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Review: Elliott Gorn’s The Manly Art

I read Elliott Gorn’s The Manly Art because it came highly recommended as the quintessential book about sports and masculinity.  Gorn’s name was the first to come out of Dr. Mollin’s when we talked about sports history.  Woody even gave me his name.  Gorn’s 3 books help to lay a foundation in masculine sports and the masculine culture surrounding sport in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Thesis: “to understand bare-knuckle prize fighting…is necessarily to understand something about Nineteenth Century America.  Ideology, ethnicity, social class formation, violence, urbanization, gender roles, religious world views, productive relationships, all are part of  sports history in general and boxing history in particular.”—pg 12

Throughout the book, Gorn argues that boxers were victims of racial and class discrimination because the men lured into the ring were nearly entirely working class men looking for a means of supporting their family.  White and black men often duked it out to determine racial superiority, especially in the earliest days of boxing and the 20th century.  He details how boxing went from an illegal backroom ordeal involving working class men at the bar to a respectable recreation which middle and upper-class men enjoyed watching and betting on as well.  Looking at this sport is a means of understanding the working class, and Gorn says that “if historians are to understand working-class people, they must look closely at their folklore and recreations, their past-times and sports, for it has been in leisure more than in politics or in labor that many men and women have found the deepest sense of meaning and wholeness.”(pg 14)

In the first part of the book, Gorn describes boxing as the sport of Britain and he says that the thing that bothered most people about the black American who was crossing the Atlantic to fight the Brit, was his nationality, not his ethnicity or his skin color.  Pugilism began as the sport of Britain and, therefore, was seen by many Brits as their own means of domination, and that should not be lost, especially to the little sister of Great Britain, The United States.  Gorn says, “above all, boxing epitomized a cultural style.”(26)  It was the only thing that brought people of all classes in Britain together, giving them a sense of equality, no matter how short lived the bout.

In the second part, Gorn crosses the Atlantic to show how boxing made the move to America.  Early on the Victorian elite cried out against sports in general and boxing in particular because they feared that it caused nothing but laziness and criminal activity, but this argument grew increasingly hollow as boxing became more socially accepted by all classes and walks of life.  Although the first couple centuries of boxing shows us the life and times of many individual working class men and the people they consorted with, as boxing grew into a national, commercial past-time it gained in breadth of appeal, but lost much of its working class mentality.  Boxers started out as heroes of their individual communities or neighborhoods where they were often raised above most others in celebrity and loved by their peers, but as boxing became commercialized, they were seen as national celebrities and spectacles for paying audiences instead of local heroes.  Nevertheless, pugilism was still watched for its violence and displays of male virility in the evermore-artificial life of Victorian Middle and upper-class men in the US.  The ring, like many sports was all about giving the everyman, the working class stiff a chance at glory and honor.

Gorn’s last part wraps the book up by discussing the nineteenth century idea of the ‘strenuous life,’ the idea that men needed to get out the normalcy and effeminacy of the urban living and take to the country, to the gym, to the woods, or to the sporting green in order to display their own masculine virility.  Muscular Christianity became a catch all term for the association of piety with sports as well as active participation in world affairs, including social reform, foreign adventurism, and urban settlement work.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. believed that sports, like war, revealed strife to be the essence of life.  Violent encounters reminded Americans that prosperous commercial life was merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous untamed streaming of the world.  Sports trained leaders for the breeding of a race fit for headship and command.  It was understood that the ideal American man needed to be well-balanced between Victorian civilized life and strenuous activity, and since there was no war to be had, sports and physical activities were the next best thing.

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