Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kasia Boddy's "Boxing: A Cultural History"

Kasia Boddy teaches in the English Department at University College London and has published widely on British and American literature and film.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Boxing: A Cultural History, and reported the following:
As its title suggests, Boxing: A Cultural History explores the interface between boxing and culture in a broad sense, from classical Greece to present-day America.

Boxing, it seems, has been around forever. The first evidence of the sport can be found in Mesopotamian stone reliefs from the end of the 4th millennium. Since then there has hardly been a time in which young men, and sometimes women, did not raise their gloved or ungloved fists to one other. Throughout this history, potters, painters, poets, novelists, cartoonists, song-writers, photographers and film-makers have been there to make sense of the bruising, bloody confrontation and to create complex icons. From Daniel Mendoza to Jack Dempsey to Mike Tyson, boxers have embodied and enacted our anxieties about race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

This is not just a study of the usual suspects (Hemingway, Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates); Boxing ranges from neo-classical poetry to hip-hop, exploring the history of mass media (from cinema to radio to pay-per-view), and offers new interpretations of figures such as James Joyce and Philip Roth who are not usually associated with sport.

Page 99 comes from the chapter on boxing in Victorian culture. Although the golden age of English boxing was over by 1830, the sport continued to hold sway over the popular imagination throughout the nineteenth century. The chapter considers the divide between (dangerous, illegal) prize fighting and (honourable, Muscular Christian) sparring in the Victorian era. The shift in the cultural meanings of boxing during this time is nowhere better reflected than in a body of work which began in the 1830s and ended in the 1870s - the novels of Charles Dickens. What Dickens terms ‘fistic phraseology’ proves remarkably versatile, and his relish in its use is palpable.

Page 99:

Dickens enjoyed the language of boxing as much as he did boxers, and nowhere more than in Dombey and Son (1846-8); indeed he stole the name (but little else) of a real prize-fighter, ‘The Game Chicken’ (Henry - ‘Hen’ - Pearce) for one of its characters. After coming into his inheritance, Mr Toots, a Corinathian past his sell-by-date, devotes himself to learning ‘those gentle arts which refine and humanise existence, his chief instructor in which was an interesting character called the Game Chicken, who was always heard of at the bar of the Black Badger, wore a shaggy great-coat in the warmest weather, and knocked Mr. Toots about the head three times a week, for the small consideration of ten and six per visit.’ We learn about the Game Chickens’s past exploits, his glory against the Nobby Shropshire One, and his defeat (‘he was severely fibbed . . . heavily grassed’) by the Larkey Boy. When Mr Toots despairs of winning the love of Florence Dombey against the wishes of her father, the Chicken reassures him that ‘it is within the resources of Science to double him up, with one blow in the waistcoat.’

When, in Bleak House (1852-3), Mr Snagsby comments that ‘when a time is named for tea, it’s better to come up to it’, his wife is appalled.

‘To come up to it!’ Mrs Snasgby repeats with severity. ‘Up to it! As if Mr Snagsby was a fighter!’

‘Not at all, my dear,’ says Mr. Snagsby.

Mrs Snagsby views the use of boxing jargon as a sign of vulgarity, which must be avoided at all costs. Dickens, though, had no such qualms. A boxing pun may even be intended in the title of the opening chapter of Bleak House, ‘In Chancery’. The O.E.D. gives as the slang meaning of the term, ‘the position of the head when held under the opponent’s left arm to be pommelled severely, the victim meanwhile being unable to retaliate effectively.’ The meaning derives, the Dictionary adds, ‘from the tenacity and absolute control with which the Court of Chancery holds anything.’ This legal metaphor was frequently used in boxing slang, and, with the new meaning attached, occasionally reapplied to law. In August 1841, Punch enjoyed a typical joke on ‘legal pugilism’:

The Chancery bar has been lately occupied with a question relating to a patent for pins’ heads. . . The lawyers are the best boxers, after all. Only let them get a head in chancery, even a pin’s, and see how they make the proprietor bleed.

Dickens used the phrase himself in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) when the Reverend Crisparkle affectionately takes on his mother and ‘wound up by getting the old lady’s head into Chancery, a technical term used in scientific circles, with a lightness of touch that hardly stirred the lightest lavender or cherry riband in it’. In Bleak House, he may have wanted the phrase’s additional meaning to reinforce the novel’s emphasis on deadlock of various kinds.
Learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website and Kasia Boddy's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue