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  • The Squared City:Prizefighting, Tenement Reform, and Spatial Physiognomy at the Turn of the Century

In the opening to Abraham Cahan's novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), Jake—the eponymous Yekl—is introduced to the reader in the middle of an "impromptu lecture" on American prizefighting.1 Set during work hours in a small tenement garment shop in a Jewish immigrant district, the men and women of the shop kill time while waiting for their boss to return with more work. One half of the shop listens to Jake talk about boxing while the rest are occupied with the small tasks of adapting to their American environment—one reads an English newspaper, another seems to pray over a Yiddish socialist magazine, two young men compare stories about actors of the Jewish stage, and another uses his free time to mend his clothes. All of this takes place in a single, small tenement room with enough sewing machines, pressing tables, and other equipment for all of them to do their work—had they any work to do.

Through the familiar cultural idiom of prizefighting, Jake reframes the ethnic balkanization of the tenements into the staged ethnic conflicts of the prize ring. He highlights supposed differences between Boston and New York fighters, among Irish, Jewish, Russian, and Christian fighters, and so on. Through the language of prizefighting, he voices the dominant order as a way to access a kind of cultural capital. According to the implicit logic of his lecture, if he can successfully convince his listeners that he has mastered the masculine discourse of prizefighting, then he will also have convinced them of his American cultural expertise.

Jake believes that his lecture might serve as a hermeneutic tool for the other characters in the tenement shop listening to him (as it might also be [End Page 226] for Cahan's readers). The prize ring seems, in Jake's framing, to function as a living analogy for tenement life with all of its ethnic rivalries, social aspirations, and workmanlike commitments to focused training and self-improvement. When Jake's account leads to an extended and "minute exposition of 'right-handers' [and] 'left-handers' […] and other commodities of the fistic business," the others in the tenement shop seem implicitly to understand the overlapping frames of labor, sport, and the biologism of ethnicity.2 The ring allows Jake to paint a clear image of the felt relationship between spaces and bodies, between neighborhoods and ethnic groups, and between nations and fields of manual specialty. Handedness, in the context of the tenements, appears to be as much a sign of one's proficiency in the ring as it is of one's dexterity in the tenement shop.3 Like Susan Buck-Morss' concept of the "surface pattern," the ring's regularized geometries and rules, its highly visible bodies and motions, and its clearly defined spatial antagonisms become a way of "depicting the social body that technology had created—and that in fact could not be perceived otherwise."4 In the narrow geometry of the ring, the problematically undifferentiated urban industrial mass that Buck-Morss describes might be separated into legible racial, ethnic, and economic bodies that might be pitted against one another in physical contest. Jake's turn to the "right-handers" and "left-handers" of prizefighting reflects the demographically schematized spaces and bodies of the tenements.

However, Jake's lecture is competing with the other "noise" of the tenement shop, and even those present who are listening do not all agree with his pugilistic model for urban life. One of his critics, Mr. Bernstein, makes explicit that their dispute is over competing models of cultural fluency. Bernstein offers a counter-model based on language acquisition and says that Americans "won't even break bones without grammar" and that "[t]hey tear each other's sides according to 'right and left'" punctuation marks rather than "right-handers" and "left-handers" in the ring.5 For Bernstein, social hierarchies are articulated through grammatical figures, while for Jake, these differences are articulated in (the language of) violent physical contest. Their argument comes to a head when Jake becomes so frustrated that he grabs another heckler by the collar and is about to punch him, but then the boss finally shows up with some work.

In the seemingly inevitable emergence of actual violence, the distinction between abstract theory and lived experience rears its head. Jake and Bernstein appear to be arguing over this very distinction—Jake on the side of real, physical experience and Bernstein on the side of symbolic, figurative experience—but the fight itself is an ironically literal intrusion that reminds [End Page 227] them and Cahan's readers that both sides traffic equally in abstractions of lived experience. The threat of real violence and the sudden change of mood that happens when the boss returns remind all of them, and us, of the underlying material conditions motivating this conflict: the precarious socio-economics of the tenements. It is this slipperiness between figurative and actual violence that so crucially lends fighting its central and centrally uneven place in depictions of tenement life.Jake's lecture on boxing is necessarily "impromptu" because of the makeshift character of the tenements themselves. As Jake and the others in the shop "beguiled their suspense" because they have no work, Jake takes a stab at looking at tenement life from the perspective of an expert.6 His lecture attempts to step outside of the perpetual contingency of always waiting for work and to articulate an improvised theory of urban immigrant life, reimagining the violent conflict between labor and capital as a series of ethnic neighborhood rivalries. He is attempting to frame the experience of contingent labor within the context of the tenements. His pugilistic expertise takes the place of a scientific expertise that might map and document the various neighborhoods, traits, conflicts, and specialties of the New York ghetto. Boxing seems to produce its own form of total knowledge and its own means of categorizing and controlling the entire urban social body.

The turn-of-the-century prizefight spectacle in fact dramatizes the spatial politics of tenement life. As Elliott J. Gorn argues in his study of bareknuckle prizefighting, boxing earlier in the nineteenth century had been a primary way for urban industrial laborers to give "expression to deep social conflicts, to the pervasive parochialism dividing the working class" and thus to "transform chaos into meaning."7 However, as the language and culture of boxing began to be adopted more by the middle class in the late-nineteenth century and as the urban working-class population became increasingly associated with the ills of tenement housing, boxing became less a means of "transform[ing] chaos into meaning" and, I argue, more a means of subjecting the heterogeneous urban population to the dominant scientific and bureaucratic order, especially a spatial order. The seemingly ordered space of the boxing ring frames the racially and ethnically charged urban space of the tenement just as powerfully as and in tandem with—though much more unevenly than—the emerging social sciences. The telescoping movement of laboring bodies from nations to cities to neighborhoods to tenements takes on a metonymic sheen, as if the lived reality of global industrial labor might be condensed and grasped in a single, versatile spatial unit. Moreover, the pugilistic language and consciousness of American literary naturalism puts similar imaginative pressure on urban spaces and the people that inhabit them. [End Page 228]

Where nineteenth-century race science and ethnography had located difference on the bodies of peoples, urban planning and the emergent social sciences described difference in spatial terms. If the modern bourgeois city apartment enabled Edgar Allan Poe to become the "first physiognomist of the domestic interior" in the early part of the century, then the tenement and the boxing ring provided ready alternatives for the racial physiognomist at the end of the century.8 The tenement and the ring were imaginative tools equipped for the abstract spatial dynamics of the modern city and its balkanized populations. The parallel hermeneutics of the tenement and the ring formalized race and ethnicity by way of formalizing space, binding the modern projects of racial and ethnic formation to what Henri Lefebvre calls "the production of abstract space."9

According to Lefebvre, the process of producing abstract space is above all a "metaphorization" of space that serves to reduce and "separate … in order to control" differences and localities,10 thereby transforming lived urban experience into a metaphorical homogeneity wherein "violence is cloaked in rationality and a rationality of unification is used to justify violence." As boxing enters into the bourgeois imagination, artists, authors, journalists, and new middle-class fans do indeed deploy boxing and its readymade taxonomies (race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and so on) in order to "make sense" of the city, its districts, and its populations. The tenement serves as an organizing metaphor that allows for the administration of bureaucratic control through a grand urban taxonomy. Yet importantly, as I will show in my readings of key naturalist texts, of tenement reform publications, and of boxing manuals, the intractable problem of the violence in the ring poses problems to spatial administration.

If violence is made to seem a natural outcome of overcrowded, heterogeneous tenements, then boxing is made to seem the natural expression of that violence. Jack London in his press dispatches covering the Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight in 1910, for example, claims that "there must be a large remnant left of the large-bloodedness of the English-speaking race to evince such a tremendous interest in the particular sport of sports which it originated and developed until it became stamped today into the crystallization of many generations, the Marquis of Queensberry rules."11 While London undoubtedly sensationalizes for the sake of his boxing aficionado readers, he nevertheless draws a familiar and organic connection between a violent racial "remnant" and the modern rules of the sport. This naturalized association between boxing and urban violence is a fiction, of course, but by tracing its strategic deployment, I hope to pinpoint the ways that this particular fiction voices a powerful, albeit distorted, abstract truth about the political economy of urban space. [End Page 229]

Producing the Squared City

In 1900, a comprehensive exhibition was organized in New York devoted to mapping, and thereby presumably reforming, the tenements. According to the New York State Tenement House Commission, the exhibition was "viewed by over ten thousand persons of all classes, from the millionaire to the poorest, unskilled laborer." Included in this two-week exhibition were "five models, over 1000 photographs, over 100 maps, and many charts, diagrams, and tables of statistics."12 This was part of a much larger visual project by reformers—including, notably, the photographs and lectures of Jacob Riis, whose targets were those committing "crimes against property and against person … [and] who seem to come almost exclusively from the worst tenement house districts."13 Envisioning the tenements is also crucially a way of producing the spaces of urban violence and poverty. Reform is equated to visibility and regularly mistakes the figurative frame for the thing itself.

The space of the tenement and its concomitant material history is (re)-produced by reformers as a highly charged, totalizable substitute for the conditions from which it itself arises. The "tenement" becomes a figurative paradigm for the whole of the social reality of all tenements, their inhabitants, and their living conditions. Tenement districts become divisible according to ethnic enclaves that reflect, as if in miniature, the geopolitics of global immigration that double as enclaves of specialized labor and industry.14 The tenement is simultaneously the part and the whole of urban industrial life; it is metaphor, metonym, and paradigmatic example all at once.

Urban tenements motivated social and public health policy through much of the nineteenth century, and by the end of the century the tenement had become the unquestioned imaginative repository for anxieties over labor reform, immigration law, urban planning, population growth, and more. Reformers and detractors alike understood the tenements to be an incontrovertible social evil that either stood in for the intractability of the urban poor (figured as "foreign") or as a place from which to begin the long process of social progress (figured as "assimilation"). Even the most well-intentioned urban studies sought as their first aim to distinguish between those perpetually unemployable populations who were thought to be incorrigibly corrupt and those working poor who might be helped through policy reform.15 This method of classification, referred to broadly as the "labor question," was the wedge that drove policy and study of the urban tenement districts of major U.S. cities and motivated the new taxonomical approach to urban poverty. Much of the era's most [End Page 230] notable and most notorious social policies can be traced back to responses to the labor question, seeing the urban working class as the substrate upon which to enact modern social and institutional reforms based on statistical research from rapidly emerging social science disciplines at the end of the nineteenth century.16 Overlapping biological (epidemiological) and sociological (ethnographic) frameworks were used to distinguish between those who could be reformed and those who could not be. If modern race was the outcome of outward colonial expansion, modern ethnicity was the outcome of the inward incursion into the "foreign" tenement quarters of domestic cities.

Social reformers, government administrators, politicians, and anxious bourgeois onlookers saw the tenements as fecund seedbeds for the unchecked growth of a host of ills associated with American cities—disease, crime, fire, poverty, moral depravity, underemployment, and political radicalism—that needed to be aired and brought into the light of day. The work most strongly associated with widespread reform movement built on allaying these perceived ills, Riis' How the Other Half Lives, approaches the urban industrial population as a dangerous and overcrowded mix that, if left unacknowledged and untreated, would explode into full-blown violent revolution. Mapping, photographing, and categorizing the various immigrant populations of the New York tenements is the means by which Riis seeks to reform and cure the social and political diseases of the city. He expresses little sympathy for the various peoples of his study—essentially a photographic bestiary of various immigrant stereotypes in their "natural habitats." For Riis, the danger of tenement housing lies in the invisibility and heterogeneity of its inhabitants. His lectures, books, and photographs are for him a kind of "airing out" and exposing to the light of day the tenements' otherwise unseen interiors. Riis aims to defuse the inevitable tension of packing so many different types of people in such tight, unexposed living quarters, not for their own sake, but for everyone else's. He and other reformers saw these tightly packed living and working conditions as the hotbed for a likely revolution: "[t]he tenements had bred their Nemesis, a proletariat ready and able to avenge the wrongs of their crowds."17 For Riis and other reformers, resolving the housing problem has more to do with securing middle-class values by controlling the heterogeneity and violence of the immigrant working class than it does with improving the conditions of those living and working in the tenements.

Riis finds a spatial language to account for the otherwise unaccountable—and invisible—categories of difference. His method transforms familiar tropes of racial physiognomy into a new kind of "spatial physiognomy." One of Riis' common pseudo-scientific analogies is to speak of the various [End Page 231] ethnic populations accumulating over time like "sediment" in which the economic status, industrial specialty, and living conditions of one ethnic group replaces (or piles on top of) those of another and another: "[t]he German rag-picker of thirty years ago, quite as low in the scale as his Italian successor, is the thrifty tradesman or prosperous fanner of to-day," and so on. The geography of the tenements is tied directly to this process of geological sedimentation, until finally a "map of the city, colored to designate nationalities, would show more stripes than on the skin of a zebra, and more colors than any rainbow … [with] an odd variety of tints that would give the whole the appearance of an extraordinary crazy-quilt." (Figure 1) The multi-colored city could not help but, according to Riis, bring the denizens of the tenements down "to the level of their surroundings."18 Riis' phototexts are remarkable in their recasting of the techniques of nineteenth-century racial science into the broader urban milieu via modern social science. Rather than measuring skull shapes, body types, facial structure, brain sizes, and the like, Riis maps the spaces in which the urban poor live. Drawing on popular tropes of epidemiology and anthropology, Riis figures the tenement as the true measure of a people's behavior and degree of inherent deviation from the American bourgeois norm.

While the tenement problem became a way of legislatively addressing broad social issues, boxing became the hermeneutic through which these same issues might be more concretely visualized and organized, often originating from the working-class subjects themselves. In Riis' account of the Children's Aid Society, for example, he tells the story of how young, formerly homeless boys living in the Society's reform house have a "characteristic" of "pulverizing a rival who has done a mean trick to a smaller boy." Repurposing their gymnasium time and space to better suit this pursuit, "the lads in the Duane Street Lodging House 'chipped in' and bought a set of boxing gloves" and fought among one another in amateur matches until "sundry little scores had been settled that evened things up, as it were, for a fresh start."19 The boys adopt the Society's "self-help" emphasis on physical exercise and recast it according to their own "characteristic" toward "pulverizing a rival." The social hierarchies among the different groups of boys become, from Riis' perspective, "evened up" through boxing, a model of "self-help" that gives tangible, violent expression to these "scores." Boxing makes the account-ledger of the balkanized tenement a spacialized metonym for turn-of-the-century hierarchies of space, ethnicity, work, and class readable, and thereby makes it possible to reconcile or "even" the scores.

Like Riis' photographic stereotyping, boxing enables the ethnically-marked bodies on display to be typed, categorized, named, and studied. [End Page 232]

Figure 1. F. E. Pierce, "The Tenement-House Committee Maps," 1895. Library of Congress Online Catalog The top map shows "densities of populations in the several sanitary districts." The bottom map shows "distribution of principal nationalities by sanitary districts."
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Figure 1.

F. E. Pierce, "The Tenement-House Committee Maps," 1895. Library of Congress Online Catalog The top map shows "densities of populations in the several sanitary districts." The bottom map shows "distribution of principal nationalities by sanitary districts."

[End Page 233] As the sport was professionalized and popularized in the late-nineteenth century, classifications adapted from the era's racial science were translated into strict weight classes, fighting styles, body types, and idiosyncratic methods of conditioning. Marketing and word-of-mouth excitement for a fight rely on the "deep play" of ethnic, racial, and neighborhood affiliations: different urban populations duke it out in the ring.20 The advent of the Marquis of Queensberry rules, which were first introduced in 1867 for amateur fighters and were not applied to a championship fight in the United States until 1889, signaled a broad attempt to reform and regulate boxing, bring it out of the bars and cellars, and make it more amenable to bourgeois values of fairness, fitness, and visibility. In Elliott Gorn's account of the fall of nineteenth-century bareknuckle prizefighting, the Queensberry rules occupy a central place in a much larger movement to clean up the sport, along with exhibition-style fighting, mainstream training programs, and the creation of designated spaces for prizefight spectatorship.21

Boxing reform, like tenement reform, belonged to the late-nineteenth-century obsession with self-improvement through hygiene, health, and athleticism. A literal connection of people and their environments forms a central conceit of both sets of reformist texts. In John Boyle O'Reilly's 1890 manual, Athletics and Manly Sport, the author echoes the language of tenement reformers. O'Reilly tells his readers that exercise in crowded, unventilated city rooms "invites disease to fill your lungs with bad air." In common with housing reformers, O'Reilly also claims that "[w]e are truly and actually part of the place we live in: its life enters with every inspiration into our lives."22 In their 1903 report, the New York State Housing Commission refers to the small ventilation shafts in tenement buildings as "culture tubes," responsible for cultivating both disease and the concomitant violence and moral depravity of the tenement inhabitants. O'Reilly's manual also returns repeatedly to the centrality of air, breathing, and open space to a healthy training regimen and sets it in perpetual contrast to the congestion and pollution of the city. Equating cities with unhealthy environments, both O'Reilly and the Housing Commission echo and develop upon earlier nineteenth-century anxieties about urban life; what is new and distinctive about these portrayals is that they draw a direct link between crowded spaces, bodily/biological discipline, and the pugilistic imagination. Similarly, it is no coincidence that the "dumbbell" would lie at the center of boxing training regimens—including O'Reilly's—and simultaneously be used by reformers as a short-hand term for the most heinous tenement designs. (Figure 2) [End Page 234]

Figure 2. The Tenement House Problem, eds. Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), 8.
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Figure 2.

The Tenement House Problem, eds. Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), 8.

[End Page 235]

Imagining the Squared City

Prizefighting emerges in late-nineteenth-century American fiction as a goto figurative device for schematizing the supposed chaos of the tenements and of the multifarious mass that lives and works there. However, as in Jake's lecture in Yekl, boxing is often a stand-in for authentic experience, not just of immigrant urban working-class populations, but of reality itself. This rhetorical legacy persists into the present day with writers as varied as Joyce Carol Oates, Gerald Early, and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, all of whom argue that boxing is a more "present" and more "real" version of the lived reality of its participants, its spectators, and its milieu than any other form of expression, event, ritual, or aesthetic representation of the urban working class.23 As Oates puts it, boxing is not "a metaphor for something else," but rather it is "life [that] is like boxing. … Boxing is only like boxing."24 This is a guiding political and aesthetic philosophy for nearly all writers who write about boxing that can be traced directly back to the American naturalists and their extraction of seemingly authentic physical experience from the urban working class.

Almost a full century before Oates' claim about boxing's sublime ontology, London similarly argued that "for the man who would know life as it is, in all its naked facts, and not life as he surmises or dreams it ought to be, there is something of big and basic importance" in prizefighting.25 Real, physical, authentic experience "in all its naked facts" derives from the ritual combat between representatives of competing urban working-class populations. In contrast to the bureaucratic ordering and abstracting of the urban environment, boxing is an abstraction of urban violence that is also itself irreducibly violent. It is, as Jake and his listeners in the shop are forced to recognize when Jake grabs one of his naysayers by the collar, an instantiation of really real violence; however, it is, as Jake also believes, at the same time a distillation of the violence of a social condition—simultaneously an abstraction of violence and violence itself. Where the bureaucratic and scientific ordering of the city and its working-class populations "cloaks" its violence in "rationality," boxing affords no such pretense since its own form of rationalism is unapologetically and undeniably violent.

In conflating the analogy of boxing with the reality of the violence of urban poverty, we see a process of abstraction that parallels Lefebvre's "production of space." Boxing taps into a heightened sense of the literal "concreteness" of the spaces of working poverty that is expressed in a slippery interplay between boxing-as-metaphor and boxing-as-reality. More than mere metonym for the violence of tenement life, boxing is also the seemingly inevitable consequence and culmination of that violence. For [End Page 236] example, boxing reappears later in Yekl as a figurative-literal frame for the "face to face" divorce proceedings between Jake and his wife that take place in a tenement "crowded with men and women." The rabbi manages the "tedious preliminaries" (a word strongly associated with the lesser matchups on a fight card), and a scribe documents the proceedings in "square characters" (harkening back to Mr. Bernstein's conflation of writing with fighting in a ring). Once the divorce is finalized, Jake's now-former wife falls "in a fainting swoon" as if knocked out and Jake emerges from the proceeding the "victor."26 Boxing often serves double duty as both a symbolic figure for the urban industrial ghetto and as an ideal exemplar of the thing itself. This divorce proceeding may indeed be like boxing, as Oates might say, but that's because only boxing seems to embody the real underlying conflict. As the tenement does for reformers, boxing provides an abstract paradigm that allows naturalist authors and characters to figuratively totalize and concretely instantiate the heterogeneous spaces of the urban mass.

The problem of envisioning the violent heterogeneity of the tenements is explored in depth in Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and it is again the language and visual structure of prizefighting that provides the most readily available means by which to do so, even if only provisionally and imperfectly. The violence in Crane's novella appears disorganized, chaotic, and multidirectional. It has no specific sources, targets, or aims, and in Crane's imagined version of turn-of-the-century life in New York's Bowery district, violence seems a key symptom of the "disease" of poverty and destitution. According to this understanding of violence in Maggie, Crane's vision of Irish immigrant life in the city is in line with much thinking at the time in its pathologizing of poverty. The text reminds us constantly of where we are, who these people are, and how uncontrollably violent they are. It is an urban district of vacant lots and of overcrowded and cramped living spaces.

Like Cahan's work, Maggie also begins with a boxing-inflected scene; however, rather than beginning with a lecture, it begins with a fight itself. And like Cahan's novel, Maggie finds in the structure and meaning of boxing a way to figure the chaotic tenements by way of figuring their concomitant violence. The fight among the "urchins" of the Bowery is simultaneously a totalizing analogy for the social condition of the entirety of the Bowery while at the same time it is a local instance of the real violence within the Bowery. It is the seemingly organic and pervasive violence of life in the Bowery that structures the fight.

In the opening scene, Jimmie Johnson, "the little champion of Rum Alley," stands alone on the top of a "heap of gravel" fighting off the "howling urchins from Devil's Row."27 In the midst of a "vacant lot," the boys stand in [End Page 237] a circle around Jimmie (4). As violence escalates, the scene begins to adopt the features of a formalized boxing match. The "champion of Rum Alley" is ready to square off alone against one of the Devil's Row boys in the center of the circle of boys in the vacant lot. The ring space, the neighborhood rivalry, the two isolated opponents, and the crowd all begin to coalesce into a boxing scene. Before the fight can happen, though, Pete shows up and attacks the other boy who was about to step up and fight Jimmie. After Pete breaks up the fight, Jimmie and one of his fellow Rum Alley friends then turn on one another "fighting in the modes of four thousand years ago" (5). The rest of the Rum Alley boys form a "bobbing circle about the pair." Again, the formal properties of an organized boxing match nearly lock into place, but just as Pete had interrupted the earlier fight, Jimmie's father steps in to break up this one. Each fight closely resembles, though never fully achieves, the regimented structure of an organized bout. The violence in Maggie is constantly searching for an appropriate frame and continually gestures toward but simultaneously refuses the regularized and rule-bound structure of boxing as just such a frame.

Even those in the vicinity of the fight in the vacant lot seem lost—either unwilling or unable to outline and understand concretely what it is that they are seeing. The more orderly structure of boxing seems to emerge, if only ever hazily and at a distance, but it is often an incomplete or distorted version of organized boxing. During the opening fight sequence, local spectators watch the goings on.

From a window of an apartment house that upreared its form from amid squat, ignorant stables, there leaned a curious woman. Some laborers, unloading a scow at a dock at the river, paused for a moment and regarded the fight. The engineer of a passive tugboat hung lazily to a railing and watched. Over on the Island, a worm of yellow convicts came from the shadow of a grey ominous building and crawled slowly along the river's bank.


It is unlikely that many (if any) of these spectators would be able to see much of anything happening among the boys in the lot. The passage highlights instead the spectators' casual interest and indifference, and with each described spectator, the physical distance from the object of scrutiny grows through a series of expanding concentric circles. The woman simply "leans" in a nearby window. The laborers "pause" and "regard" the fight. The engineer hangs "lazily to a railing" as his "passive tugboat" moves by. By the time the paragraph describes the final group of spectators, the "yellow convicts," it includes no substantive implication of seeing anything at all. The convicts simply "came" and "crawled" to the edge of the river. The only suggestion that they're even part of the group of fight spectators is that they are the logical extension of [End Page 238] the prior descriptions of spectators: the "curious woman," "some laborers," "the engineer," and, finally, the "yellow convicts." Further, the direction of looking has been inverted, the narrator detailing the receding distance of each ring of spectators out to the furthest possible distance. If these spectators are watching the fight, then the fight is all the more intently watching them. As the scene of the fight extends further into the spaces and populations of the Bowery, it loses what little coherence and clarity it fleetingly acquired. If boxing is, as I've argued above, a hermeneutic for understanding the heterogeneity of the urban mass, it is here actively failing to produce anything like sustained, coherent knowledge. It is a flawed panoptic tool, only provisionally and partially visible and comprehensible.

Instead of operating as a single totalizing model for the tenements, disorganized fights like this one operate as a connected chain in the novella. The fight in the vacant lot is interrupted by Pete, which leads to a fight between Jimmie and Pete that is in turn interrupted by Jimmie's father. Once home, the successive chain of violence continues onward. Maggie "jerked the baby's arm impatiently" making him "fall on his face roaring" (6). After some castigation by Maggie, Jimmie "suddenly swore and struck her" (7). And so on. The rest of the novel attempts to map these intricately connected branches and rivulets of violence, ending ultimately with Maggie's death and her mother's final "scream of pain" (61). It is an ideological and aesthetic structure that seems to grow naturally out of the lived reality of the tenements. It is a structure of small, tightly packed, interchangeable units rather than one of large, holistic vision and space. The urban tenement districts are, like these scenes of organically organized violence, incorrigibly heterogeneous and "naturally" averse to totalization, and they beg for new social apparatuses with which to understand and thereby control them.

Maggie pairs its characters' striving for greater self-knowledge and social understanding to the near presence of boxing. Put another way, boxing is the expression of an emergent class consciousness that lies perpetually just out of reach. The characters in Maggie always fall just short of grasping themselves within some social totality. They are thrown perpetually back on the tight physical and psychological barriers of the tenements. In one of the few scenes that explicitly refers to the sport, Pete lectures Jimmie on the ins and outs of professional boxing, interspersed with colorful accounts of his own boxing-like scraps around the neighborhood. Like Jake in Yekl, Pete deploys pugilistic expertise as a kind of worldliness. It suggests not just Pete's expert technical knowhow and skill, but it also lends him the air of someone who is outside of the tenements, someone literally "above" them and able to use the structure and language of boxing to speak about their world with confidence. As she listens in, Maggie sees Pete as a "man of the [End Page 239] world" who "had certainly seen everything." Pete arrives at the Johnsons' tenement and proceeds to tell Jimmie a series of stories about fights he had had with an array of other men, while Maggie listens:

"Well, deh blokie he says: 'T'hell wid it! I ain' lookin' for no scrap,' he says (See?) 'but' he says, 'I'm spectable cit'zen an' I wanna drink an' purtydamnsoon, too,' See? 'Deh hell,' I says. Like dat. 'Don' make no trouble,' I says. Like dat. 'Don' make no trouble.' See? Den deh mug he squared off an' said he was fine as silk wid his dukes (See?) an' he waned a drink damnquick. Dat's what he said. See?"


When Pete tells us that the other man "squared off" and that this other man claimed to be "fine as silk wid his dukes," we see Pete articulating a more organized and structural attitude toward violence.28 Following this story, Pete and Jimmie continue with a further "technical discussion" (18). This isn't simply a chaotic brawl between a bartender and an inebriated patron, but is instead reframed by Pete into a spontaneous boxing match.

Maggie also finds use in the theoretical outlook provided by boxing. Her admiration for Pete is tied directly to his ability to aggrandize himself as a fighter. While he and Jimmie have their "technical discussion," Maggie sees in Pete an "aristocratic person." When Pete turns to Maggie and notices her noticing him, "he grew still more eloquent in his descriptions of various happenings in his career. It appeared that he was invincible in fights." The implication is that all of those "various happenings in his career" are fights of various kinds, each of which comes with some sort of vaguely expert judgment like one man who "scrapped like a damn dago" (19). Maggie sees Pete through his "technical discussion" of his many fights and as a consequence sees him as "a formidable man who disdained the strength of the world full of fists. Here was one who had contempt for brass-clothed power; one whose knuckles could defiantly ring against the granite of law" (20). Boxing allows Maggie to understand Pete's violent outbursts and run-ins as a kind of aristocratic superiority to the others of the tenements. From this perspective, he is not simply a good fighter, but rather he is a kind of enlightened revolutionary. That the reality of the situation proves Pete to be otherwise than he seems matters little in this reading. Maggie is offering a reading not of Pete himself, but of the violence that structures his stories. Jimmie similarly frames his social position in agonistic terms:

to him the police were always actuated by malignant impulses and the rest of the world was composed, for the most part, of despicable creatures who were all trying to take advantage of him and with whom, in defense, he was obliged to quarrel on all possible occasions. He himself occupied a down-trodden position that had a private but distinct element of grandeur in its isolation.

(15) [End Page 240]

According to this worldview, the ordinary world of absolutes and of rational thinking gives way to a world of metaphor and role-play. The police are not people but material manifestations of "malignant impulses." In this same cosmology, his violent response to the world is an "obligation" because he has chosen to occupy "a down-trodden position." Jimmie's world is abstracted into a world of social roles and embodied hierarchies. He experiences a kind of ecstatic pleasure in this perspective and feels that "[o]n the corners he was in life and of life. The world was going on and he was there to perceive it" (14). As his epiphanic experience progresses, he falls "into a sort of a trance of observation" and discovers that "he believed in nothing" except that he and his fellows "had no rights" (14–15). He goes so far as to imagine himself as Apollo's opponent and that

Providence had caused it clearly to be written, that he and his team had the unalienable right to stand in the proper path of the sun chariot, and if they so minded, obstruct its mission or take a wheel off.

    And, perhaps, if the god-driver had an ungovernable desire to step down, put up his flame colored fists and manfully dispute the right of way, he would have probably been immediately opposed by a scowling mortal with two sets of very hard knuckles.


That Jimmie's fantasy culminates in a standoff with Apollo (a not uncommon allusion in boxing culture) seems only natural at this point. Just as Maggie imagines Pete standing against the whole world with his fists, Jimmie imagines himself standing toe to toe with the sun god. After receiving the details of Jimmie's fantasy, we learn that Jimmie "had a fair record" with the police because "he developed too great a tendency to climb down from his truck and fight with other drivers" (16). The double meaning behind "fair record"—both a boxing record and a criminal record—highlights the ways in which the characters in Maggie perpetually reframe their lived experience and its messy violence. Jimmie overlays his world with a ghostly world of abstract concepts and mythical figures that the structure of boxing locks into place.

Boxing emerges in other key moments in the novel. A chaotic "battle" between the two Johnson parents sends Jimmie out into the street to wait it out. While he waits, a crowd gathers around their tenement. Once the noises die down, he returns to find his parents asleep, frozen in the midst of an ongoing fight. "In the middle of the floor lay his mother asleep. In one corner of the room his father's limp body hung across the seat of a chair" (12). The space and positioning of the two combatants nearly resembles a boxing match, one "fighter" down in the middle of the small tenement and another sitting at his chair in the corner. As Jimmie reenters the tenement [End Page 241] and approaches his parents, he notes the ways in which they are still stuck in their fighting mode:

The urchin stole forward. He began to shiver in dread of awakening his parents. His mother's great chest was heaving painfully. Jimmie paused and looked down at her. Her face was inflamed and swollen from drinking. Her yellow brows shaded eye-lids that had grown blue. Her tangled hair tossed in waves over her forehead. Her mouth was set in the same lines of vindictive hatred that it had, perhaps, borne during the fight. Her bare, red arms were thrown out above her head in positions of exhaustion, something, mayhap, like those of a sated villain.


She is beaten, bruised, sweaty, and swollen. As Jimmie moves closer to her, "the woman floundered for a moment, tossed her arms about her head as if in combat, and again began to snore" (12). The fight is presented as a sort of animatronic diorama or tableau vivant that performs some inner—and interior—reality of tenement life that is both like and significantly unlike a structured prizefight.

A subsequent fight between Jimmie and his mother similarly approaches asymptotically the regimentation of a boxing match. The whole tenement house watches as Jimmie and Mary duke it out in a narrow hallway. "She raised her arm and whirled her great fist at her son's face. Jimmie dodged his head and the blow struck him in the back of the neck. 'Damn yeh,' gritted he again. He threw out his hand and writhed his fingers about her middle arm. The mother and the son began to sway and struggle like gladiators." The spectators even begin to make wagers, but Maggie appears and interrupts the fight, and "the Rum Alley tenement swore disappointedly and retired" (20).

The fights in Maggie take place in narrow hallways, tenement rooms, small vacant lots, and tenement bars. These crowded spaces of the urban tenement district give birth to a violence that the characters seem always to want to frame in terms of boxing, but at the same time, the conditions that seem endlessly to stamp violence with the imprint of boxing also seem intrinsically to prevent it from looking anything like actual boxing. As I suggest above, organized boxing is the expression of an emergent class consciousness through the structuring of violence, but it is a consciousness that lies perpetually just out of reach. In Maggie, the tenements produce that consciousness, but it is also the material structure of the tenements that interrupts it. The tenement produces a "compartmentalized" consciousness, a vision of an urban social totality presented in the material structure of metonymy. The tenement and the boxing ring become representative, and simultaneously concrete, units for the city as a whole. Or more precisely, [End Page 242] these spaces reveal that what looks like a metonymic relationship—the single tenement for all of urban working-class life, or the boxing ring for all of urban ethnic conflict—is in fact an emerging and partial understanding of the spatial logic of urban industrial labor.

Conclusion: The Squared Square

London's boxing novel, The Game, begins neither with a fight nor with a lecture on fighting. It begins instead with interior decorating. A boxer and his fiancée are shopping for carpets, studying the various patterns laid out in front of them by a salesman.29 As they consider the many ways in which they might decorate their rented home after their marriage, they begin to argue over the dangers of prizefighting. Like many conflicts in the working-class milieus of the American naturalists, this one also shows that boxing lies just beneath the surface. As they look at the carpets and argue about boxing, the boxer, Joe, begins "to see, though vaguely, the sharp conflict between woman and career, between a man's work in the world and woman's need of the man" (13). The abstract patterns in the carpets and the argument over boxing intermingle in Joe's mind, blending into a "vaguely" seen, "sharp conflict" between men and women—even though, as the narrator reminds us, "he was not capable of generalization." Much like the characters in Yekl and Maggie, Joe sees in boxing the vague outlines of some larger, more abstract and generalized social conflict, but it is an abstraction that lies just beyond his mental grasp. Joe sees instead "only the antagonism between the concrete, flesh-and-blood Genevieve and the great, abstract, living Game." He is incapable of reconciling "abstract" to "concrete" experience. Like many of the characters in naturalist fiction, Joe believes that if a conflict cannot be expressed through the abstract hermeneutic of boxing (the "Game"), then it cannot be expressed at all.

The patterned carpets, however, seem to absorb Joe's inability to generalize, to capture and reflect an abstraction of social experience that cannot be thought or put into words. It is pure pattern. Just as the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" sees patterns on the wall that begin to express what she herself cannot from her own socio-spatial captivity (within a room that seems at one point to have been an athletic gymnasium because of the "rings and things" that the narrator sees "in the walls"), Joe senses in the patterns of the carpets a sublime expression of the conflict he cannot himself articulate even through boxing.30 There is in this moment a recognition of a totalizing view beyond boxing, an abstract patterning that might more fully and completely represent the violence and [End Page 243] heterogeneity of urban working-class life that can get around the spatial and epistemological boundaries Joe can neither see nor sense.

In this scene, we can see how boxing serves as the gateway to the kinds of "pure" aesthetic abstractions that will come to primacy in early-twentieth-century American art. The material-metonymic structure of boxing provides a scaffolding upon which social and aesthetic experience, as isolable qualities in and of themselves, might be felt, articulated, expressed, written, painted, and so on. Simultaneously, this peculiar and strategic deployment of the sport in fiction has a distinct socio-political origin in turn-of-the-century U.S. fiction and urban reform texts. The interrelated racial, ethnic, and class history of boxing gives shape to abstraction as an aesthetic and epistemological spatial practice whose goal is social administration. The abstraction of urban space—a direct consequence of the exigencies of industrial capital and the need for increased efficiencies in labor markets and spaces—comes into greater focus if we overlap the evolution of the tenement with the development of the modern boxing ring. Further, we see the ways in which fiction imagines and is crucially involved in that process. By way of characters like Jake in Yekl, Jimmie in Maggie, and Joe in The Game, boxing comes to stand in for large-scale transformations that seem to originate from within the urban working class itself. Boxing tells a story that does not just make violent racial and ethnic conflict seem tangible and real among the tenements, but it also makes violent conflict between spaces and people seem like the most real thing.

Jesús Costantino
—University of New Mexico


1. Cahan, Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of Yiddish New York (New York: Dover, 1970), p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 2.

3. Carlo Rotella makes much of the connection between skilled manual labor and boxing culture in both Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004) and Cut Time: An Education at the Fights (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005). Loïc Wacquant makes a similar connection in his Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), but gives it a specifically geographic slant by pointing out that boxing gyms are frequently located on socio-economic borders within cities.

4. Susan Buck-Morss, "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Work of Art Essay Reconsidered," October, 62 (Autumn 1992), 35.

5. Ibid., p. 5.

6. Cahan, p. 1.

7. Elliott J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 136, 146.

8. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), p. 9. [End Page 244]

9. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 282.

10. Ibid., p. 282.

11. Ibid., p. 264.

12. Lawrence Veiller, "Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1834–1900," in The Tenement House Problem, ed. Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller (New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 112.

13. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890; rpt. New York: St. Martin's, 2011), p. 59.

14. David Ward, Poverty, Ethnicity, and the American City, 1840–1925 (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 200–12.

15. Ibid., pp. 46–47.

16. In addition to Ward's history, other studies that draw strong connections between tenement reform and the development of American social science include Jared Day's Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890–1943 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999); Russel Lopez's Building American Public Health: Urban Planning, Architecture, and the Quest for Better Health in the United States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Roy Lubove's The Progressive and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York, 1890–1917 (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1962); and Thomas Lee Philpott's The Slum and the Ghetto: Immigrants, Blacks, and Reformers in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1991).

17. Riis, pp. 69, 75, 76.

18. Ibid., pp. 75, 76, 69.

19. Ibid., pp. 202–03.

20. For the concept of "deep play," see Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 1973), pp. 412–53.

21. Gorn, pp. 202–06. Along with the advent of the Queensberry Rules, the frequent appearance of high-profile bouts at Madison Square Garden signaled a sea-change for the sport, giving the sport and its practitioners a prominent stage in an affluent part of the city. See Steven A. Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 203–28.

22. John Boyle O'Reilly, Athletics and Manly Sport (Boston: Pilot, 1890), p. 138.

23. More recently, mixed martial arts and the UFC have come to occupy a similar place in the cultural imaginary. Kerry Howley's recent non-fiction book Thrown (Louisville: Sarabande, 2014) draws on the same ontological fantasy as that derived from boxing culture. For example, Howley describes witnessing her first match as "a cloudiness momentarily departing" and "as if someone had oil-slicked [her] synapses" (5). The ring, for her, is "the true center of ecstatic activity" (17).

24. Oates, On Boxing (Garden City: Doubleday, 1987), p. 4.

25. "Johnson-Jeffries Fight," in Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings, ed. King Hendricks and Irving Shepard (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970), p. 265.

26. Cahan, pp. 82, 83, 84, 86, 87.

27. Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Other Short Fiction (1896; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1986), p. 3. Subsequent citations indicated parenthetically.

28. Kasia Boddy, in her thorough study of the sport, Boxing: A Cultural History (London: Reaktion, 2009), points to the deep significance of boxing slang ("flash") to the sport's fans and practitioners. "Flash" permeates boxing culture prior to the twentieth century and blends technical jargon, urban slang, and working-class dialects. As much as Pete's account is made to look like boxing, it also is made to sound like boxing.

29. London, The Game (1905; rpt. Lincoln: Univ. of nebraska Press, 2001), p. 5.

30. Gilman, The Yellow Wall-Paper, ed. Shawn St. Jean (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2006),p. 5. [End Page 245]

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