Squared Circles: Navigating Identity and Agency in American Boxing Literature and Journalism

Date
2023
Authors
Delgado, Derek J.
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Abstract

For the first three quarters of the 20th century, boxing, along with baseball and horse racing, was among the most popular sports in American culture. Professional prize fighting and its combatants provided a relevant parallel for a nation that was still finding its identity, and some of the most notable authors in the American literary landscape, including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates all produced prominent work on the topic. Most of those works, however, were concentrated on the more romantic notions of the sport—bravery, perseverance of the human spirit, and an idealized conceptualization of masculinity. It is the metaphorical made physical. Those tropes remain pervasive in contemporary literary representations, particularly in film. However, they also provide a site of exploration for understanding how those values have manifested, and what other implications are perhaps unintentionally produced as a result. The fetishization of poverty, the commodification of violence and race, the complications of sexuality and masculinity, and questions of bodily ownership are all byproducts of these conceptions, and offer a unique forum for study. My project will examine the junctures between boxing literature, journalism, and culture to investigate how both personal and national identities have been forged and interrogated, and how those intervals shaped, and continue to influence ideas of race, class and gender in the American sporting and cultural landscapes. Of particular interest to me are the representations of the athletes themselves over the course of a century of boxing literature. Whereas early twentieth century writing featured a predictively overt racial and biological determinism (most notably in Jack London’s coverage of Jack Johnson matches), more contemporary journalism and literature has retained a similar lens through which to idealize, and marginalize, its participants, albeit through more codified rhetoric that fetishizes poverty, exoticism, and constructions of masculinity that privilege capacity towards violence as pugilistic virtues.
Furthermore, I also examine the distance and relationships between boxer and writer, and boxer and spectator, and how those boundaries become fraught with questions of violence and identification. Influenced by both the spatial and metaphorical confines of the boxing ring, the sport has served as a venue where anxieties about race, class, nationalism and even gender identity could be aggressively resolved, or at least addressed, from a comfortable distance for spectators. I argue that the consumption of competitive violence of such highly racialized and gendered bodies under the pretense of entertainment provides a powerful public site from which these ideas are reinforced and reproduced in social and cultural identities.

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Keywords
Boxing literature, American culture, American sports, Identity
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Department
English