Racing Past

The History of Middle and Long Distance Running

Racing Past Book Reviews Glenn Cunningham: Two Books


Book Review

 

Glenn Cunningham, With George X. Sand. Never Quit. Lincoln, Virginia, Chosen Books, 1981. (143 pp.)

Paul J. Kiell. American Miler: The Life and Times of Glenn Cunningham. Halcottsville, New York, Breakaway Books, 2006. (430 pp.)

 

Two quite different books: one is an autobiography; the other is a biography. One is long, one short. One is selective, the other inclusive. But despite their differences, both are invaluable to those interested in the life of great American miler Glenn Cunningham. 

Cunningham’s short autobiographical book, written 40 years after he retired from track, has inspiration as its main aim. It is published under the auspices of the Christian Herald Association and is dedicated to “young people everywhere who dream dreams of success and pursue that will-of-the-wisp called fame.” There is also a biblical quote on the dedication page: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.” 

Never Quit is divided equally into two parts. The first half deals with Cunningham’s tough childhood and the terrible burn accident he experienced at the age of seven. Although written more than 60 years after the fact, this section makes fascinating reading and gives good insight into Glenn’s developing character. For example, when Glenn is recuperating from his ghastly burns he hears a visiting neighbour say to his mother: “You may as well face it, my dear. Glenn’s going to be an invalid the rest of his life.” When the visitor has left, he says to his mother: “I’m not going to be an invalid. She’s wrong, you know! Wrong, you hear?” 

The second part of Never Quit provides very episodic coverage of Glenn’s running career, with chapters like “the First Race,” “Some Impossible Dreams” and “The Real Victory.” Much of this half of the book deals with his early career, with his battle to become a decent runner. There are only 25 pages left when he gets to his first Olympics. And then he jumps straight to the next Olympics without mentioning one race in the four years between. This second part, although it has some interesting sections will be disappointing to those wanting detailed information on his competitive career. 

Paul J. Kiell’s American Miler is much more thorough. Kiell, a New Jersey psychiatrist, has done extensive research and provides a wealth of well-documented information. A friend of the Cunningham family, Myra Brown, had begun a book on Cunningham in the 1960s, but she died after doing her research and writing some draft chapters. This material was given to Kiell, and he makes good use of Brown’s interviews with many people involved in Glenn’s early life. Ruth Cunningham, Glenn’s widow, also provided material that Glenn had written and collected. 

The result is a superb biography. He is exceptionally good on Glenn’s childhood and provides a balanced account of the dreadful burn accident. This balance is needed as the story has been somewhat mythologized over the years, even by Glenn himself. Kiell provides details effectively—as when he describes Glenn arriving at university: “He would arrive in Lawrence with exactly $7.65. His entire wardrobe was limited. He had only one pair of socks, but they were good ones, silk. He washed them every night.” 

Kiell is equally thorough over Glenn’s running career, covering each season thoroughly. He covers the races with background material and useful material on Glenn’s opponents. However, I was surprised he omitted any material on he 1936 outdoor season before his crucial Olympic 1,500 in Berlin. I was also surprised at the omission of Glenn’s last major race, the outdoor AAU 1,500 in 1940, when Glenn ran a brilliant 3:48.0, a PB and only 0.2 slower than Lovelock’s world record. 

Kiell is also excellent on the 47 years of Cunningham’s life after track. He then provides a whole chapter assessing Cunningham’s character. This chapter is excellent—as one might expect since Kiell is a psychiatrist! 

So Kiell’s American Miler is a good read and an invaluable history of the life of Glenn Cunningham. Anyone who reads this biography will have a very good understanding of the make-up of one of the greatest US miler. It also provides a really good insight into the flourishing American indoor track scene in the 1930s.      


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