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Originally published Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'At the Fights': a heavyweight collection of American writers on boxing

"At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing" collects the best writing by American authors on boxing, from Jack London to Richard Wright.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing'

edited by George Kimball and John Schulian

Library of America, 517 pp., $35

Blame it on Hemingway.

George Kimball, in the introduction to this collection of essays and excerpts, argues "the birth" of American boxing writing was the fight between Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the heavyweight title, and Jim Jeffries, a former champion who came out of retirement in 1910 to reclaim the title "for the white race." Jeffries lost. Jack London covered the event.

London's piece, written for the New York Herald, opens this book. He writes well about the fight and the bigger implications, but Jack London is not the reason so many writers embrace boxing. Ernest Hemingway moved boxing from the sports pages to the literary pages. Robert Cohn, from "The Sun Also Rises," was a Princeton middleweight champion, and Hemingway liked to challenge fellow writers to boxing matches, especially when he was drinking. Unfortunately, Hemingway apparently didn't pen anything sufficiently focused on boxing to make it into this collection.

Literary heavyweight Norman Mailer is among many authors who see the boxing ring not only as a stage for visceral drama, but as an arena rich with symbolism and metaphor. Mailer, in his 1975 book "The Fight," likens George Foreman's beating at the hands of Muhammad Ali to a bad marriage.

"There is a threshold to the knockout. When it comes close but is not crossed, then a man can stagger around the ring forever. He has received his terrible message and is still standing. No more of the same woe can destroy him. He is like the victim in a dreadful marriage which no one knows how to end."

George Plimpton, professional author and amateur athlete, writes about Ali — Cassius Clay at the time of Plimpton's 1964 piece for Harper's — as an entertainer more than a fighter, and Plimpton works Malcolm X into this analysis as well.

"Neither of them ever stumbles over words, or ideas, or appears balked by a question, so that one rarely has a sense of the brain actually working but rather that it is engaged in rote."

Richard Wright, two years before "Native Son" established him as a heavyweight novelist in 1940, wrote about the Joe Louis rematch with German Max Schmeling, a friend of Hitler. The fight itself received one paragraph of attention from Wright, while the remainder of his article for a Marxist publication puts the contest and resulting celebration of Louis' victory into a context of race, politics and class.

"Carry the dream on for yourself; lift it out of the trifling guise of a prizefight celebration and supply the social and economic details and you have the secret dynamics of proletarian aspiration ... They wanted to feel that their expanding feelings were not limited; that the earth was as much theirs as much as anybody else's."

Joyce Carol Oates, one of only two women included in the book, focuses on Mike Tyson and his rape conviction in a 1992 essay. Oates believes boxing "raises to an art the passions underlying direct human aggression," while Tyson puts it thusly, "Outside of boxing, everything is so boring."

Personally, I think boxing can be boring, but good writing interests me, and this book is 51 rounds of punchy, disciplined, agile writing. Hemingway is not included, probably because he made statements such as, "My writing is nothing, my boxing is everything," but didn't write about boxing all that much. I believe he would appreciate the writers here who elevate the sport.

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