of poetry and excerpts from literature about the bicycle from its early appearance to the present. A wide range of novelists have used the bicycle as the central character in their works. Mark Twain’s short story “Taming the Bicycle,” collected in What Is Man? and Other Essays, explains the path one man followed to learn to ride a high wheel.

Two early novels that treat love and the bicycle are H. G. Wells’s The Wheels of Chance, in which Mr. Hoopdriver takes a bicycle holiday and meets and rescues the “lady in gray,” and Frank Stockton’s A Bicycle of Cathay, in which the young hero takes a bicycle vacation and meets several young women during his travels. When none of them show any interest, he returns home to marry a neighbor’s daughter. Both books demonstrate clearly the relationship between rider and wheel.

In 1902 Jerome K. Jerome offered readers Three Men on the Bummel, the tale of three Englishmen in middle age who take a holiday from the cares and responsibilities of life. Jerome creates a series of humorous vignettes that poke fun at bicycle culture, German life, and the interactions of the three men. Flann O’Brien’s black comedy The Third Policeman focuses on love and death; at one point the author theorizes that the personalities of the rider and the bicycle become intertwined.

Four novels use the bicycle to treat the fragility of relationships. Alan Sillitoe, in Down from the Hill, follows the life of Paul, who takes his week’s holiday shortly after VE Day to bicycle through England to meet Alice Sands. The novel explores six days of freedom and independence through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old factory worker. Twenty-eight years later, he reprises his trip, seeing the physical changes and learning the fate of some of the people he had met earlier. Larry McMurty’s Duane’s Depressed, the third book in the Thalia, Texas, trilogy, follows sixty-two-year-old Duane as he exchanges his truck for a bicycle. Poignant and humorous, McMurty’s work captures the allure of the bicycle as Duane rides farther and farther, examining his life and relationships. In Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running, Smithy Ide’s parents are killed in an automobile accident, which motivates this thirty-something, overweight, out-of-shape alcoholic loser to set off from Rhode Island on a cross-country bicycle trip. Finally, in a fascinating novel of self-discovery, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Slow Man introduces the reader to sixty-year-old Paul Rayment, whose life is suddenly changed when, as the result of a bicycle-automobile accident, Paul’s shattered leg has to be amputated. The novel examines some of life’s most basic questions.

Ralph Hurne captures the drama of the Tour de France as his aging protagonist Terry Davenport rides in his final tour to pace his young protégé. The Yellow Jersey combines descriptions of competitive cycling with a meditation on mortality. Tim Krabbé’s The Rider is a vivid, detailed description of a 150-kilometer road race; the book appeared in Dutch twenty-five years before being translated into English.

1. Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1917).

Works Cited