The Library of America interviews Pete Hamill about A. J. Liebling (1904-1963):
Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings is The Library of America’s second Liebling volume. The first collected his wartime correspondence and his postwar memoir, Normandy Revisited. This new volume collects the five non-war books Liebling wrote after returning from overseas. How is his writing here different from the first volume?
In this volume we see Liebling’s writing expand with the confidence, delight, and exuberance of the years after the war. In some ways, the style is more baroque, perhaps idiosyncratic, but that was true to Liebling’s character. He was a gourmand of words, in addition to food. He could be feisty: you see that in "The Wayward Pressman" columns collected in The Press. And he retained his taste for "low" culture too: boxers and corner men, con men and cigar store owners, political hacks and hack drivers. They’re all celebrated in these pages. It was no accident that when Albert Camus came for the first time to New York in 1946, Liebling didn’t guide him through the Metropolitan Museum. He took him to Sammy’s Bowery Follies. Camus was enthralled.
In January 2003 Sports Illustrated ranked The Sweet Science as #1 of the 100 best sports books ever, hailing Liebling as "pound for pound the top boxing writer of all time.… Liebling’s writing is efficient yet stylish, acerbic yet soft and sympathetic." What makes Liebling’s writing on boxing so great?
Above all, he had sympathy for the fighters, and those rogues and craftsmen who helped shape them. As a young man, Liebling had taken his own lessons as a boxer. He learned the hard way how difficult an apprenticeship each fighter must serve, how much skill was involved, how much discipline and will. He knew that the toughest prizefighters could be the gentlest of men. He knew that the toughness they exemplified was not the same as meanness, nor still another version of the loudmouth with a pea-sized heart. The prizefighter was a living example of the stoic virtues Liebling saw growing up in New York, then during the Depression, and most of all, among those who fought World War II. He expressed that sympathy without ever lapsing into sentimentality.
The period The Sweet Science covers, from June 1951 to September 1955, seems to have been a golden age of boxing. Liebling gets to witness the twilight of Joe Louis, the rise of Rocky Marciano, the comeback of Sugar Ray Robinson, the enigma of Archie Moore, and the dramatic ups and downs of the careers of Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson. Liebling contends that television’s success in popularizing boxing also killed its local farm system. Do you agree? And is it the dramatis personae who make The Sweet Science so special?
Liebling was absolutely right about the collapse of the farm system. I was a young fight fan during that same period and saw fight cards at St. Nicholas Arena, the Eastern Parkway Arena, Sunnyside Gardens, and Fort Hamilton, in addition to the old Madison Square Garden. Within about ten years, most had vanished. Television was just one of the reasons. But also, the times had changed. The hard times of the thirties were good for boxing. The Great Depression toughened people. Fighters developed "heart," which meant learning how to absorb pain, not just inflict it. After the war everyone felt competitive and it took dozens of bouts for a fighter to get established. The great Sugar Ray Robinson had 70 fights over seven years before he got a title shot. The old pool of talent was changed too. Poor kids who might have become fighters now had other options, many of them flowing from the GI Bill. In the slums, heroin was working its evil ways.
By the 1970s, kids with 15 professional fights were fighting for championship titles and ending their careers at the age of 22. The level of skill that comes with experience inevitably began to fade. There’s no bench anymore and no way to find out who’s coming along. Almost nobody now can name the heavyweight champion of the world (there seem to be about four of them). The era of The Sweet Science was certainly a glorious and memorable time, but it wasn’t the only golden age. Unfortunately, Liebling only got to cover Ali’s early career and never witnessed the fierce tragedy of Mike Tyson.
There are so many choice pieces in this collection I have to ask whether you have any favorites?
The level of excellence is so high, I really don’t have a single favorite. Often, in need of a shot of vitamins, I take down any Liebling book, open it to a random page and start reading. Now I can do that with just this single volume or its predecessor containing his marvelous reporting on World War II. I cherish the entire Earl Long book, most of Between Meals, and the portrait of Colonel Stingo. Each boxing piece is superb, although I am always knocked over by his account of the Marciano-Moore fight ("Ahab and Nemesis") and his introduction to The Sweet Science. Even now, with newspapers vanishing everywhere, there is still much to be learned from his press pieces, not simply about the imperfect craft of writing and reporting, but about close reading. Joe Liebling died when he was 59. I wish he had lived to be 80.Read more>>>>