In William Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, landowner Thomas Sutpen’s idea of a rousing good time is to stage fights between his slaves. It’s his way of reminding himself of his own station in life, his triumph over his white trash past, to watch the lower orders go after each other tooth and nail, “fighting not like white men fight, with rules and weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad.” Occasionally, he even likes to participate, “as a grand finale or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself.”
Money, power, race, and violence – they’ve all been a part of boxing from the beginning and they’re on full display in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from The Library of America.Welch then uncorks a barrage of combinations about good versus evil, muscle versus skill, white power, exploitation, money, and how boxing “turns writers into pugilists of prose”—and “makes them reach for odd literary references,” as in the following:
His fighting style is as formless as the prose of Gertrude Stein.
– Heywood Broun
So he perished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an unwise one.
– H. L. Mencken
Since the rise of [Rocky] Marciano, [Archie] Moore, a cerebral and hyper-experienced and light-colored pugilist who has been active since 1936, has suffered the pangs of a supreme example of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.Or as John Schulian, one of the book’s co-editors, described the sport in an interview with The Library of America (PDF): “Primitive. Savage. And yet beautiful and ennobling and capable of inspiring a kind of sweat-stained poetry.”
– A. J. Liebling
Also of interest:
- Forty years ago, the first Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier bout, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- A memorial to George Kimball (1943–2011), co-editor of At the Fights, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- “Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato” by Pete Hamill, a previous Story of the Week
- “Cobb Fights It Over Again” by Irvin S. Cobb on the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, a previous Story of the Week