Modern Culture04 Aug 2010 06:37 am
An interviewer for The Paris Review once asked the novelist and essayist Norman Mailer if he believed in reincarnation, and, if so, what he would like to come back is in the next life. The pugnacious belletrist responded without hesitating: “A black athlete.”
Mailer may have been unique in the extent of his enthusiasm, especially for boxing and above all others for Muhammad Ali, the subject of today’s entry in the Modern Culture edition of The Intellectual Devotional. Ali was always a darling of the chattering classes. In fact, many generations of writers have compensated for their cerebral pursuits by obsessing over The Noble Art of boxing.
Our favorite introduction to the literature of pugilism (at least until The Library of America releases the relevant volume) is David Remnick’s “King of the World.” Since 1999, Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker magazine, and “King of the World” is very much a work curated by a great magazine editor. Ali is the ostensible subject of the book, but a careful read reveals something else: an introduction to some of the greatest boxing writing ever penned, from A. J. Liebling to Remnick himself. Much of it was focused, not on Ali, but on two of his predecessors: Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston.
- Gay Talese: “The Loser”: a brilliant profile of Floyd Patterson, the heavyweight champion who was defeated by Sonny Liston.
- Nick Tosches: “The Devil and Sonny Liston”: a profile of the champion nobody wanted.
- Norman Mailer: “Ten Thousand Words a Minute”: Mailer’s last great pre-Ali work of boxing journalism.
- James Baldwin: “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”: Baldwin’s response to Mailer, in what Remnick called “the literary undercard of the Patterson-Liston fight”
But before reading all those great pieces, watch the fight!
(The rematch didn’t go any better for Patterson)
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