A. J. Liebling was one of the most significant American journalists from the middle of the twentieth century. He was born and raised in New York City in an Jewish-Austrian immigrant family. From the time of his youth, he traveled heavily visiting Europe twice before he was ten. He started writing journalism for his school newspaper in his teenage years as he followed World War I. His early adulthood showed many signs of a strong contrarian and democratic spirit that would inform much of his journalism. Most notably he was kicked out of Dartmouth College for not attending required church services and fired from The New York Times for faking names in stories. He would eventually settler at The New Yorker, but only after his vibrant 20s, where he moved around between New York and France, taking and quitting jobs, and writing freelance. At The New Yorker, he would produce his most significant war writings as a foreign correspondent, following the Allied War effort. The works collected in the Library of American volumes on Liebling are in two groups. The first (which I will examine later) are his World War II works. The volume open in front of me, looked at his varied works written in the last twenty years of his life, covering topics as diverse as boxing, Southern politics, and journalism (amazingly he predicted the one-newspaper down and the current decline in the role of newspapers due to centralized media ownership).
The Sweet Science is about boxing and collects many interesting pieces about the rise and fall of different champions such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. More than sports journalism, however, The Sweet Science tells us one story about American society, culture, values, and character in the middle of the last century. When Liebling started watching following boxing, the United States was entering a period where we can really start to talk about a national culture, thanks to national sports leagues, the movie industry, radio, and the “Americanization” of immigrant communities. Many of these trends are evident in Liebling’s own life. He not only participated in the creation of mass culture, but he also became a firm supported of the United States during the first and second world wars. Boxing was part of this mass culture that brought in people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and races into one building to observe and in many ways participate in the fights. Liebling also lived through what Michael Denning called the “proletarianization” of American culture during the Great Depression. It was during this epoch that working-class values infected American culture at many levels.
Liebling takes considerable time thinking about his predecessor, the compiler of Boxiana, Pierce Egan, who documented the boxing world of the early nineteenth century. Through this, Liebling is able to show an interconnected world that existed at the margins of legitimate culture but provided a historical continuity to the very beginnings of the republic. It is boxing, not baseball, that is the American pastimes.
One striking aspect of Liebling’s account of boxing is his description of its participatory elements. In fact, his book begins with an analysis of why it is better to see a fight in person. His main reason is that you can participate through shouted advice. Its democratic character is suggested in the following quote. “Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like ‘Mr. Chairman . . . ‘ Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man how to think on his seat.” (16) Not only was it participatory, but it was diverse as well. Liebling’s ability to converse about boxing with a driver is suggestive of its important place in the development of a mass participatory culture. The requirement that mass culture be participatory is something that Liebling takes for granted. He correctly predicts that television would sap this potential. Now, people see fights–if at all–at home, losing that democratic forum. “Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.” (17) He later compares television fights to the Irish potato: cheap and quickly adopted at the expense of a more nourishing diet.
Boxing is also a working-class sport in every way. Its heroes were commonly from the streets, its greatest fans were from the same streets. The shouting from the audience revealed that the crowd saw themselves as coming from the same world as the fighters. Early in the account he describes the origins of several champions, all of whom invariable come from working class towns. The second World War undermined the craft by sending those working class boys to war rather than the unemployment lines and then the gyms.
There is also a brutal equality to the ring, that seems to reflect the cutthroat nature of American capitalism. “The division of boxers into weight classes is based on the premise that if two men are equally talented practitioners of the Sweet Science, then the heavier man has a decided advantage. This is true, of course, only if both men are trained down hard, since a pound of beer is of no use in a boxing match. If the difference amounts to no more than a couple of pounds, it can be offset by a number of other factors, including luck.” (51) This actually reads to me like a fairly realistic depiction of democratic capitalism. In both capitalism and boxing there is a gap between the ideal and the reality, but at least in boxing the working class kid could, through training and motivation, having a good chance of being “trained down hard.” Capitalism is so thoroughly unfair that no amount of training (college, perhaps) can give us a fighting chance. Perhaps this is part of the attraction of boxing.
Listen with me, as Liebling describes the nature of the boxing crowd. “It was a might crowd–paid admissions 47,585, and, counting deadheads like me, a total attendance of more than fifty thousand. There were fifteen hundred occupants of working-press seats alone, including a major general in uniform and Joe Louis. As is usual at big outdoor fights nowadays, platoons of young hooligans from the bleachers stormed down on the field in successive waves, to take over better seats than they had paid for. Legitimate ticket-holders who arrived late managed as best they could. In some cases, with the aid of ushers and special cops, they expropriated the squatters.” (93) Ah, a class war for seats. How wonderful.