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Carpentier Autobiographies: An Overview

In the first half of the twentieth century, it was fairly standard procedure, almost de rigueur, for a popular boxing champion to publish, eventually, at least one ghostwritten memoir and/or how-to book (often a single volume served both purposes).  The number and chronology of Carpentier’s autobiographical works set him apart from the norm, however.  Dempsey, for example, produced three autobiographies, the first of which did not appear until some twelve years after he retired from the ring; Tunney produced two autobiographies, the first of which did not appear until four years after his last professional fight.  In contrast, Carpentier produced no fewer than four autobiographies, three of which were translated into English (in one instance, the differences between the English and French versions are substantial enough that one might speak of four-and-a-half Carpentier autobiographies).  The first was published just after he had won his first European title at the ripe old age of 17; the second was published at the height of his career, just before the Dempsey fight; the third appeared in mid-life, well into retirement; and the fourth was written just before his death and published soon after.  He also published at least two how-to books on boxing.

The Carpentier autobiographies, like all celebrity autobiographies, were above all a commercial venture, a logical means of transforming fame into revenue.  In each case, the timing was indeed commercially savvy: in late 1911, just after he had become truly famous for the first time; in 1920/1921, just before the Dempsey fight, when he was at the pinnacle of his fame; in 1954, when just enough time had passed for people to have become nostalgic and begun asking “Whatever happened to…?”; and in 1975, when Carpentier was old enough for people to realize that the book represented the last chance to hear his version of events.  Each of the autobiographies serves to re-introduce Carpentier to old fans and to introduce him to new admirers. Each continues to be of genuine interest to historians of boxing.

1 The literary quality of Carpentier’s autobiographical writings is of course a subjective matter. While the earlier tomes, largely commercial endeavors, are fairly formulaic (if amusing) hero-tales, I would argue that the last two, Mon Match avec la vie (1954) and Mes 80 Rounds (1976) are intelligent, well written and genuinely interesting.
An interesting debate about the literary quality of Ma Vie de boxeur (1920) was played out in the pages of L’Echo des sports (9 June 1921).  It seems a newspaper in Dinan (France) had published “an amusing diatribe” by Robert de Voisinage, in which he opined that the French, “the people considered to be the most intelligent and refined in the world,” were in the process of “making themselves stupid by granting to physical culture a degree of importance it does not deserve.” The devolution, according to Voisinage, can be seen in the fact that young people “devour Carpentier’s memoirs but have never even leafed though the works of Rostand or Verlaine.”  If things continue like this, he warns, French society will be composed of “dull brutes” with the bodies of athletes but “atrophied brains, if indeed they have brains at all.”  A response in L’Echo begs to differ: Carpentier’s memoirs that are a thorn in the side of the intellectuals because they are threatened by the notion that a brainless athlete, whom they had assumed to be “incapable of putting together a six-word sentence” is giving real men-of-letters a run for their money. If, the anonymous author of the rebuttal suggests, Carpentier and his ilk are incapable of “wielding a pen,” why should the intellectuals be so concerned about their supposedly feeble attempts to do so?