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The World’s Fastest Man, by Michael Kranish

Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor - an American Icon
Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor - an American Icon
montage by fmk, based on two 1907 B+W photographs by Jules Beau held by the BnF

Title: The World’s Fastest Man – The Extraordinary Life of Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero
Author: Michael Kranish
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 365
Year: 2019
Order: Simon and Schuster
What it is: The fourth major biography of cycling’s first Black world champion, Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, who overcame racism in the US, became world famous in Europe, and also raced in Australia and New Zealand
Strengths: It’s a colourful account of Taylor’s life and times
Weaknesses: It’s an account of the life and times of Taylor that places the emphasis on the times to the detriment of the life story

The World’s Fastest Man – The Extraordinary Life of Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero, by Michael Kranish
The World’s Fastest Man – The Extraordinary Life of Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero, by Michael Kranish

“There is nothing stopping interested white writers from sharing their interpretations of the Black experience in cycling. However, where this white narrative is given greater credibility than the Black narrative voice and paradigm, this perpetuates racism.”
~ Marlon Moncrieffe
Desire Discrimination Determination

Michael Kranish’s The World’s Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Major Taylor, America’s First Black Sports Hero is the fourth major biography of the second Black athlete – and the first Black cyclist – to be crowned a World Champion, Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor. After three other attempts to write ‘the definitive account’ of Taylor’s life it is fair to ask this question: do we really need another book about Major Taylor?

(l-r) Andrew Ritchie, Todd Balf, Conrad and Terry Kerber, Michael Kranish
(l-r) Andrew Ritchie’s biography, Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer first appeared in 1988 and was re-issued in 2010 in a revised and updated format as Major Taylor: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World. Todd Balf joined the fray in 2009 with Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to be the World’s Fastest Human Being. In 2014 Conrad and Terry Kerber foisted their effort on the world, Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist, and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame. Michael Kranish leaped aboard the Taylor train in 2019 with this book.

The answer to that question comes in the form of a story related to me last year by Lynne Tolman of the Worcester-based Major Taylor Association. Grégory Baugé, the French track rider, won his first sprint World Championship in 2009. “I thought I had become the first Black to win this title,” he told L’Équipe’s Céline Nony in 2018. Then he learned about Major Taylor, who won the sprint World Championship in 1899. “Our former mechanic, Jean Moiroud, told me a little bit about him,” Baugé told Nony. “But it was only after I received many messages, and even a biography of Major Taylor, sent from the United States, that I really understood something about him. His victories, his life, everything he did inside and outside his sport made me respect him greatly. I’ll take every opportunity I have to tell his story. We need to know these pioneers, to be inspired by them.”

The answer then to the question asked is simple: we need two, three, many books about Major Taylor. As many as it takes for those today following in his wheel tracks to know about him, to know what he achieved during a turbulent period of American history and a thrilling period of cycling history.

Taylor’s story is instructive on so many different levels. First and foremost it is a story about sporting success, cycling excellence: Taylor really was a world champion, racing successfully in America, Europe and Australia and winning fans both by the strength of his body and the force of his personality. Then there’s the racism that is central to Taylor’s story, the consequences of which still echo loudly in society today. You can also use Taylor’s story to show what happens when a sporting body hands over the reins of power to those with commercial interests in the sport, which is what happened when the League of American Wheelmen threw in the towel and let the National Cycling Association run the sport in America as a profit-making enterprise, ultimately driving it so far into the ground that it took decades to recover.

For Kranish – a veteran of the Washingston Post’s politics beat and the author of books about Thomas Jefferson, Mitt Romney, John F Kerry, and Donald Trump – what is important in Taylor’s story are the times he lived in and the men who turned Taylor into “the world’s fastest man.”

Writing about the times Taylor lived in – America’s Gilded Age, the subject of Julian Fellowes’ much mocked Brownstone Abbey – allows Kranish to fill The World’s Fastest Man with colourful stories about men like JP Morgan and the Vanderbilts, places like the Manhattan Beach Hotel (“a Gilded Age extravagance of turrets and balconies, rising four stories, and providing an astonishing 2,350 single bathhouses and 350 units suited for groups of six bathers. The manicured grounds, with flowering gardens and emerald lawns, included an Excursion and Picnic Pavilion and a concert shell.”), as well as the vast ocean-going liners that criss-crossed the Atlantic at ever faster speeds. Here’s Kranish on the subject of the SS Wilhelm der Grosse, the ship Taylor sailed on when he left America’s shores and travelled to Europe for what proved to be a career-defining series of races in 1901:

“It was a striking vessel, its hull painted in bright red, in the middle a band of black and the white deck topped by four sand-colored smokestacks. That the ship existed was a matter of good fortune. Nine months earlier, fire had erupted in a cotton warehouse along the wooden piers at Hoboken, New Jersey, setting off explosions of vats of oil and turpentine, spreading flames to the massive steamships along the docks, trapping hundreds of sailors and passengers, and engulfing the ships. Dozens leaped through portholes or from the decks to escape the flames, only to die as they plunged into the harbor. As the fire reached the Kaiser, setting it aflame in several places, Captain Heinrich Englebart managed to unleash her from the moorings; tugboats pulled her away from the docks, and fireboats doused the flames as she sailed up the Hudson. Three other vessels suffered massive damage, and more than two hundred people were killed. Englebart was a hero, awarded a gold medal by the Volunteer Life Saving Association for protecting his ship and hundreds of souls on board. […] Here was the world’s first four-funnel ship, built four years earlier, and it continued to compete with vessels operated by the Cunard and White Star line for the title of fastest to cross the Atlantic. The 660-foot-long Kaiser carried fifteen hundred passengers and nearly five hundred crew members. It seemed a seaborne palace.”

A few months later Taylor returned to the States aboard the SS Deutschland, “an even faster vessel than the one he had taken to France.” It wasn’t just faster, it was vaster: just picture its main saloon and cupola, “a massive space that rose several stories, surrounded by friezes and statues and elaborate artwork. Long tables filled the interior, around which swivel chairs were placed. White tablecloths draped to the floor, crystal and silver were arrayed, and drinks were poured from the onboard stock of 12,000 quarts of wine and liquor and 15,000 quarts of beer. A crew of 550 tended to every need.” Kranish has yet more to say about this vessel:

“The one-year-old Deutschland was ‘the queen of the seas,’ one of the largest ships ever built, and the fastest ever to cross the ocean. Those who loved speed were drawn to her underbelly of power. She could burn through 572 tons of coal per day, heated in 112 furnaces, fuelling a horsepower of nearly 40,000, thrusting energy to a 59-foot crankshaft, hissing through cylinders, cycling through pistons, exhaling through four massive smokestacks. The ship shuddered from its strength. As she neared a top speed of 23 knots, deck chairs vibrated and passengers clung to railings as the vessel powered through the choppy seas. […] The Deutschland raced across the ocean at 22.65 knots, completing the run in five days, eighteen hours and forty-five minutes – not quite a record, but an astonishing mark at the turn of the century.”

It’s this eye for the telling detail that makes The World’s Fastest Man the book it is. But the more Kranish gilds the lily with peripheral portraits of the people and paraphernalia of the Gilded Age’s elite, the further he pushes Taylor from the centre of the tale being told. Taylor’s drift to the wings of his own story is only made worse by Kranish’s focus on the various White Saviours of the story, not least his attempt to shoehorn into the story at every opportunity Taylor’s first coach-come-mentor, Louis ‘Birdie’ Munger, a man who fades out of Taylor’s story before his first European tour but who Kranish still lavishes time and space on even in the years after.

Louis “Birdie” Munger had been a successful rider himself during the High Wheel era. Among his contributions to Taylor’s career was the design of the above steam-powered pacing machine.
Louis “Birdie” Munger had been a successful rider himself during the High Wheel era. In 1885 he twice set amateur American 24 Hour records (paced) and later went on to add records for 50 and 100 miles on bikes and trikes to his palmarès. Among his contributions to Taylor’s career was the design of the above steam-powered pacing machine in 1899.
Cycle Age / SIL

How much space is lavished on Munger’s story? Across the book’s first 50 pages, more space is devoted to introducing us to Munger than to Taylor. Munger did play an important role in Taylor’s career. When Taylor was in his early teens, Munger hired him as his houseboy. Upon seeing his talent on the bike Munger is said to have declared “I am going to make him the fastest bicycle rider in the world.”

Quite what the economic relationship between Taylor and Munger was is not made clear. We’re given no indication of what Munger paid Taylor or what portion of Taylor’s cycling income Munger retained for himself. Kranish is quick to credit Munger – we are told multiple times that he was himself a former world champion but not that it was one of those penny-ante races that declared itself a world championship – but slow to criticise him. Even when Munger attempted to bleach the blackness out of Taylor’s skin the story as told is made to seem almost funny.

I am not suggesting that Taylor’s relationship with Munger is not in need of examination. There are all sorts of ways in which it deserves to be interrogated. Where, for instance, was Munger when Taylor retired from racing in 1910 and tried to make his way alone in civvy street? Or how exactly did Taylor think of Munger? It’s clear he thought highly of the man, he dedicated his autobiography to him. Did Munger fulfil the role of father figure?

Taylor’s father had farmed him out to the Southard family between the ages of about eight and twelve, as a paid playmate for their son. Munger entered the story soon after the Southards decided they no longer needed Taylor. What sort of relationship does a son form with a father in such circumstances? Taylor’s family was important to him throughout his life but the only indication Kranish offers us of his relationship with his father comes almost a year after Taylor was crowned World Champion and, for the first time in his life, got to race in front of his father, with Kranish telling us that “Taylor, like many sons, yearned for his father’s approval.” Ever with an eye for the telling detail, Kranish then proceeds to tell us about some guy who had been responsible for the building of the track Taylor was racing on and who later “became famous for his development of Miami Beach.”

As exciting as all the colour concerning life in America at the turn of the twentieth century is, when it comes to the lands beyond America’s borders Kranish is curiously incurious, repeating as fact stories that are barely even half true. Consider the issue of cultural diversity in Paris at the time of Taylor’s visits (1901-1910). Here’s Kranish, writing about Taylor’s first visit:

“As Taylor wandered through the city, he was astounded that ‘one never sees blacks in Paris.’ Indeed, despite its proximity to Africa, there were relatively few blacks in France by the time Taylor arrived, and some were treated as oddities, ‘paraded in cabarets and human zoos to satisfy the curiosity and prejudices’ of Parisians, according to one account of the period. Taylor was told that there was one black who had become famous in Paris. He was called Chocolat, and Taylor decided to pay him a visit.”

Kranish then goes off on one with a Wiki-lite page or so on Rafael Padilla, the Cuban-born son of African slaves who achieved fame in Paris under the mononym Chocalat. But was Paris really so white that there was but one Black of any note in the city? In Ireland, when I grew up, the popular legend was that Paul McGrath was the only Black man in the country, Phil Lynott having died. Then Samantha Mumba came along and we became a truly multi-cultural society, or so the legend has it. Obviously, such self-mockery about the lack of cultural diversity in Ireland at that time hides deeper realities. The same is true of the notion that Padilla was the only Black man in Paris at a time when France was a major colonial power with an expanding overseas empire.

Kranish could have done as Todd Balf did in his somewhat shoddy Taylor biography, Major, and mentioned the American painter Henry Tanner who had been living and working in Paris for most of a decade at that stage. Or, staying relevant to the story of a Black cyclist, he could have mentioned Hippolyte Figaro who rode under the mononym Vendredi and who, at the start of Paris-Roubaix in 1901, was mistaken by some for Taylor. Later in Taylor’s life, Kranish could have introduced the reader to the American rider Woody Headspeth, who relocated full-time to France and whose story offers the reader a glimpse of the life Taylor might have had if, instead of retiring to Worcester when his career was done, he had accepted the offers made to him to go to France. Or he could have talked of Germain Ibron, a Black rider from Martinique who was also racing in France in Taylor’s time.

Why don’t we get those stories? It’s not a lack of space, Kranish somehow manages to give over almost as much space to a story about JP Morgan buying a painting as he does to Taylor’s two now legendary races against Edmond Jacquelin in 1901. It’s just that this is that sort of book, the sort of book in which Black lives are largely invisible. And when they are visible they are pushed into the background by the white stars of the story.

Take the case of Booker Washington, who along with WEB Du Bois is one of the few Black men Kranish does find time to talk about. In 1901 Washington was invited to the White House by Teddy Roosevelt. Kranish tells that story over the course of three pages. Do we learn what Washington thought of the meeting? No. But we do learn Roosevelt’s thoughts on it. Stories like this make it hard not to think of The World’s Fastest Man as a white version of Black history.

Take as another example Taylor’s mental health troubles. In 1904, upon returning from his second season of racing in Australia, Taylor withdrew from the sport and spent the next couple of years raising his recently born daughter and dealing with depression. Those years Taylor spent out of the limelight, Kranish gets them out of the way lickety-split, just three pages given over to them. With half of that space given over to a story about his former mentor, Munger, whose successes and failures in the business world are somehow deemed as important as Taylor’s personal struggles.

Throughout The World’s Fastest Man Kranish leaps at almost every opportunity to take the story away from Taylor, to reduce him not quite to a walk-on part in his own story but certainly to the role of a supporting character in a story about men like Birdie Munger and America’s Gilded Age. If that is what it takes to sell Taylor’s story to a non-cycling audience, is it really Taylor’s story that is being told?