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Boxing Yoknapatawpha: Faulkner, Race, and Popular Front Boxing Narratives

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 19-35 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0024

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One powerful and productive trend in recent Faulkner scholarship has been to situate “Count No Count” within the popular culture of the 1930s and early 1940s, examining his appropriation of its themes and narrative tactics. John T. Matthews has demonstrated, for example, how Faulkner both used and challenged Hollywood formulas in his script writing, and how he exported his experiences as a screenwriter to his fiction, as in the story “Artist at Home.” 1 Read under this light, novels like Sanctuary (1931) and Intruder in the Dust (1948) clearly borrow from the popular genres of detective novels and noir film, unsurprising in light of Faulkner’s time in Hollywood and his friendship with detective novelist Dashiell Hammett. Such scholarship so far has not recognized Faulkner’s use of yet another highly popular trend—the boxing narrative. While Faulkner never wrote a boxing story nor prominently featured boxers in his fiction, much of his best known work deftly and subtly borrows from the boxing narratives well known to naturalist writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to Popular Front writers of the 1930s. Exploring the connections between Faulkner’s fiction and Popular Front boxing narratives sheds light on the 1930s and 40s as a time of cultural confusion, when Americans were losing faith in established institutions yet remaining apprehensive of sweeping societal change, valorizing certain mythologized figures while also seeking new ones. The gangster, the detective, even the comic book superhero—all these types emerged as pop culture icons during the 1930s, and aspects of each character could be found within the boxing narrative. Faulkner’s engagement with boxing tales is one more mark of his canny understanding of the cultural currents of his time.

In particular, this essay will discuss how Faulkner’s work in the 1930s and early 1940s engaged Popular Front boxing narratives in ways that acknowledge the need for social change while remaining skeptical of the limits and results of such change. I want to begin by discussing the popular and artistic understanding of the boxing ring—a world that offered individual success and valorized masculinity, while also offering the danger of corruption and savagery. This essay will discuss how Faulkner’s major works leading up to World War II dovetail with the cultural narrative beginning with Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, and culminating with the second African American champ, Joe Louis. Both Faulkner’s work and the stories of two black champions engage and illuminate national fears and struggles with racism at home and fascism abroad. I will trace the influence of boxing narratives through several key passages in Light in August (1932), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and “The Bear” and “The Fire and the Hearth” from Go Down, Moses (1940). In doing so, I will demonstrate an ambivalent narrative trajectory in Faulkner’s novels that cautiously explores the potential for progressive race relations. While both Faulkner and the nation made great strides during these years, Faulkner’s work ultimately exposes the remaining imaginative barriers to racial progress.

Cultural and literary critics find the boxing ring a rich arena for social signification. As Gerald Early characterizes it, boxing “is a remarkable metaphor for the philosophical and social condition of men (and, sometimes, women) in modern mass society” (xiv). Within the prize ring, one can establish independence, individuality, and most importantly a clear triumph over another individual. The prizefight offers the hope of fame and fortune earned with nothing but one’s own hands. Of particular cultural interest are the boxing narratives of American Naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and American Popular Front writers of the 1930s and 1940s.2 Naturalist writers drew on the figure of the Great White Hope to bolster waning faith in modern masculinity and white racial superiority. Modernist writers of the Left were often more critical of the sport, and drew on the boxing narrative to dramatize the plight of working class whites and African Americans, and to allegorize capitalist exploitation and the day-to-day brutality these groups experienced. Most crucially, many critics and writers of the 1930s saw the boxing ring as a microcosm of the conflicts between working class whites...



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