Jesse Owens: An American Life Critical Context - Essay

William J. Baker

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

This biography pulls together authenticated information about Owens’ entire life, revealing his achievement as more than merely an upstaging of Hitler. Thus, a multi-dimensional figure emerges out of African-American and sports history. Baker’s study is not hero worship, but respect for an individual who is sometimes neglected in favor of emphasis on the Civil Rights movement, with which Owens did not seem to identify.

The historical background within Baker’s portrait does not carry a moralizing tone or detract from the central focus. Interwoven with the main story line, this information can serve as an enjoyable history lesson for young people. Baker explains his motivation in writing the book in his prologue, where he cannot resist mentioning his own moment of gridiron glory. Perhaps instead of being inappropriate, this passage gives him credibility with young readers.

A topic of particular concern for youth is Owens’ early fathering of a child and the sexual activity of athletic celebrities. Owens’ marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon, is handled throughout the book with respect as a sincere commitment on Owens’ part. Baker treats the subject realistically and makes no claim to presenting a faultless person. He emphasizes the fact that Owens was a man of basic decency, good nature, and sincere patriotism.