Karl Kron, King of the Cycling Enthusists

 

Louisiana Cycling Club Spokes Scrapbook, accession 98-62-L, Williams Research Center, The Historic New Orleans Collection

Karl Kron was a late nineteenth century adventurer, data compiler, encyclopediest, travel writer, chronicler, essayist, and cycling pioneer. In 1887 Karl Kron self-published a thick volume, a compendium of indexed facts and references, names of publications and organizations, and statistics. He funded his book through a funding campaign, a kind of 19th century Kickstarter, through which all who contributed one dollar to its printing received a signed and numbered copy. The 1984 reprinting in my possession is copied from Pledge No. 2519. Three thousand subscribers funded the printing.

Ten Thousand Miles is a reference and guidebook to the world of cycling in the 1880s. But it is also a book of essays, something like an early cycling road guide. His “road guides” are meandering, contemplative travel tales. They sometimes read like dry chronicles, but other times wax poetic, ecstatic, philosophical, comic. He was the Michel de Montaigne of cyclist writers. From the chapter “Straight Away for Forty Days”:

“Physically, a man is apt to be his best during the ten years which bring him to middle-age at thirty-five. Of his possible seven decades, that is distinctively the one during which under normal conditions, his average health and vigor will most nearly approach the ideal standard. Health may not always insure happiness, but it is certainly a chief condition thereof; and whoever puts it in peril by continuous overwork during those “ten healthiest years,” with the idea of thus winning leisure in which to enjoy himself later, seems to me to act foolishly.”

Karl Kron’s temperament, like Montaigne’s, was one of leisure. His goals in bicycle touring were Epicurean. Unlike some other famous long-distance pioneers of the late-Victorian period, Kron was unconcerned with speed and certainly not out to beat a record, as he makes a point of emphasizing in his preface. “The value of my work, as a contribution to human knowledge depends largely upon the circumstance that (being simply a slow-going and observant traveler, of no more than medium stature and average physique) I am willing to serve my chosen public, with industry and care, as ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.’ “

His travel writings are far deeper and more expansive than trifles. Titles of chapters include “On the Wheel”; ”White Flannel and Nickel Plate; A Birthday Fantasie”; “In the Down-East Fogs”; “Straight Away for Forty Days; and “Castle Solitude in the Metropolis.” The most peculiar chapter of this book is “Curl,” an eighteen-page biography of his late bulldog of that name. The entire book is dedicated to Curl. In the front matter of the book is a photographic image of the dog. “Curl. Born 4th July 1856-Died 24th Jan. 1869. See Biography pp. 407-425.”

The dedication on the previous page reads: To the Memory of My Bull-Dorg. [sic] (The very best dog whose presence ever blessed this planet. These records of travels which would have broken his heart had he ever lived to read about them are lovingly inscribed.

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In the chapter previous to “Curl,” Kron recalls his college days at Yale, when he first encountered an early version of the bicycle called a “bone-shaker.” The bone-shaker appeared in the United States just after the Civil War, twenty years before Kron was touring on his penny-farthing and published his book. In 1869 the craze for the velocipede had taken hold among the young student’s peers. Kron was buried in work. His school career was already suffering as he pursued his writing and publishing ambitions. Meanwhile, “Entrancing tales were told me daily of the comic a and exciting scenes to be witnessed at the rink, and of the wonderful possibilities which even the most sedate and cautious of citizens attributed to this new means of locomotions.” He wrestled with the temptation in joining them “as the excitement intensified and drew one classmate after another into the vortex; but still I said: ‘I cannot go; I cannot afford the time.’”

Finally he gives in to temptation. “At last, however, four weeks from the day when the term opened, my curiosity got the best of me.” His explanation was this:

“My daily journal of that date records the simple fact without comment or explanation; but I think it not unlikely that the ultimate excuse which I gave my conscience, for this gratification of curiosity, was the need of doing something unusual to dispel the gloom which oppressed me on account of the death, ten days before, of my much-loved bull-dog. At all events, . . . “–and then he leaves the subject.

And then you have sentences like this:

“On the contrary, within three days from the taking of my solemn vow to shun the deadly allurements of the rink, it boldly emerged from the decorous concealment of that sawdust-sprinkled sanctum, and began flaunting itself along the city sidewalks.” It goes on like that.

The Victorian language verges on the flowery, and is guilty of a Gilded Age tendency to hyperbole. But his emotion is also entirely believable. What strikes me about this book is not so much its value as a research reference for cycling history, which is immense, but its feeling of personal communication, its intellectual intimacy. Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg, Kron’s real name, speaks directly to the reader, his enthusiasm and emotion bleeding from the page . Some pages are just dry chronicles of geography and distance, but others draw me in with an immediacy and intensity that is hard to resist. What comes through in the meticulous compiling of records as well as the diatribes and musings is a mania for cycling, and for the kind of travel that the bicycle afforded him.

The entirety of Ten Thousand Miles can be viewed and downloaded at Google Books.

 

 

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