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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Daniel Willard Fiske
September 2006



Memorials of Willard Fiske
R. G. Badger, publisher on Google Book repository

Chess in Iceland and in Icelandic Literature: With Historical Notes on Other Table-games
By Willard Fiske from Google Book repository


from Last Places: A Journey in the North
Lawrence Millman, (Houghton Mifflin Books, 2000)

     The other passengers included a day-tripping Danish birdwatcher, a honeymooning couple from Reykjavik, and a Grimsey man named Willard. Willard may not sound like an Icelandic name - it sits oddly on the tongue after so many Sigurdurs, Gunnars, and Thorgeirs. It isn't an Icelandic name. Bit it has been a rather common name on Grimsey ever since islanders took to naming their offspring after an American gentleman of means named Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904).
     Willard Fiske was a traveler, a sports enthusiast, linguist, diplomat, journalist and chess master. He wrote about Dante and Cornell University's Psi Upsilon fraternity with equal facility. His essays often took the road less traveled - one, for example, is entitled "Syracuse as a Watering Hole." Another manages to find precursors of baseball in the writings of Pliny and Homer, and probably contain the first reference to the game as "the national sport of the United States." One year he is lecturing against the spoils system in American public office; the next year he has fixed his attention on the unhappy fellaheen of Egypt. His crusades on behalf of the new Egyptian alphabet ("One alphabet! One language! One country!) won him the accolade of an old dahabieh owner on the Nile, who said: "After Mohammed - Mr. Fiske!" In his leisure he composed chess problems.
     As a student, Fiske had read the Sagas in their original Icelandic and always thought of the country as an island of rugged individualists rather like himself. In 1879 he decided to sponsor the installation of a telegraph cable that would plug Iceland in to the rest of the world. With a telegraph Icelanders would at least know when and if their sovereign, the King of Denmark, died (when Frederick VII died during the winter of 1863, no one in Iceland knew about it until the first ship arrived on April 4, 1864). So Fiske sailed to Iceland to investigate the prospects for laying the cable. Along the way his boat passed a rough-hewn, uninviting little island at latitude 66o30'N, directly on the Arctic Circle. That's Grimsey, a deckhand informed him, and went to say it was the poorest, most miserable piece of land in the country. Grimsey folk had the reputation of giving off an evil odor, the result of an exclusive diet of seabirds and their eggs. Winters were so cold that islanders refrained from sneezing for fear their noses would break off and go rattling across the floor. If pneumonia didn't take them, influenza would; once all the male islanders drowned in a storm and the local minister was obliged to replenish the population through his own carnal enterprise.
      Fiske already knew a little about Grimsey from his voluminous reading on chess. As Iceland itself had a passion for the game, even greater was the passion of little Grimsey. According to legend, the three-mile-long island had been settled by a clique of Viking wayfarers who spent their days and nights playing chess. One of them had the unfortunate ability to remember every move he'd ever made, until these moves clogged up his mind to the exclusion of all else and he slipped off in madness. Others took to their beds for weeks at a time in order to perfect a certain line of attack or endgame combination. It was not unusual for a man who lost a game through some ridiculous blunder to fling himself off the cliffs in despair. On occasion, so went the rumor, Grimsey folf still killed themselves over chess.
     Poverty and chess! What better alliance for a man of Willard Fiske's kidney? The telegraph didn't work out, so he turned his attention to Grimsey. He was quite a beneficial man, about whom his good friend Mark Twain once said, "He was a dear and sweet soul as I have ever known." When he got back to the States, he sent marble chessboards and chessman to each of the eleven farms on the island. Later he provided Grimsey with firewood after the Gulf Stream no longer saw fit to supply its shores with mahogany from Honduras and palm trees from Haiti. In 1901 he underwrote all costs for the island's first library. Upon his death his will divided his considerable estate among Psi Upsilon fraternity, the Cornell University library and this tiny outpost of the North.
     Daniel Willard Fiske never once set foot on Grimsey.


from A History of Cornell
By Morris Bishop

      Daniel Willard Fiske was professor of north European languages, librarian, and director of the University Press. Reared in Syracuse, he was a boyhood friend of [Cornell president] White, and was the only Ithican privileged to greet the President as "Andrew." (In his letters to Fiske, White indulges in a special, playful  humor, unwonted in his other correspondence. He addresses Fiske with comic names, "lieber Fixius, liebstes Fixlein, Fix Pasha, Mithter Fix.") Fiske entered Hamilton College in 1847, and was suspended in his sophomore year, for breaking into the chapel and carrying off firewood. Somehow he conceived a romantic interest in Icelandic and Norse literature. He went abroad after graduation and studied at Copenhagen, supporting himself by writing letters to the American press. He wintered at the University of Upsala in Sweden and delivered a series of lectures on American writers. He returned to America, and spent seven years as assistant librarian in the Astor Library in New York, a year as Secretary of the American Geographical Society, and another as Secretary to John Lothrop Motley, Minister to Austria. At the same time his passionate devotion to chess led him to found the Chess Monthly,  to organize the first American chess congress (with Paul Morphy as star), and collect the largest chess library in America. He returned from Vienna to Syracuse, where he was editor of the Syracuse Journal and was partner in a bookstore. He then joined the Hartford Courant, edited by his college roommate, Charles Dudley Warner. While reporting for the Courant the opening of the Suez Canal in 1868 he received his appointment to Cornell.
     His character appears in this bald vita. A rolling stone who gathered considerable moss, he was readily captured by diverse intellectual enthusiasms. His European experience gave him social polish and a kind of malleability which made him at home, and warmly welcome, from Iceland to Egypt. An excellent linguist, he was fitted for his professorship of north European languages. Well trained in the best American scholarly library, and a true bibliolater, he was equally well equipped to establish Cornell's Library. A practical journalist, he could supervise Cornell's publications and serve as an unofficial Director of Public Information.
     As professor, he gave instruction in German, Swedish, and Icelandic and even offered a course in Persian. (I find no record that anyone accepted the offer.) He reported the campus news for the metropolitan press and contributed amply to the college papers. His most important service, however, was the direction he gave the Library. In those days a college library was likely to be a sorry accumulation, open an hour or two a week for the withdrawal and return of wholesome reading matter. (The first president of the University of North Carolina kept the University Library in an upstairs bedroom of his house for twenty years. The librarian of Columbia resolutely fought every effort of the faculty to add a book, in order to turn back half his appropriation unused.) Fiske's conception was totally different. He held that Cornell's collection should be a reference library., like the Astor or the Bodleian, expanding the studies of the faculty and stimulating the students' curiosities. His effort was to obtain, by gift or purchase, fine scholarly collections entire. The historical libraries of Goldwin Smith and Jared Sparks, the classical library of Charles Anthon, the philological library of Franz Bopp were thus secured, to Cornell's great and increasing benefit. From the first, the Library was open nine hours a day - longer hours, boasted Fiske, than in any other American university. (And today Cornell's Library, open fifteen hours and forty minutes daily, makes the same boast.)
     Fiske, a bachelor, was a kindly friend to young men, particularly the young men of the Psi Upsilon fraternity. White had to intervene to prevent him from giving inordinate proportion of his small salary to the new chapter and to needy brothers. Again, White was obliged to reprimand him for offering a glass of ale to a student. Fiske retorted that his hand was forced; he was enjoying his ale with a friend, as he did once a fortnight, when the student entered, and he felt bound by the laws of hospitality. Further, he was not going to change his personal habits for any Board of Trustees. [Fiske to ADW, 4 Sept. 1869]. Tempora mutantur, nor et mutamur in illis.
     Fiske was a nervous, volatile, irascible man. Abounding in generosity, he could never forget or forgive a slight or an insult. Since Vice-President Russel's gift of mockery matched his own, he detested Russel, and Russel thoroughly mistrusted Fiske. Especially when spurred by passion, Fiske could write brilliantly, with a verbal felicity that Andrew D. White himself could not equal. (Yet his only two actual books bear the strange titles of Chess in Iceland and An Egyptian Alphabet for the Egyptian People.)

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