Rivers Uncovers Jack Johnson Memoir

Posted: October 12, 2007

Boxing enthusiasts and devotees of cultural studies rarely get into the ring together, but professor of French Chris Rivers's interest in boxing has led him to a discovery that should rock both the boxing and cultural studies worlds like a flurry of upper cuts.

Rivers has translated and published a virtually unknown French-language memoir of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world and an iconic figure in the bloody arenas of boxing and the history of race in America.

Johnson's My Life and Battleswas originally published in France as a series of articles in 1911 and then in revised form as a book in 1914; it covers Johnson's life and fights, both inside and outside the ring, up until and including his famous defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, on July 4, 1910, in one of the most significant ring battles of the early twentieth century.

Deemed "the first African American pop culture icon" by historian Gerald Early, Johnson (1878-1946) was one of this nation's most important sports and cultural figures. His larger-than-life demeanor redefined race relations in the United States, while his numerous victories over white opponents overturned the calculus by which white America deemed itself superior to black America in all aspects.

Johnson's 1910 victory over white champion Jefferies in the "Fight of the Century" spawned race riots across the United States. It was an event which, according to Arthur Ashe, "had an emotional immediacy that went beyond what Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis, or Jackie Robinson did, because it was the first time that something like that had ever happened." Notably, Johnson recounts much about this fight, and his training for it, in the newly uncovered memoir.

Rivers was tipped off to the existence of the French memoir by Geoffrey Ward's 2004 biography of the fighter, Unforgivable Blackness, which served as the basis for Ken Burns's 2005 PBS documentary. Interestingly, there is only one complete library copy of the book in the world, at Harvard University's Widener Library. Rivers photographed each page of the book, then worked from the photographed pages.

Joyce Carol Oates, whose book On Boxing(1987) is a much-admired and often-cited reference on the sport, hails Rivers's translation: "Of all American boxers, there has been no one like Jack Johnson. Surely this extraordinary man is the most eloquent of all, and, with Archie Moore, the most intelligent. Chris Rivers is to be commended for so capably translating this remarkable document."

According to the publisher's description, "In addition to the fights themselves, the memoir recounts, among many other things, Johnson's brief and amusing career as a local politician in Galveston, Texas; his experience hunting kangaroos in Australia; and his epic bouts of seasickness. It includes portraits of some of the most famous boxers of the 1900-1915 era--such truly legendary figures as Joe Choynski, Jim Jeffries, Sam McVey, Bob Fitzsimons, Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, and Stanley Ketchel. Johnson comments explicitly on race and 'the color line' in boxing and in American society at large in ways that he probably would not have in a publication destined for an American reading public. The text constitutes genuinely new, previously unavailable material and will be of great interest for the many readers intrigued by Jack Johnson. In addition to providing information about Johnson's life, it is a fascinating exercise in self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others. Johnson's personal voice comes through clearly--brash, clever, theatrical, and invariably charming. The memoir makes it easy to see how and why Johnson served as an important role model for Muhammad Ali and why so many have compared the two."

Rivers's academic work covers a wide range of subjects including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French novels and culture, as well as translation. Rivers has spent the past couple of years researching Georges Carpentier, the celebrated French boxer of the pre- and post-World War I era and light heavyweight champion of the world from 1920 to 1922. Rivers is writing a book on Carpentier, using the story of the 1921 bout in which Carpentier challenged Jack Dempsey for his world heavyweight championship as the book's centerpiece. In fact, Rivers's interest is more than scholarly. His work on boxing has led him to train regularly in the ring himself.

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