Book Review: The Hammers

29 September 2021

By Peter Mallory

Rowing historian and writer Peter Mallory reviews The Hammers by Hovey Kemp, who rowed four years (1972-1976) at Harvard.

I recently started reading a new translation of The Iliad, a favorite of mine, an epic story of remarkable characters whose names have echoed down the millennia: Agamemnon, Odysseus, Priam, Paris, Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, fascinatingly flawed individuals displaying a range of all too human qualities: arrogance, anger, vanity, selfishness, cowardice. The Iliad is perhaps humankind’s most enduring cautionary tale . . .

. . . but it is also filled with love and devotion, humility, humor, selflessness, strength and courage, filled with true heroes who exemplify the very best in us.

Do such personalities exist amongst rowers of our era? I suggest that they do. I have known more than my fair share and have called them my friends. Lucky me. That their lives have not played out before the walls of Ilium, that they did not have Homer to record their exploits, that they labored, often anonymously, in spindly shells on rivers and lakes and not war galleys on the wine-dark sea, still the best among us truly embody the same human virtues and frailties as Homer’s heroes.

Harry Parker

Among the most remarkable in my lifetime have been Joe Burk, Harry Parker, Allen Rosenberg, and Ted Nash. All were connected in history. All became larger than life to the point that now their legends have clouded our understanding and appreciation of the mortal men they actually were.

I came to know these men and found inspiration in my personal relationships with each of them . . . but one always remained a puzzle. I had the opportunity to interact on an intimate level with Joe and Allen toward the ends of their lives and with Ted when I least expected it . . . but never really with Harry. Oh, he was thoughtful and kind and incredibly generous with his time, but there was always a core that remained hidden from me.

Hovey Kemp, way back when.

You may think this is a strange way to begin a review of The Hammers, the wonderful retelling of the unique story of Harvard’s 1976 Crew by Hovey Kemp, but I’m following my heart here.

I’m a Penn man through and through – I bleed Red and Blue – but I have always approached Newell Boathouse like a kid pressing his nose against a department store window during Christmas season, and over the years I have taken every opportunity to seek enlightenment into what makes Harvard . . . well . . . HARVARD.

I attended a Harvard-Yale race when I was a child and there was still a train following the races. I have clung for half a century to the memory of the one time in my life I crossed a finish line with a Crimson crew in my wake. I have come to know a whole range of Harvard men and women from the last seven decades, explored the nooks and crannies of the boathouse at Red Top, laughed with Al Shealy and Tiff Wood, reminisced with Steve Gladstone, and broken bread with Chuck Hewitt and Tony Brooks. I rowed for a summer out of Newell, rowed beside the ’72 Olympic Crew across Europe in the weeks before Munich and even joined the ’68 Olympic Crew on one of their reunion rows!

But always there was the enigma of Harry . . .

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”So said the Wizard of Oz. The Hammers invites you behind the curtain. Hovey lets you be part of a Harvard team at a time when no one was sure what their future might bring. Harry is flesh and blood, and the story is so much more interesting than anything I might have imagined as I pressed my nose against Newell’s windows.

And the book exudes the ease and grace that Harvard rowers display in such abundance.

Thank you, Hovey.

Incidentally, Hovey tells me he still has a few copies left of the second printing. I heartily recommend you reach out to him immediately at jhoveykemp@gmail.com. Tell him HTBS sent you. 

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