Kevin Grace

Readers at Ringside

Readers at Ringside: How Boxing Literature Reflects the Urban Cultural Environments of the 19th and 20th Centuries

On one side of the Atlantic, in the early 19th century, Lord Byron termed boxing as “The Noble Art.”  Across the ocean, 150 years later, American journalist A.J. Liebling called it “The Sweet Science.”  Both writers were looking at pugilism in the real, everyday world of a sport that evolved from the continental bare-knuckled fighting in Byron’s age to worldwide attention to the modern gloved matches in Liebling’s time.  The writers were trying to attach a simple label to something that was, however, heavily laden with the cultural symbolism and facts of class structure, masculinity, race and ethnicity, ethics and morality, and, the distinct urban worlds of American and European cities.  As boxing literature – journalism, social commentary, fiction - developed from the Regency era to the present, the various audiences for pugilistic accounts in every literary genre found themselves reflected in the printed page.  

This paper examines the urban reading audiences of boxing literature over the past two centuries, using an ethnohistorical approach in order to construct a culturological profile of those readers in their socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.  Of primary concern is exploring the relationships between physical formats – from tabloid to book to the 21st century e-book –to understand the ways in which readers of different times and different social classes related to boxing literature.  For example, did the so-called “period of the gruesome” in 19th century American tabloid journalism, with its lurid, sensationalistic prose, play to an increasingly literate working- or underclass and later became serialized fiction and pulp novels in the same vein?  Was Pierce Egan’s Regency reporting aimed at a distinct middle- to upper class readership that in following generations would later favorably receive the boxing novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw? 

Boxing fiction has different emphases, or elements, in its texts depending on the targeted audiences.  For an immigrant or working-class readership that is low on the economic scale, the action in the ring itself is foremost, accompanied by elements of exhibited masculinity in an occupational, bachelor, or neighborhood subgroup.  For an established middle-class group, the fiction incorporates beyond the fistic action the broader nature of intimate relationships, of vivid descriptions of the environment outside the boxing arena.  For all audiences, the urban environment is paramount – placing the fighters in teeming saloons, dark city streets, or lonely tenements.  The city is the identifiable world for the readers of boxing literature.  And, bridging the urban differences in class, race, ethnicity, and environment is the notion of redemption.  In some way, boxing literature always conveys the ideal of redemption, for both the fighter and the reader.

This paper attempts to look at reading audiences in an anthropological sense in order that the texts of boxing literature can be seen to reflect, and to be influenced by, cultural subgroups.

Making Books, Shaping Readers

School of English, O' Rahilly Building, University College Cork, Ireland.