There is a particular marriage between writers and the sport of boxing. A. J. Liebling, in the introduction to The Sweet Science, states that " a boxer, like a writer, must stand alone." A simple truth, simply stated.
By his own admission Liebling boxed
...just enough to show I knew what was all about it, as the boys say. I went shorter rounds every time. The last was in about 1946, and the fellow I was working with said he could not knock me out unless I consented to rounds longer than nine seconds.
It's tempting to fill this space with quotes from The Sweet Science for three reasons. First, Liebling's writing is a joy and interminably quotable. Second, I have at my desk and am reading from the first edition copy.
The third reason to quote Liebling at length is because he is much more qualified than I to introduce Boxiana; or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism.
Liebling says of Boxiana's author, Pierce Egan:
[He] was the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived....He belonged to London, and no man has ever presented a more enthusiastic picture of all aspects of its life except the genteel. He was a hack journalist, a song writer, a conductor of puff-sheets and, I am inclined to suspect, a shakedown man.
His accounts of the extra-annular lives of the Heroes, coal-heavers, watermen, and butchers' boys, are a panorama of low, dirty, happy, brutal, sentimental Regency England that you'll never get from Jane Austen.
Boxing during the Regency years was performed by pugilists, bare-fisted men who worked as hackney coach drivers, butchers, brewers, carpenters, and dust-men. "Gentlemen" also appeared in the ring, and nobility of all ranks wagered huge sums on fights that sometimes went 30 or 40 rounds. Egan documents 41 rounds between Cribb and Belcher, ending when "Belcher, quite exhausted, fell upon the ropes, and gave up the contest."
Another taste of the times can be found in Selections from The Fancy; or True Sportsman's Guide, nicely reprinted by the Imprint Society, with an artful foreword by George Plimpton. There was money to be made for the boxers, the promoters, and those who followed the sport and bet on the matches. Tens of thousands attended when the best known fighters appeared in the ring.
Today's boxers are now limited to 12 rounds, but some things never change.
Man, from the imperfections of his nature, is liable to quarrel, and to give or receive insults in his journey through life — how necessary, then, does it appear that he should be able to defend himself....In Holland the long knife decides too frequently; scarcely any person in Italy is without the stiletto; and France and Germany are not particular in using stones, sticks, &c. to gratify revenge; but, in England, the FIST only is used...
Pierce Egan, Boxiana, Volume 1
Here Egan stretches the truth; duels to settle points of "honor" still took place in England, and though Louis XIII had outlawed dueling in France, adversaries on the continent could and did kill each other with swords rather than resort to sticks and stones. In Egan's London, not every insult to an English gentleman (or lady) was settled in the ring.
But, alas! For want of a Boxiana, to record their valorous deeds, Heroes and Tyros of the fist have, unfortunately, been suffered to "steal ingloriously to the grave," and their qualifications buried with them, leaving the pugilistic posterity to mourn in silence the loss of their achievements.
Pierce Egan, Boxiana, Volume 1
Published between 1812 and 1829, Boxiana in its entirety consists of five volumes. It boasts a rather tortured printing history, which the collector is encouraged to navigate; Plimpton's foreword in Selections from the Fancy is an excellent starting point. Egan abandoned the enterprise in 1828, feeling that there were too many fixed fights and too few genuine champions.
Pierce Egan and his Boxiana have influenced the prose of who knows how many writers who came after. Almost two hundred years since the first appearance of Boxiana, Egan's work still stands alone.
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One Ring Circus by Katherine Dunn
(And, check out the recent Oregonian article on Dunn's own boxing skills, which saved her from a purse-snatching.)
On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey Ward
Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years by Felix Dennis
Pound for Pound: A Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson by Herb Boyd
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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.
Books mentioned in this post