- Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism, A Graphic History by Ronald Schechter and Liz Clarke
When Oxford University Press released Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men in 2011, a “graphic history” that integrated world history, historical methodology, and popular culture, many teachers jumped at the opportunity to try out a text that might stimulate student interest. With vivid illustrations and a tight narrative, the illustrated retelling of a wrongfully enslaved woman and her court battle in the late nineteenth century provided an opportunity for historians to capitalize on the contemporary fascination with comic books and graphic novels. Ronald Schechter’s new work, illustrated again by Clarke, will achieve a similar success. Taking the story of a young Saphardic boxer in late eighteenth-century Britain, it demonstrates the ability of both sport and brilliant visuals to illuminate historical dynamics some students might choose to circumvent or fail to lucidly comprehend.
On first glance, students will see a graphic novel drawn and inked with precision, yet with a plot and storyline that neatly introduces them to a micro-history that emphasizes British nationalism, class, and masculinities. Professors will feel legitimated in assigning the text rather than more traditional fare because the novella is accompanied by relevant primary source material and discussions of how the author used it to craft the tale. Indeed, it is the combination of the graphic novel, primary and secondary sources, and textbooklike excerpts on relevant topics that make the final product so appealing. Mendoza’s tale is certainly worthy of telling and lends itself to illuminating class and gender at work in sport in the 1780s and 1790s. A poor Jew from Aldgate, Mendoza acquired fame by founding boxing schools and exhibiting the art of pugilism to curious crowds of all social classes. Schechter’s choice for the main narrative engine, though, is Mendoza’s rivalry with his one-time “second” Richard Humphries. In his retelling of three bouts, and the contention, trash-talking, and begrudging respect the two maintained, Schechter explains the social forces acting on them and the historical events of the age.
In the main, Schechter is able to carry both the straight-forward narrative and splice in historical commentary with aplomb. For example, when Mendoza and Humphries carry out their mutual lambasting about each other’s cowardice in newspapers, Schechter includes an aside that quickly addresses the rise of press culture, its connections to national identity, and Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities.” While the professor and the more inquisitive reader might wish these lessons longer and more nuanced, they at least serve as conversation starters for the classroom and easily digested reference points for students. Other brief lectures in graphic form tease out classed behaviors, the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Britain, and the French Revolution. Historians of sport will also be pleased with the depictions of honor and celebrity in pugilism, and the vigor required to be a prizefighter (one of the bouts lasted seventy-two rounds). The final two chapters of the graphic novel also include a self-reflexiveness that allows the reader to see the decisions Schechter faced in crafting the storyline. A la Albert Spiegelman in Maus, [End Page 146] Schechter places himself on the page to describe his choices of what to include and exclude, and ultimately to make a case for the importance of Mendoza’s story to broader historical debates about nationalism and “history from below.” It is all terribly fun to read.
Subsequent sections of the volume include excerpts from newspaper reports of the matches and contemporary artists’ renderings of the bouts. These sources, along with mini-lessons that provide more traditional secondary commentary on the issues, supplement the graphic novel nicely and will allow sports historians and those teaching historical methods courses room to play with assignments and discussions. Despite its many accomplishments, a few very minor quibbles persist. Schechter includes several occasions where matches were banned, and even...