Archive for August, 2012

In Fighters & Writers I mention several of the countless writers who expressed interest in, and were inspired by, boxing, such as Lord Byron, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg and George Plimpton. I could have, but didn’t, name another literary connoisseur of the fight game, Vladimir Nabokov. In a 1925 essay on the sport published in English for the first time this month by The Times Literary Supplement, the author of Laughter in the Dark and Lolita says “there are few spectacles as healthy and beautiful as a boxing-match.”


Clearly writing for a non-expert audience, Nabokov points out some salient facts that should be widely know but, even decades later, still are not. For example, it was not “commonplace humanity that led to the appearance of boxing gloves,” he points out, but instead a wish to protect fighters’ hands. He astutely observes that calling Jim Jeffries the “great white hope” hinted that “black boxers were already becoming unbeatable.” He’s a little shaky on dates, estimating that the championship fight between Jeffries and Jack Johnson occurred “twenty-five or more years” before he was writing (when it was 15), but he gets something essential right, something that gets to the heart of what Nabokov call “the art of boxing” and its appeal for writers. Recounting the crowd dispersing after a heavyweight bout, he states his conviction that within the witnesses “there existed one and the same beautiful feeling, for the sake of which it was worth bringing together two great boxers, – a feeling of dauntless, flaring strength, vitality, manliness, inspired by the play in boxing. And this playful feeling is, perhaps, more valuable and purer than many so-called “elevated pleasures.” Even if not everyone who saw the fight Nabokov took in at the Sports Palace in Berlin walked away with this “beautiful feeling,” he and many scribblers before and since certainly did.


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Other than mentioning his graceful turn on a New York stage as blacklisted-writer Dalton Trumbo (which I was fortunate enough to see), I have nothing to add to the reports of Gore Vidal’s death. Here are excerpts from the American Humanist Association’s notice:

The death of Gore Vidal on July 31, 2012, at the age of 86 has humanists mourning the loss of perhaps American’s best known public intellectual. As honorary president of the American Humanist Association since 2009, Vidal added an enthusiastic, progressive and dynamic voice to the AHA and the humanist movement.

“The progressive and humanist values Gore Vidal repeatedly espoused moved the culture in a positive direction,” said David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. “He spent his life pointing out the places in society that needed the most attention without worrying who might be embarrassed or upset by his opinions.”

“He’s been called an iconoclast, a provocateur, and a misanthrope,” said Humanist editor Jennifer Bardi. “And of course Gore occasionally said things that gave humanists pause. But he was forever dedicated to the cause of enlightenment and exposed injustice and hypocrisy at every turn.”…

The targets of Vidal’s criticism included the Religious Right, American expansionism, political changes done for “national security,” and the military-industrial complex, among others items. His advocacy for individual liberty, separation of church and state, and reason and rationality embodies the mission of the American Humanist Association.

Vidal first made a name for himself with the 1948 publication of The City and the Pillar, a book that created turmoil because its main character is openly homosexual without also being seen as unnatural. He was forced to write several subsequent novels using a pseudonym because reviewers and advertising outlets blacklisted him….

At first known for his novels, he later became known for his essays….

I count among those who hold his essays (the ones that don’t descend into crackpot conspiratorial thinking, that is) in especially high regard.

The New York Times, a paper with which Vidal had squabbles, has a fuller obituary.


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