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"Alone triumphant": Jack Johnson and American culture from popular melodrama to Faulknerian modernism.

The elastic ropes surrounding a boxing ring ostensibly demarcate a site of recreation and entertainment, a comforting enclosure that isolates a violent spectacle from the rules and orderings of the everyday. At the most basic level, it is helpful to note that within the confines of the ring, boxers win bouts by performing actions that would result in felony charges if they were committed in an ordinary public space. There is, then, something carnivalesque about a boxing ring because it is a socially accepted space that creates new rules, licenses otherwise criminal behavior, creates intersections otherwise unimaginable in broader society, and, most importantly, offers the possibility of the temporary reversal of cultural hierarchies. In The Art and Aesthetics of Boxing (2008), David Scott describes this temporary disruption of order and its eventual re-establishment as central to the psychological pleasure derived from boxing or being spectator to a bout: "the audience usually experiences the same feeling of relief and acquiescence at the end of the match as the participants--though the level of intensity of these feelings is variable--as order and civilization are restored after the alluring but dangerous detour through the primitive and the primeval that the boxing match represents or enacts" (Scott xviii). On one hand, then, the boxing ring frames violence in a manner that allows both participants and spectators a momentary reprieve from the strictures of the mundane and offers a safe catharsis for what Freud describes as an innate aggressive instinct (Freud 58).

On the other hand, the boxing ring fails as an enclosure; it is an enclosure that is not. Especially, in the early twentieth-century, what happened in the ring did not stay safely enclosed or insulated, but, rather, exploded throughout American culture and destabilized established hierarchies, most notably racial hierarchies. Perhaps the profound cultural impact of the sport could be anticipated by more carefully considering the nature of the ring itself. The ring exists not only in a horizontal relationship to society, cordoning off the violence from the surrounding space, but also in a vertical relationship to that culture as a type of pedestal or stage. What happens in the ring also happens on the canvas, and--like any prominent work of art or highly visible drama--the conspicuous display reverberates throughout the culture.

This essay will not only examine melodramatic responses drawn from popular culture and mass literature surrounding the most highly publicized interracial boxing matches of the early twentieth century, but will also explore the surprising influence of interracial boxing on the high arts. Drawing on Barbara Babcock's claim that "what is socially peripheral may be symbolically central," I argue that despite its associations with low culture, boxing occupies a central position in the symbolic landscape of early twentieth century America, particularly in terms of racial discourse (qtd. in Stallybrass and White 20). More specifically, I am interested in how the racial oppositions dramatized by representations of Jack Johnson's most famous bouts--oppositions we see cast in Manichean terms in popular literature, media, and discourse--are carried over and re-interpreted in the modernist painting of George Bellows and the novels of William Faulkner. Though much has been written about the influence of boxing on the work of Faulkner's rival, Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner's own engagement with the sport remains insufficiently theorized. At one level this is to be expected, because unlike Hemingway, who engages the sport directly, Faulkner primarily engages boxing through a variety of maneuvers central the sport itself: feints, dodges, and misdirection. By locating Faulkner's coded representations of interracial boxing within his cultural milieu and comparing them with Bellows representations of the sport, I extend existing analyses of early-twentieth-century American culture's relationship to interracial boxing in order to argue that according to these artists, America's enthrallment with the sport depended significantly on its inherent commingling of violent competition with forbidden homosexual and interracial desire.

From 1908 to 1915, Jack Johnson was boxing's heavyweight champion and the first African-American champion in the sport. His sports career and personal life generated more popular attention than any African-American during the first two decades of the twentieth century (Gilmore 9). Though African-American's were frequently involved in unofficial prizefighting bouts long before 1908, official heavyweight boxing remained a "whites-only" affair. Writers and boxing aficionados celebrated boxing as a sport that demanded both physical and intellectual superiority, a balance supposedly unavailable to non-whites. Yet this racist exclusion became increasingly conspicuous and called into question the accuracy of the title "heavyweight champion of the world" because while reigning champions boasted of their prowess and ferocity, they simultaneously voiced concerns about entering the ring with any non-whites. In a sport where pre-fight posturing and boasting constitute central rituals of the bout, it remained difficult not to grow suspicious when John L. Sullivan--the reigning heavyweight champion in 1892--issued the following boast: "In this challenge I include all fighters--first come first served--who are white. I will not fight a negro. I never have and never shall" (qtd in Gilmore 26). The numerous caveats strip this boast of its rhetorical force, and transform it into a clear statement of anxiety. According to Johnson's biographer, Al-Tony Gilmore, the reluctance to lower the color barrier involved both cultural taboos about interracial contact during the Jim Crow era and sociopolitical concerns about what would happen if an African-American won the fight. Gilmore quotes an outraged spectator of a lower-level interracial bout that occurred in 1897, saying, "The idea of niggers fighting with men. Why if that scoundrel would beat that white boy the niggers would never stop gloating over it, and as it is we have enough trouble with them" (26).

By 1908, however, the sport was in economic decline due to a variety of factors. These factors coalesced to create a window through which Johnson could gain access to a title bout. In 1905, the American James Jefferies retired from the sport while still holding the heavyweight title. Jefferies was a talented fighter and an extremely popular public figure. His retirement led to a decline in public interest in the sport in the United States, a decline that was exacerbated by the fact that the fighters who followed him lacked his talent and charisma (Sammons 34). Additionally, influential social reform movements decried boxing as uncivilized and barbaric, limiting the growth of the sport (Gilmore 26). Finally, the champion from 1906 to 1908 was a German-Canadian who went by the name of Tommy Burns, and the American public had trouble rallying behind a foreign champion. The net effect of these factors was that boxing had become less profitable to promoters, fighters, and fight organizers. Additionally, boxing had become a less valuable news item, and sportswriters began to express desire for a good fight, for something that would make news and sell papers (Sammons 35). Jack Johnson had established a reputation as a dangerous boxer and legitimate heavyweight challenger by 1907. And, in a somewhat surprising turn of events, sportswriters who had previously celebrated the "color line" began to call for a Johnson-Burns title bout.

Sports historian Jeffrey Sammons notes that two distinct opinions regarding interracial fighting can be detected in the sports writing of the early twentieth century. First, many writers seemed to hold that sport was "sacred, isolated from larger society ... [it] provided an escape from a world dominated by politics, by unfair competition, by impersonal and uncontrollable forces" (35). This separation between sport and society was imagined as mutual. That is: sport was isolated from society, and external society was isolated from the sports world. Sammons also notes that for many less naive sportswriters, the broader social implications for the bout were clear. Yet, these sportswriters promoted the fight because it promised to generate public interest and sell newspapers. Furthermore, under operating firmly within the racist cultural value hierarchy of their era, many newspaper writers found it difficult to imagine that an African-American could defeat a white heavyweight champion in a fair fight. The intellectual and physical superiority of whites was, according to Social Darwinian narratives of race, a scientific fact. Boxing, it is important to remember, was celebrated as a sport that involved much more than mere application of force. The sport depended on disciplined footwork, rigorous training, efficient movements, and tactical acumen. Boxing, thus, functioned as a display of integrated athleticism, the mind and the body working in concert to confuse and defeat an opponent. Though some writers expressed concern that the less-than-spectacular Tommy Burns might be vulnerable, they affirmed that even if the defiant Johnson won, his reign would be short-lived. His eminent defeat would "symbolically reaffirm white racial supremacy ... [and] would serve as a lesson akin to a public lynching for blacks who did not know their place in American society" (Sammons 35). A number of American writers who were growing increasingly concerned about African-American advancement movements, such as those associated with George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, desired such a display of racial superiority. But, acting in his economic interest, Burns repeatedly declined to fight Johnson and, instead, persisted in seeking out easier contenders.

George Herriman took Burns's reluctance to fight Johnson as the subject of his cartoon published in the LA Examiner on February 19th, 1908 (illus. 1). The comic shows Tommy "The Pugilistic Alchemist" Burns evading an obsequious Jack Johnson. In the third frame, Johnson fawningly tells Burns, "Ahse willin' to do mos anyfing Misto Burns--Ah'll jump ovah de singer buildin' if yo say so." Burns responds, "Now sir, let us talk things over." Meanwhile, the small duck--apparently representing the voice of a boxing-starved American public--encourages Burns, "Take him up Tommy." In the final frame, however, Johnson sits in a dark room, his candle burning lower, apparently spurned by Burns again. Though the comic centers on Burns's reluctance to schedule a bout with Johnson, this comic is significant because Herriman's representation of Johnson establishes the primary trope through which Johnson would be represented in the media throughout most of his career. Herriman portrays Johnson as a clownish minstrel character, anticipating the many Sambo cartoons that would appear in newspapers during the years he held the title (Boddy 182).

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Pressured by the media, the desire for a large payment, and Johnson himself, Tommy Burns and his management eventually agreed to a bout. The fight was scheduled to take place in Sydney, Australia on December 26th, 1908. Gilmore astutely observes that by entering the ring, "Johnson had overcome the most serious obstacle of all previous black aspirants to the heavyweight title--the 'color line'" (28). The outcome of the bout itself was never in doubt after the first round. Johnson taunted Burns throughout the fight. He smiled and joked with the crowd when he and Burns wrapped each other up. In the ring, Johnson deliberately defied the pro-Burns crowd and projected an image exactly opposite to the media's representation of him as deferential and obsequious. In the fourteenth round Johnson delivered a series of combinations to Burns's head and body. The local police stepped into the ring to stop the bout. Prior to their entry to the ring, however, policemen who had been stationed on the camera platform turned off the video cameras (Streible 202). Johnson's victory would certainly lead to cultural unrest, but perhaps that unrest could be mitigated if footage of the final moments of the bout did not exist.

Predictably, Johnson's victory was viewed as a scandal among white American culture, but because the pre-fight publicity had been relatively minor and the bout occurred in Australia, American reactions were muted in comparison to Johnson's later bouts. Additionally, unlike subsequent bouts, the Johnson-Burns bout was not initially billed as a contest for racial superiority. Nevertheless, within days of the bout Iowa passed legislation banning any public display of the video footage. Felix Isman, a New York impresario, sought a prohibition against screening the film arguing that to show them was beneath the playhouse (Streible 205). Jack London, who sat ringside in Australia, wrote a famous response to the bout that perpetuated the stereotypical image of Johnson as a minstrel show actor. London described Johnson's "golden smile" and wrote that his face possessed the "happy carefree innocence of a little child" (qtd. in Boddy 182). London's depiction located Johnson within the established narrative of "black shiftless gaiety peddled by 'coon songs' popular since before the Civil War" (182). Combined with the proliferation of racist imagery through comics and the simultaneous suppression of actual video imagery of Johnson in the ring, this account sought to shape American culture's imagination of Johnson. London called for the return of former heavyweight champion Jim Jefferies and referred to him as the "the great white hope," a phrase that evokes Kipling's famous call for his readers to take up the "White Man's Burden" (182). Press coverage of the victory was scant in most of the major newspapers. And, where the coverage did exist, the announcement of Johnson's victory was paired with a direct attack on Johnson's race. For example, the coverage of the bout in the Dallas Morning News included a cartoon caricature of Johnson holding both the championship belt and a watermelon saying, "Golly, old Santy sho' was good to me" (Gilmore 29).

In the immediate aftermath of the event, African-American reactions tended toward the opposite direction, but black spokespersons remained restrained in their celebration. The strongest initial celebrations came from Johnson's hometowns of Chicago and Galveston, where he was regarded more as a local hero than a racial exemplar. An important exception to this general restraint was The Richmond Planet, an African-American weekly newspaper that underscored the racial significance of the event (Illus. 2). The bold-print headline of the January 2nd, 1909 publication reads "A Southern Negro is the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Jack Johnson of Galveston, Tex defeats Tommy Burns. Graphic Description of Contest. Victor Challenges All Comers. No First Class Pugilist As Yet Ready to Meet Him. Jefferies Says He Would Not Fight Him For A Million Dollars." The article specifically highlights how Johnson confused Burns with his brilliant footwork and mocked him throughout the fight. Additionally, the Planet article obscures the individuality of Johnson and Burns and, instead, portrays the fighters as racial icons. For example, the description of the thirteenth round refers to the boxers as "the colored man" and "the white man": "Blow after blow the colored man rained upon him, and the gong alone saved the white man from defeat, for he was reeling and groggy as it rang" (Planet 8).

In her insightful study Boxing: A Cultural History, Kasia Boddy notes that almost as soon as the bout was over the search for an Anglo-American boxer who could beat Johnson began. Theodore Roosevelt, who had advocated boxing and linked it with ideal masculinity, invited a former champion to the White House to discuss which white fighters stood the best chance of defeating Johnson (204). The heavyweight title had apparently become an issue of concern for the executive office. Initially, however, the search for the next "Great White Hope" progressed with much seriousness but little urgency. However, in the year following his victory over Burns, Johnson easily defeated five white challengers. By 1909, anxiety over Johnson's success had escalated considerably. This anxiety grew in proportion to Johnson's remarkable financial success, his habit of flaunting his wealth, and his penchant for dating white women. Upon his return to America he purchased luxury automobiles and hired a white chauffeur. A 1909 comic strip entitled "Incidents of Jack Johnson's Trip To Vancouver Pictured By Fitzmaurice" captures white anxiety regarding Johnson (Illus. 3). The image shows a well-dressed Johnson being waited on by a variety of assistants and driven through Vancouver by his white chauffeur. Clearly, these first two images are designed to engender outrage among the reader because the final image shows Jim Jefferies--the retired undefeated champion who was widely regarded as the white man most capable of defeating Johnson--sitting in a bathtub, reading a paper, unconscionably unconcerned about the fact that a black man owned the title belt.

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Both print and visual media began to deploy the familiar conventions of melodrama in order to provide a narrative in which white America could locate Johnson's disturbing rise to fame. Luckily for sportswriters of the era, boxing proves quite accommodating to such a narrative. After all, the canvas is a type of stage. In Melodrama and the Myth of America, Jeffrey Mason argues that "the essential function of melodrama is to polarize its constituents, whatever they may be--male and female, East and West, civilization and wilderness, and most typically, good and evil" (16). Melodrama demands a Manichean vision precisely because the pleasure of melodrama depends on the triumph of a threatened cultural value over an outside menace. Melodrama insists on clarifying the nature of oppositional moral forces in order that virtuous or good forces might be celebrated as the drama reveals "the nature of virtue" (17). According to Mason," [t]he absolute imperative of melodrama is the restoration of the moral, social, and domestic order--and consequently, the reassurance of the audience--by subjecting its characters to a high degree of risk and uncertainty and then lifting them out of danger" (17). This impulse for conservative restoration deeply structures American melodrama and the imagination of its audience. Within this familiar structure, an iconoclastic villain might be read as a guarantee of future social restoration, especially when a virtuous hero arrives on the scene. A Popular Pastime (illus. 4) promotes precisely this narrative. Johnson grins menacingly at a host of inept Anglo challengers, a clear disruption of the white social order. In the foreground of the image, however, James Jefferies contemplates challenging Johnson. The young child, a symbol of the innocence that must be protected by the 'good man,' pushes him forward, saying, "Go on Jeff be a sport and hit the coon."

The public outcry for Jefferies to challenge Johnson intensified tremendously during the remainder of the year. Somewhat reluctantly, Jefferies agreed to fight Johnson and repeatedly identified himself as fighting with the purpose of restoring dignity to the white race (Sammons 37). The press carefully documented Jefferies's intense training regimen as he sought return to his fighting weight. They also documented Johnson's comparatively nonchalant training and interpreted it as proof positive of the intellectual inferiority inherent to his race (Gilmore 37). The fight was scheduled to take place in Reno, Nevada on the Fourth of July, 1910. The significance of the date was not lost on the American public. Either Johnson would validate the independence and freedom of black Americans, or Jefferies would re-establish the superiority of the Anglo race, liberating his people from Johnson's reign. White sportswriters predicted the latter result, suggesting that Jefferies "had Runnymede and Agincourt behind him, while Johnson had nothing but the jungle" (qtd. in Boddy 182). Writers continued to narrate the bout as a living melodrama, and precisely because of this narration a white victory seemed inevitable. A popular song entitled "Jim-a-da-Jeff" evinces the pre-fight racial hysteria and confidence. The song is written in a faux-Italian dialect common in Vaudeville Theater, and the female speaker of the song tells the challenger to:
   Commence right away to get into condish,
   An' you punch-a da bag-a day and night,
   An'-a din pretty soon, when you meet-a da coon,
   You knock-a him clear-a out-a sight.

   Who give-a da Jack Jonce one-a little tap?
   Who make-a him take-a one big-a long nap?
   Who wipe-a da Africa off-a da map?
   It's da Jim-a-da-Jeff. (Sammons 38)


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The song not only underscores the racial lens through which many Americans viewed the bout, but it also reveals hostility toward the entire continent of Africa. The fact that Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas counted for little in terms of national belonging, apparently. Though some members of the black press distanced themselves from Johnson, many black leaders rallied behind Johnson and compared his fight to the larger black struggle against oppression. Reverend Reverdy Ransom, a Chicago clergyman, responded to the support another pastor gave to Jefferies by saying, "what Jack Johnson seeks to do to Jefferies in the roped arena will be more the ambition of Negroes in every domain of human endeavor" (qtd. in Sammons 39). The fight's promoter, Tex Rickard, capitalized on the power of race to excite the American audience and explicitly described the fight as a contest for racial superiority (Boddy 182). He asked President Howard Taft to referee the match. Taft declined. Rickard then extended the invitation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who also declined. Eventually, Rickard named himself the referee.

The bout was billed as "The Fight of the Century," and certainly no boxing match held more cultural significance for America. The actual fight itself, however, failed to live up to its billing. When Johnson approached the ring for the bout, the band delighted the pro-Jefferies crowd by playing "All Coons Look Alike to Me" (Gilmore 42). It was likely the highlight of the day for Jefferies' supporters. Johnson controlled the bout, and in the fifteenth round Johnson knocked Jefferies out of the ring. Jefferies's corner threw in the towel in order to protect him from further harm or embarrassment. As Boddy notes, after Johnson's decisive victory, "assertions of white supremacy suddenly seemed a lot less certain" (183). Furthermore, Jefferies's defeat violated the deterministic structures of melodrama, leaving "evil" unpunished and a "menace" on the loose. As Mason says, according to the conventions of the genre, "'Good' is the world as it should be, stable, safe, and at rest, while 'evil' sends the planet hurtling uncontrollably toward some ineffable future" (18). For many white Americans, their culture seemed suddenly to be in a state of upheaval.

Across America, crowds gathered near telegraph machines to hear the result. When Johnson's victory was announced, a rash of racially motivated violence spread throughout numerous cities. In Houston, a black man who was celebrating the fight had his throat slit by a white man; in Delaware some blacks attacked a group of whites who returned the aggression with 'a lynching bee'; in Pueblo, Colorado, thirty people sustained injuries due to a race riot; in New York, a black man was beaten to death; in Shreveport, Louisiana, white assailants killed three black men (Guttman 119). Historians estimate that injuries sustained in these riots numbered in the thousands (Gilmore 61). In a cartoon published in the wake of these riots, a stick of dynamite gestures toward a group of rioters and says, "I couldn't have caused half so much damage!" (Illus. 5). The visual rhetoric is noteworthy, however, because black men brandishing weapons occupy the center of the riot and all the injured men are white. The record of African-American fatalities, however, suggests a different reality.

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Several newspapers also utilized print media in an attempt to shore up America's threatened racial value hierarchy. On July 6, 1910, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial titled "The Fight and Its Consequences" that demanded that African-Americans forget that for the past six months the bout had been described as a contest of racial superiority:

Even if it were a matter of great racial import, the whites can afford the reflection that it is at best only a triumph of brawn over brain, not of brain over brawn. The black pugilist may be able to deliver stunning blows, but the stupidest mule in Missouri can hit harder ... Pugilism and civilization bear no direct connection, but are inverse in ratio ... In war (a vastly higher type of conflict) there are those who consider the African fresh from the jungle the making of the best soldier in the world. But the question is, how would they fare in battle commanded by one of their own race with an army of Europeans under the leadership of Napoleon, Gen. Grantor Von Moltke ... [The white man's] superiority does not rest on any huge bulk of muscle, but on brain development that has weighed worlds and charmed the most subtle secrets from the heart of nature ... and now a word to the black man. Do not point your nose to high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast to loudly ... Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society today you were last week. Your place in the world is just what it was. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration and will get none ... If you have ambition for yourself or your race, you must try for something better in development than that of a mule. (Los Angeles Times II4)

But, to many blacks, such rearguard defenses fell on deaf ears. The bout disproved the Darwinian narrative of race, and many African-Americans saw Johnson as a messianic and liberatory figure. A postcard from 1910 links Jack Johnson with Abraham Lincoln, identifying them as the heroes of the African-American people (Boddy 184). Similarly, southern folk song tradition tacitly suggested that Johnson's victory was tantamount to religious salvation:
   Amaze an' Grace, how sweet it sounds,
   Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jefferies down.
   Jim Jefferies jumped up an' hit Jack on the chin.
   An' then Jack knocked him down agin.

   The Yankees hold the play,
   The white man pull the trigger;
   But it makes no difference what the white man say,
   The world champion's still a nigger, (qtd in Boddy 190)


Sung to the tune of "Amazing Grace," the song captured the outpouring of racial pride that the event occasioned. Despite the fact that southern blacks remained deeply aware of their sociopolitical oppression, the song suggests that in Jack Johnson's victory they had something that even the whites "who hold the play" could not control.

The claim was true in terms of the psychological and cultural impact of Johnson's championship; however, in the years following the Reno bout the American legal system actively sought to circumscribe Johnson's impact on culture in two ways. First, the film for the Jefferies-Johnson fight was banned in all southern states, and many northern cities. As Dan Strieble shows in his meticulously detailed analysis of this reactionary film suppression, within a day of the bout the movement to prohibit images of the fight had become a national crusade (222). Numerous Christian reform groups spearheaded the movement. These groups found allies in the national press and the legislative branch. Chicago, Johnson's hometown, upheld the ban citing its consistency with "the 1907 ordinance forbidding 'obscene and immoral kinetoscopes and cinematographs'" (Strieble 230). Secondly, in 1913, the federal government charged Johnson with a violation of the Mann Act, a law that prohibited the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. The law was intended to deter vice rings, but Johnson was a cultural threat perhaps only slightly less concerning than the mob. Belle Schrieber served as the key witness for the prosecution. Schrieber was a prostitute at one of the most elite brothels of the early twentieth century, the Everleigh Club. She and Johnson had maintained a relationship from 1909 to 1911. After he ended the relationship, she was willing to provide the government with the information it needed to gain a conviction. Johnson's relationships with white women--especially his wife, Lucille Cameron--had long been widely criticized, especially by conservatives in the American south. Indeed, Johnson and Cameron's intermarriage was mentioned specifically in a 1912 congressional hearing regarding introducing a federal ban to interracial marriages (Gilmore 108). At the sentencing, Judge George Carpenter said, "This defendant is one of the best known men of his race, and his example has been far-reaching, and the Court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people" (qtd. in Gilmore 119). Carpenter sentenced Johnson to a year and a day in federal prison. Johnson and his wife fled the country, and did not return to America until 1915. Johnson's escape embarrassed federal authorities, but Jefferey Sammons notes that despite this embarrassment "one major objective had been accomplished: Johnson had been removed from American society. An unfair, racist system had done what no individual could--remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face" (41).

The victory of the racist legal system was a cause for celebration in some American cities, but the fact that the victory happened in a courtroom rather than a boxing ring ensured that the racial anxiety that Johnson's victories engendered remained active. A comic from 1913 captures this sense of the shallowness of the legal victory (Illus. 6). The drawing shows a disembodied arm labeled "Federal Court" delivering a knockout punch to Jack Johnson. This image provides a fitting end to this study of how the popular press translated interracial fighting into racial melodrama, because the victory of America over Jack Johnson was hardly the dramatic reinstatement of domestic, social, and moral order demanded by melodrama. Johnson had publicly revealed contemporary 'scientific' narratives of white racial superiority to be false. For many--though certainly not all--African-Americans, his actions in the ring qualified him as an enduring folk hero. White American culture, however, remained perplexed and haunted by his legacy.

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In his study Negroes in America (1923), Claude McKay discusses the lingering damage Johnson's victory over Jefferies inflicted on the communal psyche of white America. According to McKay, the "American bourgeoisie never could forgive the insult which was done to its dignity by a black man" (54). Similarly, in Black Boy (1937), Richard Wright observes that Jack Johnson is one of four men that southern whites do not mention when in the presence of southern blacks (252; Boddy 180). Notably, the other three unspeakable names are Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and General Sherman. Thus far, my attempt to provide a cultural history of Jack Johnson has focused on melodramatic images, songs, and newsprint related to his career. I now wish to turn toward the ways that Jack Johnson's legacy had a deep impact on one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century: William Faulkner. Faulkner's fiction emerges out of the southern culture that Wright describes, a culture committed to repressing Johnson's legacy. In Faulkner's fiction, the repressed returns--as Freud argues it must--in transmuted forms. Though Johnson's career became the centerpiece of a polarizing racial melodrama that captivated early twentieth-century America, in Faulkner's novels, Johnson's career does not suggest a Manichean opposition between black and white. Rather, for Faulkner, interracial boxing suggests a radical and unsettling fusion of the races. Indeed, this fusion is so thorough and intense that interracial boxing becomes linked to both homosexual and interracial desire.

Faulkner's most obvious engagement with interracial boxing occurs in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a novel focused on anxieties regarding miscegenation. Throughout the novel, various narrators attempt to account for the sudden rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a man from a poor mountain community in West Virginia who becomes a plantation owner in antebellum Mississippi. At the end of the first chapter, the outraged narrator describes Sutpen's disregard for the racial segregation when he engages in interracial fighting, a ritual that apparently had been going on for the previous six years. The narrator, Rosa Coldfield, provides the account based on the testimony of her sister and Thomas Sutpen's wife, Ellen. Ellen enters the stable and sees:
   ... down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the
   lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on
   the fourth, and in the center two of his wild negroes fighting,
   naked, fighting not like white men fight, with rules and
   weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and
   bad. Ellen knew that, or thought she did; that was not it. She
   accepted that--not reconciled: accepted--as though there is
   a breathing-point in outrage where you can accept it almost
   with gratitude since you can say to yourself, Thank God this is
   all; at least I know all of it ... (20).


At this point in the narrative, Ellen discovers that her husband has been organizing fights between his slaves, a practice that contemporary boxing historian Paul Magriel identifies as common in the antebellum south (Sammons 32). Efforts to distinguish such unofficial prizefights from official boxing matches remained unsuccessful well into the twentieth century (Wiggins 7). Faulkner's imagery recalls an early-twentieth century boxing ring, not merely a crudely organized prizefight. The fighters stand in the center of a 'hollow square' of light. Furthermore, they are unnaturally surrounded by a square of men, with the black men forming one of the four sides, suggesting a segregated seating section of a boxing venue. Though clearly outraged, Ellen accepts this practice, and expresses gratitude that she knows where her husband had been going in the evenings. However, sometime later she returns to the stable because she cannot find her children and fears that Sutpen allowed them to follow him to the fights. She enters the stable and sees:
   ... Not the two black beasts she had expected to see but
   instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist
   and gouging at one another's eyes as if their skins should not
   only have been the same color but should have been covered
   with fur too. Yes. It seems that on certain occasions, perhaps
   at the end of the evening, the spectacle, as a grand finale
   or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward
   the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the
   ring with one of the negroes himself. Yes. That is what Ellen
   saw: her husband and the father of her children standing
   there naked and panting and bloody and the negro just fallen
   evidently, lying at his feet and bloody too save that on the
   negro it merely looked like grease or sweat ... (21).


If McKay and Wright are right--as I believe they are--that Johnson's victory remained a trauma for white America (especially in the South), it is possible to identify Thomas Sutpen as a fantasy of a victorious "great white hope." But, Sutpen's victory remains significantly less central to this passage than his transgression against his culture's prohibition against racial integration, a transgression that suggests a union with the black combatant. Doreen Fowler astutely points out that Rosa's syntax, a telling parapraxis, insinuates a merging of races: "[Rosa] does not say, 'he himself would enter the ring with one of the negroes.' Rather, by saying, 'would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself,' Miss Rosa seems to identify Sutpen as one of the negroes" (110). Fowler does not link this specifically to boxing culture, however, or the surprising way that boxing--a sport seeming dependent on binary oppositions--becomes an analogue for sexual union. Kasia Boddy does link this scene to interracial boxing, but describes Rosa's description as relying on "a kind of demonic Darwinian imagery" (202). The text does suggest animalistic violence, a return to the primal struggle of "red tooth and nail." But, Rosa's narration also depends on overtly sexual imagery, and it, therefore, records the anxiety of illicit sexual union. Indeed, the brutality and sexuality depend on each other. The text repeatedly underscores the combatants' nudity; their repeated gouging at each other suggests sexual penetration; they exchange bodily fluids and must wipe these off after the fight is over; and finally, Sutpen pants exhaustedly at the end of the bout while his partner lays at his feet looking as if he's covered in sweat. My reading of this scene strengthens Boddy's claim that this passage foreshadows the "terror" that propels the narrators as they attempt to recreate Sutpen's history, "the terror that one cannot tell black from white" (202). However, I want to go further than Boddy does to suggest that in this scene interracial fighting not only "prefigures" the novel's obsession with interracial sex, but, in fact, displays interracial fighting as an inherently sexual act. Boddy perceptively connects this passage to the moment in the novel when Rosa herself has physical contact with Sutpen's mixed race daughter, Clytie. Rosa's comment provides the novel's clearest articulation of a similarly between violent and erotic physical contact. According to Rosa, both types of contact temporarily collapse social hierarchies created by culture and language:

I know only that my entire being seemed to run at blind full tilt into something monstrous and immobile, with a shocking impact too soon and too quick to be mere amazement and outrage at that black arresting and untimorous hand on my white woman's flesh. Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both: touch and touch of that which is the citadel of the I-Am's private own: not spirit, soul; the liquorish and ungirdled mind is anyone's to take in any darkened hallway of this earthly tenement. But let flesh touch flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too. (111-112, italics mine)

A similar connection between interracial fighting and interracial sex also informs Go Down, Moses (1940). In "The Fire and the Hearth," Zack Edmonds, the white heir of the McCaslin family, has been living with Lucas Beauchamp's wife, Molly. Lucas and Molly are both black. Lucas decides to avenge the dishonor done to him by Zack and Molly's affair. He enters Zack's house in the morning, armed with a razor. He enters the white man's bedroom and sees Zack sleeping with his neck exposed. Zack awakes, and the men begin talking. Zack demands that Lucas puts down the razor. Lucas throws the razor across the room and responds, "I don't need no razor. My nekkid hands will do" (52). Throughout their confrontation, the narrative oscillates between describing the men as individual subjects and avatars of their race. The men eventually decide to have a duel wherein a single pistol is laid in the center of Zack's bed. They begin to grapple with each other. Using his left hand, Lucas breaks free from Zack's grip and delivers a punch with his right fist. Lucas gains the pistol, but hesitates to pull the trigger. As they face each other across a bed:

The white man sprang, hurling himself across the bed, grasping at the pistol and the hand that held it. Lucas sprang too; they met over the center of the bed where Lucas clasped the other with his left arm almost like an embrace and jammed the pistol against the white man's side and pulled the trigger and flung the white man from him all in one motion, hearing as he did so the light, dry, incredibly loud click of the miss-fire. (56, italics mine)

For my purposes, what is most important in this passage is the image of the fighting men embracing on top of the bed. I contend that the mattress metaphorically suggests a canvas. But, of course, the bed also remains a bed, and as such suggests sexual union. The fighting action itself recalls boxers' attempts to "wrap up" their opponent, a counterintuitive move in which embracing the other combatant is a means of defense. Robert Haywood describes this maneuver and observes, "Not all of boxing is forceful or violent. There are moments of pause and rest when two boxers, exhausted or seeking protection, lean on and embrace each other in support. In boxing, these moments of touch and intimacy are countered by regained energy and more powerful blows" (13).

As in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's narration of interracial fighting draws heavily on boxing imagery in order to highlight the erotic nature the sport. This commingling of sport and eroticism should not surprise us because boxing, like many rituals, "is highly eroticized and engages the viewers on a number of levels, not all of which are in the heat of the action consciously apprehended" (Scott xxxi). Similarly, Haywood suggests that boxing involves an inherent "confusion of brutality and sexuality in which the former hides the later ... the homoeroticism that boxing attempts to escape is inescapably built into the action" (14). Faulkner insists on revealing the variety of desires that powerfully, but often unconsciously, enthrall boxing spectators. In Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, he reveals that part of interracial boxing's appeal lies not only the displacement of homoerotic desire but also of interracial desire.

George Bellow's Both Members of the Club (1909) offers a helpful comparison to this passage from Go Down, Moses. Bellows, one of the masters of twentieth-century American realism, famously chose boxing as subject for a number of his most controversial and celebrated works. Boxing provided Bellows with an atmosphere in which he could explore the human form in motion, and it offered him rich culture in which he could explore the imbrications of violence, sexuality, gender, and voyeurism. In 1922 Bellows wrote: "A fight particularly under the night light, is of all sports the most classically picturesque. It is the only instance in everyday life where the nude figure is displayed" (qtd in Haywood 8). His violent brush strokes replicate the brutality and energy of the sport. As is typical of Bellows's boxing paintings in this period, the fighters' individuality is minimized. Their locked arms obscure their faces. The composition privileges neither fighter over the other; rather, the painting emphasizes their simultaneous conflict and contact. Like Lucas and Zack, they are clasped in what is "almost an embrace." The boxers' bodies form a triangle, and their locked wrists are the primary focus point of the image.

Interestingly, however, Bellows does paint the faces of the spectators. Many of the men are smiling or cheering; the faces of the spectators on the far left of the painting are red, suggesting their participation in the bloody ritual. Bellows emphasizes these faces in order to examine the relationships between sports spectatorship, voyeurism, pleasure, and violence. Art critic Robert Haywood argues that Bellows's representation of spectatorship implies that "the boxing match is an acting out, a sadomasochistic fantasy made real" (12). By composing the painting in this manner Bellows means to make the viewer a spectator to the bout. Like Faulkner, Bellows implies that America's fascination with boxing is multi-layered, a spectacle that appeals to an audience precisely because it allows for the displacement of a variety of forbidden desires.

Interestingly, Go Down, Moses also includes Faulkner's most direct engagement with historical boxing champions. In "The Bear," a young Ike McCaslin notes that Boon Hogganback and several men on the train "talked about Lion and Old Ben as people later would talk about Sullivan and Kilrain and, later still about Dempsey and Tunney" (220). What the men do not say in this exchange seizes the attention of literary critics interested in the relationship between sport and culture. The omission recorded in this text is as revealing as the text's explicit import. In 1889, John Sullivan beat Jake Kilrain in the last bare knuckle boxing championship. Sullivan went on to become a major celebrity of the late nineteenth century. Almost forty years later, in 1927, Jack Dempsey lost to Gene Tunney in a controversial bout known as "The Battle of the Long Count." Dempsey was the most popular heavyweight champion of the two decades following Jack Johnson. This passage in Go Down, Moses is important for two reasons. First, it shows Faulkner's awareness of approximately forty years of boxing history. Secondly, the passage is important because Ike records the ways that discussions of boxing history in the south evade the most significant bout during of that forty-year period: the Johnson-Jefferies fight of 1910. In recording this culturally convenient history of boxing, Faulkner confirms the Wright's claim that southern whites repressed the memory of Jack Johnson.

Finally, in Light in August (1932), Faulkner explores the relationship between interracial fighting and interracial sexual prohibition. In Light in August, Joe Christmas, a man of ambiguous racial identity, continually struggles against white prejudice, and his struggles often evoke Jack Johnson's career. Though the scope of the present study precludes an extended reading of Joe Christmas's narrative as Faulkner's meditation on Jack Johnson, such a reading would undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the novel and the ways that modernist fiction sought to engage Johnson's remarkable career. Light in August differs from the two novels discussed above because the fighting itself is not portrayed in sexual terms. However, interracial sex and interracial fighting exist in a cyclical relationship in which each perpetuates the other. In a key scene in the novel, Joe's adopted father, a severe Calvinist named Mr. McEachern, discovers that Joe has lied to him. McEachern's anger relates primarily to what he believes is Joe's habit of "whoring" (164). The one-sided confrontation that follows recalls the imagery of a boxing match, especially as it describes the men as beginning the confrontation "toe-to-toe":
   And then [McEachern] acknowledged that the child whom
   he had adopted twelve years ago was a man. Facing him, the
   two of them almost toe to toe, he struck Joe with his fist ... Joe
   took the first two blows; perhaps from habit, perhaps
   from surprise. But he took them, feeling twice the man's hard
   fist crash into his face. Then he sprang back, crouched, licked
   blood, panting. They faced one another. 'Don't you hit me
   again,' he said (164-165).


Despite the fact that Joe does not return McEachern's blows, he issues a challenge that echoes the mantra of the 'New Negro': "when he gets hit, he hits back." Numerous writers identified Jack Johnson as the first 'New Negro' (Boddy 189). Later, when McEachern discovers his son dancing with a white prostitute and flaunting his money, he imagines himself as an avatar of divine justice and his son as some sort of demon: "Perhaps they were not even his hands which struck at the face of the youth whom he had nurtured and sheltered and clothed from a child, and perhaps when the face ducked the blow and came up again it was not the face of the child" (204-205). McEachern advances on Joe with his fist raised, but Joe strikes back and hits McEachern with a chair. As he rides away from the scene of the crime, Christmas exalts at "having put behind him now at once and for all the Shall Not, of being free at last of honor and law ... He cried aloud 'I have done it! I have done it! I told them I would!"' (207). Like Jack Johnson, Joe follows his victory over the symbol of white authority in his world with numerous relationships with white women, one similar to a common-law marriage and the others involving white prostitutes.

Yet--again like Johnson--neither Joe's fistic skill nor his wealth can protect him from a culture in which "the white man pulls the trigger." At the end of the novel, Joe is murdered and castrated by a fanatical national guardsman, an embodiment of prejudicial American law. His murderer justifies the violence by saying it is necessary for the protection of white women. But, his wrongful murder does not mark the end of Joe's impact on culture. Several members of the community gather around Joe as he's dying and as he passes away "the man seemed to rise soaring into their memories forever and ever. They are not to lose it, in whatever peaceful valleys, beside whatever placid streams of old age ... It will be there, musing, quiet, steadfast, not fading, not particularly threatful, but of itself alone serene, of itself alone triumphant" (465). Thus, the narrative records a curious ascension as Joe transitions from the realm of the everyday to the realms of myth and memory.

This study enriches existing studies of Jack Johnson's impact on American culture by focusing on the ways that through print and visual media, his career became the subject of a racialized melodrama that ended up defying the central imperative of that genre, namely: the restoration of a previously existing social order. Thus, Johnson's legacy became especially problematic for white Americans who struggled to understand his career within existing narratives of race. Yet, that troubling memory of the black man who was "alone triumphant" generated a surprising variety of responses, including William Faulkner's meditations on the linkage between interracial fighting and interracial sex. Of course, Faulkner was not alone among writers of serious fiction in responding to this cultural event, and, if successful, this essay will suggest further and deeper investigations of Johnson's influence on other writers and artists. The most interesting areas for future research, it seems to me, would be Johnson's enduring influence on black writers and artists. Though other critics, most notably Kasia Boddy, have begun to trace the influence of Johnson on movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, these studies could certainly be amplified and extended to include much later dates in American history. What, for example, should scholars of American culture make of Miles Davis's decision to title his 1971 album "A Tribute to Jack Johnson"? Flow does the meaning of Johnson's career change shape as it moves through various artistic forms, literary genres, and moments in American history? The career of Jack Johnson constitutes of the central narratives of race and culture in early twentieth-century America, and scholars of American culture and literature continue to be impressed by how deeply that narrative shapes so many of the stories we have told and the stories we continue to tell.

Works Cited

"A Southern Negro is Heavyweight Champion of the World." The Richmond Planet. The Richmond Planet, 6 January 1909. Web. 23 Aug. 2012.

Bow, n.d. "A Popular Pastime" Cartoon, n.d. Google Images. 31 Jan. 1909. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Bellows, George. Both Members of the Club. 1909. Chester Dale Collection. The National Gallery of Art. Web. 24 Aug. 2012.

Boddy, Kasia. Boxing: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion, 2008. Print.

Cory, John Campbell. "At Last! Here's A Real 'White Hope.'" Cartoon. New York World. Google Images. 12 Nov. 1912. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

--. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

--. Light in August. 1932. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Fitzmaurice, James. "Incidents of Jack Johnson's Visit to Vancouver Pictured By Fitzmaurice." Cartoon. Vancouver Province. 13 March 1909. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Fowler, Doreen. Faulkner: The Return of the Repressed. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 1997. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961. Print.

Gale, Edmund. "Not So Bad." Cartoon. Los Angeles Times. Google Images, 7 Jul. 1910. Web. 24 Aug. 2012.

Gilmore, Al-Tony. Bad Nigger!: The National Impact of lack Johnson. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1975. Print.

Guttmann, Allen. Sports Spectators. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

Haywood, Robert. "George Bellows's 'Stag At Sharkey's': Boxing, Violence, and Male Identity. Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2.2 (1988): 2-15. Jstor. Web. 24 Aug. 2012.

Herrimann, George. "Tommy Burns, 'Freak Fighter,' Growing Rapidly Weathly." Cartoon. Los Angeles Examiner. Google Images. 19 February 1908. Web. 19 Aug. 2012.

Mason, Jeffrey. Melodrama and the Myth of America. Bloomington: Indiana UP 1993.

McKay, Claude. The Negroes in America. 1923. Port Washington: Kinnikat, 1979. Print.

Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. Print.

Scott, David. The Art and Aesthetics of Boxing. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008. Print.

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics & Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. Print.

Strieble, Dan. Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. Berkeley: U of California P, 2008. Print.

"The Fight and Its Consequences." Los Angeles Times 6 Jul. 1910, 114. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times 1881-1988. Web. 23 Aug. 2012.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Harper and Row, 1937. Print.

Caption: Illus. 1 George Herriman, 1908: "Tommy Burns, 'Freak Fighter,' Rapidly Growing Wealthy."

Caption: Illus. 2. The Richmond Planet, January 2, 1909

Caption: Illus. 3. James Fitzmaurice, 1909: "Incidents of Jack Johnson's Trip To Vancouver Pictured By Fitzmaurice."

Caption: Illus. 4. Bow, n.d. 1909: "A Popular Pastime."

Caption: Illus. 5. Edmund "Ted" Gale, 1910: "Not so Bad."

Caption: Illus. 6. John Campbell Cory, 1912: "At Last! Here's a Real White Hope."
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Author:Smalley, Matthew
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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