Of Jimmy Cannon and Boxing’s Canon
There’s a strange and inexplicable aberration in the Library of America’s new anthology At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, and to point it out isn’t mere geekery or nitpicking. The aberration comes with their selection from Jimmy Cannon, maybe the single greatest columnist to ever write daily on sports. Only Charlie Pierce and the book’s co-editor, John Schulian, came close to Cannon’s consistent greatness–and Schulian, moreover and naturally, is an ardent disciple of Cannon’s.
Which only makes the already baffling use of an inferior version of Cannon’s valedictory piece on Archie Moore from the 1950s more baffling. There would be a rationale for using an inferior version, of course, if the reason were to cite a superior source–to cite the newspaper for which Cannon originally wrote it. There are many advocates for the authenticity, in general, of an original deadline-driven piece over a later draft re-crafted in repose. But not only did Schulian and his co-editor, George Kimball, use an inferior version and cite an inferior source; they also mis-cited their source, as being Cannon’s 1978 posthumous collection Nobody Asked Me, But…–which is like copping to a crime you didn’t commit, and without anyone even having interrogated you.
The difference between the two pieces is not subtle. I don’t mind admitting, at this late date, that when I was a junior in high school, the book version of Cannon’s piece became only the second piece of writing I had ever bothered to memorize. (The first, incidentally, was by Pierce.) I was writing sports stories for my local newspaper in southern New Hampshire at the time (the same newspaper, as it happens, that Mike Lupica, another Cannon disciple, had much earlier worked for at the same age, which, now that I mention it, doesn’t sound at all incestuous), and my adolescent attempts at trying to write like Cannon are one of the reasons I was soon fired from that paper. When you witness the way this piece suggests a means for slipping into the demotic-evocative mood and mode, it’s easy to understand how one could have been seduced by its music.
Music, appropriately enough, is the piece’s presiding leitmotif. The masterful first paragraph of the book’s version reads:
Someone should tell Archie Moore what he is in his kind of music. Most of that music is laid away with the ragtime professors in the slums of old graveyards where the weeds grow tall as rich people’s stones. The music just faded away, time-taken and echoless in the storm of rock ‘n’ roll, faint as the butt-strangled voices that spoke the hustlers’ stories in the sneak-joints in the bad parts of wide-open towns. The piano players were scufflers themselves and a lot had jail time behind them for weak men’s crimes.
This, meanwhile, is the first paragraph that appears in the new collection:
Someone should write a song about Archie Moore who in the Polo Grounds knocked out Bobo Olson in three rounds. I don’t mean big composers such as Harold Arlen or Duke Ellington. It should be a song that comes out of the backrooms of sloughed saloons on night-drowned streets in the morning-worried parts of bad towns.
You don’t need to be William Empson to see the superiority of the first version over the second. In the Cannon book, details of the fight against Olson that occasioned the column are briefly dropped in at the end, while, in At the Fights, details of the fight run on like pure reportage, albeit reportage by Jimmy Cannon. (The editors say the piece was written in 1955, while the editors of the Cannon collection, his brothers Jack and Tom, identify the piece as coming from 1959. It was likely re-written–with a slightly different title–not for the book but for another newspaper column, after a fight with Yvon Durelle, as we’ll later see.)
I could run the comparison down, paragraph by paragraph, but that would be both tedious (or half-tedious) and violative of copyright law. Suffice to say, the following paragraph, from the piece’s middle, does not appear in At the Fights:
I’m not the guy to tell it because this shouldn’t be played on a typewriter. The violins shouldn’t be in on it and it doesn’t need horns or a muggled-up drummer busting out with a solo until his sticks bust. It’s not a dance hall ballad either or one out of the pits of theaters and television would spoil it with tux-wearing sidemen cutting out for the suburbs in station wagons when the program’s over. The beat generation, let them get lost forever. They celebrate all the aimless roads men take and Archie followed the hard way to Montreal, through all the tough towns. It has to be an old professor, pawn-wise, or it will be no one at all.
Okay, one more graf, the one immediately following:
They’d get it in, all right, the whole package of it, all the misery, all the sickness of despair, all the short-money pain, all the dirty deuces in all the bottom-dealt decks. They didn’t fade anyone with epics about statesmen or world-bossers, or those Broadway jingles about tea for two and that rainbow that comes after every shower. They sang the blues as men alone knew them and how luck maimed them or the law tripped them or how they were hooked on junk or horses or dropped a duke to rum. They would get in Tasmania, too. They wouldn’t neglect Tasmania because odd names appealed to the historians of city nights who sang their concerts to guys who could understand the songs.
That one’s not in the new book either.
Cannon didn’t write like this every day. Nobody does. But to know how to do it on your best days requires a temperament and a training most people want nothing to do with. That I’ve found a way to breathe a similar atmosphere on some of my best days is the great satisfaction of my life so far, which is another way of saying that I owe my life, or a big part of it, to Cannon and this piece.
The intensity sampled above is the intensity maintained throughout, and then Cannon is able to finish by bringing the piece back home to the actual fight that occasioned it, without losing any of his intensity:
They’d sing the late-coming happiness in there, too, beating Joey Maxim and Bobo Olson, getting the shots in the senility of his athletic career. They wouldn’t miss the laughs then and the pictures in the newspapers and being represented by a lawyer who became the governor of Ohio. They would really dig in on that cold night’s work in Montreal a couple of weeks ago when he was down three times in the first round, again in the fifth and got up to knock out Yvon Durelle.
Does it matter, what the editors have done here? Well, yeah, it does matter, because the publisher has charged $35 for a book carelessly featuring a column by an American master who wrote a superior version of the very same piece. If they had cited the newspaper instead of the book, you could say they prefered the piece written in the immediacy of the fight’s aftermath. But instead they’ve cited the book they didn’t even pull from. That book, by the way, has been criminally out of print for many years, and this new boxing anthology would have been an opportunity to bring Cannon’s best writing back into circulation. Let’s hope that, in future editions, the publishers do not just the correct thing, but the right thing, too.
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