The myth-making machine

Molded by popular imagination into epic archetypes, boxers Louis and Schmeling represented a conflict much bigger than themselves.

beyond glory 88 (photo credit: )
beyond glory 88
(photo credit: )
There is something about boxing that speaks to the basic striving and violence of American life. Neatly circumscribed in four corners at three-minute intervals of fury, the whole American century has unfolded in the ring: ethnic pride and immigrant ambition, the cult of power and the individual, the sporting myth of fair play, the morbid fantasy of race. To get the real story of America, you could do a lot worse than to ignore all history books and go straight to the sports pages - to the men who played our heroic warriors and villains, the behind-the-scenes players and crooks, the black brutes and great white hopes, the underdogs and ring-kings. When Mohammed Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire in the early '70s, the entire era of Vietnam, civil rights and youth revolution came to a heated climax. And what more does one need to know about Reagan's '80s than can be learned from the cruel saga of Mike Tyson and Don King? It's no wonder, then, that some of America's preeminent social commentators - from Norman Mailer and George Plimpton to Damon Runyon - all did stints as boxing writers. They were the chroniclers of the sport's back story. They saw boxing for what it was: the shorthand version of America, itself. And then there was Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling. No fight ever fulfilled the sport's historic promise better than this one. In 1938, Louis, the "Brown Bomber" and great heavyweight contender faced off against Schmeling, the German who had been corralled into the inner circle of Hitler and Goebbels. The whole world was paying attention, tuned in to transistors from Brooklyn to Beijing. On the brink of war, as this book's subtitle puts it, these fighters were molded by popular imagination into epic archetypes of good and evil, freedom and tyranny, pax Americana and the gathering storm of Nazism and world war. David Margolick, an expert historian, has captured the moment forcefully in his new work, Beyond Glory. He invests the two protagonists with all their true grandeur and calls up an operatic chorus of voices, from both sides of the ocean, to illustrate just what they represented in the subconscious of the era. And just as importantly, to his great credit, the author shows us vividly where the hype fell short. We get the portrait of two great athletes who were mostly bystanders - basically good men who were chewed up and spit out by the merciless machine of myth-making. Margolick is able to relive the frenzy without giving himself over to it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the uneasy interplay between America's self-image with regard to the Nazis and its own legacy of racial antipathy. In essence, the "great American skin game," as the writer Stanley Crouch (who also wrote on boxing) called it, put the lie to the nation's will to play egalitarian promised land to the dark, tribal wilderness of Europe. America elevated Louis to iconic status while it had use for him in a hypocritical war for moral prestige against Schmeling and the Nazis. At the time of the fight, Margolick notes, even the South was pulling for him. But he was still, and for the rest of his life, a child of Jim Crow, an outcast in the land that briefly lionized him. Since the beginning of his career, Louis had been expertly managed to create an inoffensive image that white America could accept. His handlers remembered well the furor created by an earlier black champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson had flaunted all of the nation's racial hang-ups. He drove expensive cars, wore furs, lived fast and, most unforgivably, slept with white women. Louis was cultivated as a simple country boy who knew his place. He was even pushed into a marriage with a young, middle-class black woman to quell public fears of miscegenation. It was these contrivances that unquestionably gave him access to the national stage. The affinities with Nazi German get darker still. Before the war, Nazi propagandists even praised the Americans for their "race consciousness" and as fellow combatants in the war for white purity. Schmeling, for his part, also seems miscast as a figurehead for National Socialism. Although his physical prowess fit nicely into the Nazi's narrative of inevitable dominion, he himself was no ideologue, as Margolick presents him, and certainly no hater of Jews. His manager, Max Jacobs, was an American Jew who claimed to have been well received in Berlin. He even trained at a Jewish resort in the Catskills. More heroically, Margolick reports that Schmeling harbored local Jews in his apartment during Kristallnacht. In both corners, the fighters bore a burden of history that didn't quite suit them and the weight of dreams that didn't fully speak for them. Margolick also paints a picture of an era in boxing when the sport was still considered a Jewish game. From great Hebrew fighters like Max Baer to an infinite array of moneymen and conmen, to the working-class ticket-holders in ethnic enclaves like New York City, boxing was a world of ethnic solidarity and sharp wits that fit perfectly with the upwardly mobile Jewish subculture. The author cites generously from the Yiddish press and a cadre of writers from within the fold. He also portrays a Jewish community that was more than a little ambivalent towards the spectacle. Pulling for Joe, like the rest of the country, Margolick also describes a Jewish boycott on the bout that reduced the fight's purse by an estimated third. (In a great passage, Margolick quotes an admiring black journalist who wrote: "Unlike the American Negro, Jews do not believe in licking the hand that smites them or feeding the mouths of those who seek to crush them body and soul)." The fights - there were two bouts in all - weren't nearly as important as the pre-show pageantry. The author tells us how the events of the following months and years dwarfed even the greatest clash of sporting titans, and both men were swallowed up, as celebrities and civilians, in the tidal waves that followed. This is the melancholy coda to Margolick's story. It's a good reminder that, in the dramas of nations, the actors are usually no match for the stage.