Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Culture of Bruising collects essays in which noted cultural critic Gerald Early engages a diversity of topics, ranging from boxing, baseball, and jazz to magic, race, and life with daughters. Most of the essays were previously published in journals as various as The Hungry Mind Review, The Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, and Harper’s Magazine. As the book’s subtitle announces, the themes that Early examines involve prizefighting, literature, and American culture, but the fourteen essays that compose the volume lack a unifying thesis and exist as separate essays on distinct and sometimes unrelated topics. The book is divided into three sections, each with its own focus, though the essays themselves can easily be read alone without any attempt to understand the relationship among them.

In his introduction, Early observes that this collection grew out of the final essay in his previous essay collection, Tuxedo Junction (1989), an essay by James Baldwin on the first fight between Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Early goes to great lengths to convince readers that his essays should not be read simply as explorations of boxing. Rather, they should be read as the work of a literary critic who is interested in examining a set of propositions about a range of subjects with which he is deeply engaged.

The book’s first section, “Prizefighting and the Modern World,” contains four essays that deal specifically with boxing. The first and longest essay, “The Black Intellectual and the Sport of Prizefighting,” discusses the lack of black writing on the subject. Early observes that—apart from a few key texts including the opening scene of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) and Jeffrey Sammons’s nonfiction work Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (1988)—no black academic writer has written about the sport. Paradoxically, Early points out, black boxers dominate the sport, and the great fights between white fighters and African American fighters—for example, Jerry Cooney versus Michael Spinks or Jerry Quarry versus Muhammad Ali—were elevated to mythic battles in which the boxing ring itself became the place where ideas of order were contested.

In Early’s view, black intellectuals examine boxing only when an African American fighter becomes a hero for the African American masses and fights a white fighter. As Early points out toward the end of his essay, the situation becomes more challenging when two African American fighters square off in the ring, as did Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. What happens when two such radically different black men confront each other in the ring? Who becomes the model for the preservation of black dignity? Early points out that Patterson had become so trapped in patterns of life created for him by...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Barthes, Roland. “The World of Wrestling.” In Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. A seminal piece of cultural criticism on sports, reading the significance of wrestling to modern society.

Crouch, Stanley. “An Introduction to Gerald Early.” In The All-American Skin Game: Or, The Decoy of Race. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995. Positive evaluation of Early’s work by another controversial African American essayist.

Journal of Sport and Social Issues. Review of The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, by Gerald Early. 18, no. 3 (August, 1994): 293-294. Offers a brief but useful overview of Early’s essay collection.

Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Another important consideration of boxing and culture by an African American scholar; one of the few precursors to Early’s collection.