- Joe Louis: Hard Times Man
Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” continues to be spoken of as, arguably, the best heavyweight champion of all time. In terms of longevity and bouts fought, Louis was a dominant athletic figure. His career spanned seventeen years (July of 1934 to October of 1951) and comprised of seventy fights. Interestingly enough, Jack Dempsey fought more times (seventy-nine), Rocky Marciano retired undefeated (Louis lost three times), and Muhammad Ali’s fistic career was longer at twenty-one years. However, the level and duration of his boxing excellence is best demonstrated by the fact that Joe Louis reigned as a world champion for eleven years and defended his heavyweight boxing title twenty-five times. Some sense of his iconic presence can be gauged from the fact that in the decade of the 1930s, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt steered the United States through the Depression, Joe Louis generated more column inches of newspaper coverage than the president did.
Historian and biographer Randy Roberts has written a series of wonderful books on a variety of topics ranging from John Wayne, to the Alamo, to the Vietnam War. His boxing books on Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, and this richly researched study on Joe Louis continues to reveal that Roberts is a meticulous collector of historical nuggets and weaves them into a captivating narrative.
Storytelling and setting a scene is one of Roberts’ many strengths. In the preface, for example, the author takes us on a journey to, of all places, Miami in February of 1964. In this Miami, a weird group of English musicians known as the Beatles are stirring up passions as is Malcolm X, who has turned up as a cheerleader for a young brash boxer from Louisville, known as Cassius Clay. Clay was preparing to take on Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship title.
Roberts focuses on the collection of journalists who are fascinated by the charisma and showmanship of Clay. In particular, he discusses the New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte and his reaction to the arrival of Joe Louis who had been brought to Miami by the promoters of the Clay-Liston fight to drum up publicity and give some credibility to the fight. Lipsyte runs into a group of senior, elder journalists and bursts out, “How can you hang around that mumbling old has-been, when here’s this young beautiful hope of the future?” One of the group, a legendary writer, Barney Nagler, makes the riposte, “You should have seen him then” (p. x).
While Roberts tells the story of the life and career of Joe Louis he, as a cultural historian, explores a bigger landscape. Hard Times Man examines the issue of what Joe Louis meant to black Americans and the complex process of image making, so that Joe Louis was packaged and presented in a particular way to a world audience of millions. This biography of a great boxer is also a compelling analysis of race and nationalism.
Roberts’ writing style is never less than engagingly direct. “Why Louis decided to enter the world of prizefighting is rather simply answered. Poverty, lack of opportunities, and a talent for hitting people steered him into the ring” (p. 25). By March of 1935 Ring magazine listed Joe Louis as ranked in the top five. While he had won his first twenty-two [End Page 342] fights, fame and recognition, as well as handsome purses, had not come his way. All of this changed with his arrival on May 15, 1935, at Grand Central Terminal in New York:
Never in the city’s long history of comings and goings had a black American created such a stir. He arrived like a visiting dignitary dressed to the nines in a gray overcoat and fedora, white gloves, tan shirt and plaid suit, and green tie, and accompanied by a retinue of managers, trainers, cooks and body guards(p. 54).
While Roberts writes movingly about the two most...