Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 176: Irvin S. Cobb, Cobb Fights It Over Again (#57)

Irvin S. Cobb, "Cobb Fights It Over Again" (1921) from At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing:

In my post-academic life, I still find myself referring to and thinking about a half-dozen essays or chapters, like Jane Tompkins's intro to Sensational Designs; the whole book is a great attempt to reconsider our aesthetic common-places and re-examine the 19th century from a 19th-century POV. Her introduction takes a close look at Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is today part of the high school canon for his ambiguities and historical view, but who was loved in his time for his sentimental sketches.

I was reminded of that essay while reading Irvin S. Cobb's account of this big boxing match between Dempsey and Carpentier: while Cobb was the highest paid journalist at the time, he's largely forgotten now--and today's piece may give some evidence as to why both of those are true. Cobb writes in a semi-clear style that occasionally goes for an oratorical effect by switching the order of words or by inserting some clause. The whole first paragraphs read, to me, like they would sound great coming over the radio. On paper, it's hard to recapture the rhythm of his speech, which was probably one reason why he was so read then.

Although he was sent to cover this fight--the first with a million-dollar-plus gate receipt--Cobb starts his report with an analogy to the Burr-Hamilton duel and a scene-setting that makes sure to get in some comments about all the people who were there: movie stars and politicians and business tycoons and, above all, the lovers of vicarious violence, who might be all of the people. (Also: bootleggers.) Cobb is a little bit of the cynical observer, though his gentle pokes never rise to the level of outright anger that marks Twain's best satires. (So it's understandable both why contemporaries considered him Twain's heir; and why we see that he's not.)

And when he gets to the fight, Cobb writes clearly and excitingly and openly about the mystery of it all. What was Dempsey thinking when the French Carpentier got more applause? What did he think when he waited for the count to be called? Why did Carpentier decide to go toe-to-toe with the heavier Dempsey? None of these questions can be answered and Cobb doesn't pretend to know. Contemporaries may have loved his analysis and commentary, but its his journalistic chops that might be remembered today.

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