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Featured boxing book:
Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.
This an outstanding book that has worn its three decades well. The book traces the history of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States from the colonial era to the last such fight in 1889. Two big ideas drive the argument.
The first concerns social class. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Gorn writes, boxing “really belonged to working-class males who rejected bourgeois standards of value, laborers dispossessed by new economic alignments, and men who lived in the netherworld of gambling, bootlegging, and petty crime.” The sport and its spectacular contests spoke “to these men—deeply divided by cultural and religious conflicts, by competition for status and power, and above all by a wrenching transformation of America’s economy” (pp. 96-97). Later, white-collar men would take to boxing, either as an activity for themselves or as spectators, as a way of reinforcing their sense of masculinity, which was eroded by their sedentary, managerial occupations.
The second idea pairs nicely with the first. Gorn believes that American society always had an dualistic view of boxing. “Boxing’s appeal always rested on a creative dualism between violence and order, impulsiveness and self-control, brutality and restraint,” he says (p. 171). It was because boxing was indeed a “sweet science” requiring a lot of skill and discipline, Gorn believes, that the sport became acceptable to spectators outside the working class.
The book returns to these ideas often. They are rich, but they have their limits. It seems entirely possible that laborers and managers liked boxing for the same reason. White-collar workers were divided by the same cultural and religious conflicts that divided workers, and they too competed for power and status. Boxing no doubt gave some of them the same temporary sense of freedom it gave their social and economic inferiors, whose masculinity was probably not in doubt.
Likewise, the idea of dualistic views of boxing has its appeal and its limits. It enlarges the simplistic view that boxing is about one thing (i.e., violence). However, dualism replaces one oversimplification with another. It teaches that is boxing is really about two things. This too seems to be a conceptual trap. An ambiguity defined between brutality and restraint imposes a pair of terms designed to limit possibilities of the sport. Many writers have shown that order cannot be maintained without violence. The tension between violence and order seems to be illusory and not at all like the tension between impulsiveness and self-control. They are opposites. Violence and order are not opposites: the opposite of violence is peace and the opposite of order is chaos.
Great boxing might require both brutality and restraint, if not at the same moment. Boxing is about more than two, or three, big ideas and the tensions between and among them. The dualistic hypothesis is better than a monolithic one, but dualism can also oversimplify, especially if it is based on false dichotomies, e.g., violence and order.
These reservations aside, however, Gorn’s book is a model cultural history and it is a pleasure to read. Hats off to him for pointing out that “the same biases that rendered women voiceless in the writing of history simultaneously excluded the majority of men, in particular workers, ethic minorities, and the poor” (p. 13). So much for the idea that all history was about men. As Gorn implies, all history, in the conventional sense, was about the few, not the many.
For other reviews, go Summer 2018