James Joyce is not one of the many authors I write about in Fighters & Writers, but he could have been.
I discuss many of my favorites in the book. Some of them, such as Albert Camus and A.J. Liebling, also wrote about boxing. With others, such as Herman Melville and George Orwell, connections between their work and the sport are less immediately apparent. Joyce might appear to fit in this category as well. His name doesn’t immediately bring pugilism to most readers’ minds, I’d bet. Yet with Ulysses he attempted to pack an entire world, or at least an entire city, into a novel, and he reinvented the literary form in order to do so. With all he put in there, it should come as no surprise that boxing shows up in its pages.
With characteristically fine craftsmanship, Joyce constructs a few alliterative sentences describing an image from a colorful moment from boxing history. Our hero Stephen Dedalus stops at a Dublin shop:
In Clohissey’s window a faded 1860 print of Heenan boxing Sayers held his eye. Staring backers with square hats stood round the roped prizering. The heavyweights in light loincloths proposed gently to each other his bulbous fists. And they are throbbing: heroes’ hearts.
According to boxing chroniclers Nat Fleisher and Sam Andre, “there are some tales which the fight fan is never tired of hearing,” and here Joyce alludes to one of them.
John C. Heenan fought Tom Sayers in the first contest for the title of world heavyweight champion. Known as “The Benicia Boy” for having worked for a steamship company in that California city, Heenan was actually born in Troy, New York, on May 2, 1833. As Joyce certainly knew, the American was of Irish descent. The 195-pound, 6’2” Heenan outweighed his 5’8” opponent by more than forty pounds when they met in Farnborough. Though small, Sayers was considered exceptionally clever, and, in An Illustrated History of Boxing, Fleisher and Andre call him an all-time great.
The first fight between American and English title holders saw the still-common practice of fans regarding athletes as upholders of national honor and declaring their allegiances accordingly. In the 37th round, when Heenan had his opponent trapped against the ropes, Sayers supporters cut through the ropes to save their man. Though the referee fled the out-of-control scene, the bare knuckle boxers agreed to fight five more rounds without an official. After two hours and twenty minutes, the fight ended in a draw, though according to boxing lore, British observers were certain Sayers won, while Americans knew Heenan would have won had Sayers partisans not interceded. Both men received championship belts. When Sayers retired from the sport, Heenan was recognized as the world champion.
Though Fleisher and Andre don’t say whether the novelists were among the ring rope severers, they do note the presence of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray in the audience on April 17, 1860. In The Half-Life of an American Essayist, Arthur Krystal mentions the pair being there as one of many, many examples of writers with an interest in fighters. He doesn’t mention Joyce, but he could have.