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Archive for February, 2011

In addition to publishing a notice of my March 1 reading at Denver’s Bookery Nook, Westword posted on its “Show and Tell” blog an interview the alternative weekly conducted with me about Fighters & Writers. Asked about the connection between my dual subjects, I observed:

I identify two schools of thoughts on this, and I consider them both in the title essay of Fighters & Writers. In one corner are those who see meetings between combatants pursuing victory by the unmediated imposition of their wills as akin to writers’ lonely quests for the elusive truth. In the other corner are those who recognize boxing as a far more complex endeavor involving intelligence and cunning as well as physical strength and skill. Rather than something elemental and true, boxing involves deception and trickery.… Writers from both camps recognize something of themselves in fighters, and this has been the case at least since Homer told tales.

For the complete exchange, click here.

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Joyce Carol Oates offers a sometimes-insightful review of The Fighter in the March 10, 2011, issue of The New York Review of Books. In it she balances valid criticism and praise for the actors but shows little regard for fight fans.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the biopic, at least for viewers familiar with the real-life Micky Ward’s boxing career, is that it ends before his three action-packed bouts with Arturo Gatti. Oates invokes Shakespeare to suggest the dimension of the omission:

Ending The Fighter before the great brawling fights with Gatti is equivalent to ending King Lear before the blinding of Gloucester and the murder of Cordelia: one might do it, and still have a moving story, but why?

One obvious answer is that Ward lost his second and third fights with Gatti, which would deny the film its upbeat ending, but the rhetorical question still makes a legitimate point. As Oates observes, the trilogy made both fighters famous.

Oates also says Ward and Gatti are “enshrined in boxing history” as “boxers who fought heedlessly, desperately, with few defensive skills and much ‘heart,’ to please voracious and unforgiving boxing audiences with a taste for blood.” This seems unnecessarily insulting to the pair’s many admirers, who include people not usually deemed indifferent to boxers’ welfare, such as Senator John McCain, a sincere boxing reform advocate. In a conversation I write about in Fighters & Writers, McCain told me that the “magnificent display of courage” offered by Ward and Gatti represented one of the “uplifting things about boxing.” One needn’t have coarse, savage desires to respect fighters like Ward, as Oates contends.

Even so, Oates confirms the governing premise of my book when she says boxing is “bountiful to its gifted chroniclers.”

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In early February, when I recommended several biographies of boxers for reading during Black History Month, I also urged renewal of the effort to pardon Jack Johnson, who endured the injustice and indignity of exile and prison for what essentially were private matters. So I was pleased to see the news that Senator John McCain and Representative Peter King, resolute backers of a pardon, plan to reintroduce a resolution to absolve Johnson of his absurd Mann Act conviction. Presented with a second chance to do the long-overdue right thing, President Obama should sign the bill.

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Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, published a notice about the March 1 Fighters & Writers reading/signing at the Bookery Nook. It can be read here.

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In the early 1990s, before we were married, my wife and I took a two-month road trip, driving through twenty-two U.S. states and making a brief dip into Mexico. Since then, we’ve traveled together in many other areas of the United States (and elsewhere), but as of this writing there remain several states I’ve not yet visited. I’d like to see them all, and this spring I’ll move closer to that goal.

In April, I’ll read from Fighters & Writers at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock. The schedule for the event is slated for release in mid-March. The website – http://www.arkansasliteraryfestival.org/ – lists other 2011 participants, such as Kevin Brockmeier, Eliza Griswold, Charlaine Harris, David Sedaris and Isabel Wilkerson.

As if going somewhere I’ve never been and being a part of such an august assembly of authors weren’t enough, I also look forward to the festival because Arkansas’s literary and boxing heritage make it an exceptionally suitable setting for a Fighter & Writers reading. Though Maya Angelou was born elsewhere, she spent a good part of her childhood in the state, and in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings she recalls neighbors crowding into her uncle’s store in Stamps to listen to Joe Louis fights on the radio. Former middleweight champion Jermain Taylor was born in Little Rock and, I believe, still lives in the area. Perhaps I’ll meet fighters as well as writers when I’m in town.

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The Bookery Nook will be hosting a Fighters & Writers reading and signing on Tuesday March 1st at 6pm. Since 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the first Joe Louis-Max Schmeling bout, I’m considering reading a related essay.

Louis’s success and, in the case of the 1936 fight, failure meant a great deal to millions of people, who’d invested much of their hopes in the fighter, took pride in his accomplishments and were shaken by his first loss. Philip Roth weaves this history, including the 1938 Louis-Schmeling rematch, into The Human Stain, which I write about in conjunction with several other novels, and just might talk about at my second Colorado reading.

The Bookery Nook

4280 Tennyson Street

Denver, CO 80212

303-433-3439

http://thebookerynook.com/

Tuesday, March 1, 6pm

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Boxing history affords many fascinating ways to consider twentieth-century American history, including the evolution of attitudes about race, numerous boxers’ indirect and direct challenges to racist structures, and, of course, many remarkable achievements against the odds.

In acknowledgement of Black History Month, here are several recommendations of books about boxers and much, much more.

Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion and a defiant disregarder of racial stereotypes, is the subject of at least two exceptional biographies, Papa Jack by Randy Roberts and Unforgivable Blackness by Geoffrey C. Ward. (I relied on both of these, among other sources, when readying my presentation at the 100th anniversary commemoration of Johnson’s 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries, which appears in the fall 2010 edition of The Nevada Review.) By the way, this month would be a great time to renew the call for a posthumous pardon for Johnson, who suffered a patently unjust 1913 conviction for violating the so-called White Slave Traffic Act (a.k.a. the Mann Act). Senator John McCain unsuccessfully pushed multiple times for such a pardon, which should be granted before the centennial of this miscarriage of justice arrives.

Thirty years after his death, it’s hard to imagine a boxer having the social impact that Joe Louis did. During his climb up the heavyweight ranks and his long, record-breaking (and still record-holding) reign as champion (1937-1949), he inspired pride in millions of people. His defeat of Max Schmeling, a boxer popularly associated with the Nazis, soon before World War II (in which Louis served as a soldier) became an event of profound national and international importance. David Margolick offers an exhaustive account of Louis’s two fights with Schmeling in Beyond Glory. Chris Mead and Roberts, among others, penned solid biographies of Louis. (I write at length about these and other books about Louis in an essay disseminated by Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture.)

Sugar Ray Robinson, who like Louis grew up in Detroit, garnered much admiration for his style both in and out of the ring during the 1940s and 1950s, when he won titles as both a welterweight and a middleweight. In Sweet Thunder, Wil Haygood looks at Robinson’s life, along with the lives of peers such as trumpeter Miles Davis, poet Langston Hughes and singer Lena Horne. Looking back on the 1940s, Davis notes in his autobiography that “Joe Louis had been heavyweight champion of the world for a long time by then, and he was every black person’s hero – and a lot of white people’s, too. Sugar Ray Robinson wasn’t far behind him in popularity.” The jazz giant takes these boxers’ eminence as indication that “things were beginning to happen for black people in this country.”

Though usually regarded as an anti-hero rather than a hero, Charles “Sonny” Liston, the mob-backed devastating puncher who preceded then-Cassius Clay on the heavyweight throne, has a story worth telling, and Nick Tosches tells it in colorful fashion in The Devil and Sonny Liston. (Looks like this one is out of print, but it’s worth seeking out.)

I’ve heard it said that more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other president, and I would not be surprised if Muhammad Ali generated more ink than any other boxer. This makes it difficult to name just a few worthy books, but The Muhammad Ali Reader, edited by Gerald Early, gives a good sampling of numerous authors’ take on the man and his significance, and Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times remains the unbeaten biography.

Of course, many more boxers and many more books deserve attention, this month and year round. In the list of sources in the back of Fighters & Writers, I name more essential works of literature and history.

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