Boxing is a boon to scribblers. It provides useful metaphors for all sorts of struggles, whether they end in victory or defeat. It supplies resonant historical reference points and context. It offers ways to write about (usually male) human bodies. During the first part of 2010, as I selected photographs, reviewed proofs and performed other tasks related to the publication of Fighters & Writers, I read several books not ostensibly about boxing in which the sport is mentioned or discussed. These coincidences reconfirmed my premise: fighting and writing are closely connected.
Early in the year, I read Homer & Langley, in which E.L. Doctorow makes use of the sport’s vocabulary of defeat. He describes Langley Collyer, an extreme collector of newspaper and much else, reassembling a Model T automobile inside the house he shares with his blind brother, Homer, and trying to use its engine as an electricity generator. The fumes drive Homer and the siblings’ cook, Mrs. Robileaux (a.k.a. Grandmamma), outdoors. Homer recalls: “We sat across the street on a bench at the park wall and Grandmamma announced, as if describing a boxing match, the struggle between Langley and the prevailing darkness, the lights in our windows flickering, sputtering, flaring, and then finally going down for the count.”
A couple of months later, I read Solar, in which Ian McEwan uses the sport’s recognized gesture of victory. His Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, after a ceremonial speech about an alternative energy project, acknowledges the role of his partner by raising his arm “boxing-ring style.” McEwan also makes one of Beard’s colleagues and rivals a former boxer, and the young solar-energy enthusiast’s physical fitness contrasts markedly with Beard’s “dysmorphia.”
Other writers invoke particular boxers to lend an air of authenticity or symbolic poignancy to their fiction. In Grand River and Joy, a novel set in the lead up to and aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot (and named for an intersection of two streets in the city), Susan Messer has a teenage character who sees the military draft as a conspiracy to rid the United States of black youth. When a friend asks him if he’ll go fight in Vietnam, he replies: “What choice do I have? Don’t have the muscle of Ali.” Although Ali issued his famous declaration “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” more than a year earlier, he did not officially refuse induction to the Army until April 28, 1967. He was sentenced on June 20, 1967 – about one month before the riot in Detroit. Even if Messer’s allusion could be considered anachronistic, since it wouldn’t have been clear in July 1967 that Ali would not go to prison and would have his sentence overturned in 1970, the reason for wanting to bring the famous fighter who refused to fight and emblem of black pride into her story is not to comprehend.
Using the novel’s 70th anniversary as an excuse for writing about it, I picked up Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which contains a reference that might look even more anachronistic than Messer’s: “Karl Marx talked about Joe Louis.” I can’t say whether that would have struck readers as more or less odd in 1940, but since the Karl Marx in question is actually Dr. Copeland’s son and not his famous namesake, it does make a kind of sense. References to Louis (and there are more than one) certainly fit, since McCullers set the novel in 1938, the year of the boxer’s emphatic win over the German Max Schmeling. Copeland judges an essay contest for black high-school students, one of whom – no doubt taking inspiration from Louis – wishes to become a prizefighter.
Several recent books about jazz, read for projects both completed and in-progress, turn to the sport. In The Blue Moment, Richard Williams describes John Coltrane, after leaving Miles Davis’s group, extending his saxophone solos to thirty minutes and claims the drummer Elvin Jones “needed a boxer’s physique to keep pace with his leader.” Boxing figures both literally and metaphorically (if also only in passing) in Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong. The trumpeter’s manager, Joe Glaser, was “a hot-tempered boxing promoter.” (Glaser also worked with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, as I note in an essay on both Teachout’s Pops and Wil Haygood’s biography of Robinson, Sweet Thunder.) Teachout quotes Robert Goffin, a Belgian jazz critic and author of an early Armstrong biography, describing the musician’s first performance in England. In a less flattering fashion than when Williams likened Jones to a fit fighter, Goffin compared Armstrong to a hard-working athlete: “His face drips like a heavyweight’s, steam rises from his lips….” In Miles, Ornette, Cecil, Howard Mandel refers to Davis’s admiration for the “self-possessed, accomplished Robinson (something Haygood examines closely). He says that drummer Max Roach, by choosing to work with the relentless pianist Cecil Taylor, faced a challenge equivalent to “being in the ring with Joe Louis, Jack Johnson or Mike Tyson.
It comes as no surprise at all to find Ernest Hemingway mentioning boxing. In A Movable Feast, he uses boxing weight classes when discussing his own body. “When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry.” I could have put that in “Weight Loss: A Love Story” (an essay included in Fighters & Writers), where I quote New Yorker scribe A.J. Liebling using the divisions similarly. In his memoir, Hemingway also recounts trying to teach Ezra Pound how to box and enlist him in the ranks of fighting writers.
Cyril Connolly, who says T.S. Eliot also took boxing lessons, nearly used one of the poet’s lines – “time and the bell” – as title for an essay collection, but rejected it in favor of The Evening Colonnade when a friend said the other one unpleasantly reminded him of boxing.
Not all writerly uses of boxing are of championship caliber, of course. In his thriller Death of a Writer, Michael Collins concludes a conversation between a detective and a suspect with this: “A bell rang as if at the end of a round in a prizefight.” This feels unearned. It suggests a battle of wits between closely matched combatants, but Collins’s dialogue lacks such tension. In Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, Frank Meeink recounts physical abuse at the hand of a vicious stepfather, an ex-boxer. (I reviewed the book for The Oregonian.)
Even after all work on Fighters & Writers was completed, I continued to come across unanticipated pairing of literary types and pugilists. A Daily Beast article likened feuding writers to boxers. Christopher Hitchens repeatedly states in Hitch-22 that he never developed any interest in sports, but recalls a compulsory school boxing tournament in which, perhaps needless to say, he didn’t excel. He seems to have learned something from it, however, something that relates directly to his work as a writer. Painful moments at school left him “slightly better equipped” to confront greater one later in life.
There’s no need to attached great significance to any of these coincidences, but all of them together left me pretty certain I was on to something.
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