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Sport for Art’s Sake

In considering the aftermath and influence of Carpentier-Dempsey, it is worth examining in detail a famous piece of after-the-fact American Carpentier-worship, one that epitomizes not only that cult but the extent to which it was capable of inspiring, alongside the silliness, some truly thoughtful, beautifully crafted pieces of writing.  “Sport for Art’s Sake,” an essay by Heywood Broun, first appeared in the New York World in the days following the fight; widely anthologized even today, it may well be considered one of the lasting contributions of the Carpentier-Dempsey fight.[1] 

Broun’s pro-Carpentier prejudice is established from the very first sentence, as are the high-minded content and simple, elegant style of the piece: “For years we had been hearing about moral victories and at last we saw one.” He is careful to point out that this interpretation is not merely a defense of his glaringly inaccurate prediction of a Carpentier victory (an error committed, of course, in the best of literary company: “We erred with Bernard Shaw.”).  His point, he tells us, is that even in an athletic contest, the athletic facts themselves, winning and losing, can be eclipsed by more profound, more enduring concerns: “The surprising revelation which came to us on this July afternoon was that a thing may be done well enough to make victory entirely secondary.”  This sentence clearly raises questions: in sports, doesn’t doing something “well enough” usually mean winning? What in fact can be done “well enough” in the prizefighting ring that victory itself becomes secondary? Broun gives a clear answer to these questions: art is what eclipses athletic victory; beauty and drama, enacted “well enough” supersede the mere fact of the result of a contest.  Athletic performance is, in Broun’s view, more about performance than athleticism. Carpentier is the man who taught him-- and all spectators who were sensitive to what was really unfolding on the “stage” in front of them-- that lesson:

We have all heard, of course, of sport for sport’s sake but Georges Carpentier established a still more glamorous ideal.  Sport for art’s sake was what he showed us in the big wooden saucer over on Boyle’s dirty acres. (131)

“Art” in this case specifically means theater, as Broun’s next paragraph explains.  Carpentier’s performance, while perhaps only marginally impressive in purely athletic terms, was a dramatic masterpiece:

It was the finest tragic performance in the lives of ninety thousand persons.  We hope that Professor George Pierce Baker[2] sent his class in dramatic composition.  We will be disappointed if Eugene O’Neill, the white hope of the American drama, was not there.  Here for once was a laboratory demonstration of lift.  None of the crowds in Greece who went to somewhat more beautiful stadia in search of Euripides ever saw the spirit of tragedy more truly presented.  (131)

The crowd’s response proves the efficacy of the dramatic spectacle, Broun suggests:

And we will wager that Euripides was not able to life his crowd up on its hind legs into a concerted shout of “Medea! Medea! Medea!” as Carpentier moved the fight fans over in Jersey City in the second round.  In fact it is our contention that the fight between Dempsey and Carpentier was the most inspiring spectacle which America has seen in a generation. (131)

Broun goes even farther, opining that the spectacle that took place in Jersey City on July 2 was the most inspiring in more than a generation and claiming that he would not accept a ticket to the David and Goliath battle itself as a substitute. Carpentier-Dempsey, for all its resemblance to David/Goliath, was in fact a superior spectacle: “We remember that in that instance the little man won, but it was a spectacle less fine in artistry from the fact that it was less true to life.”(131) Traditional giant-killer narratives are comforting, Broun explains, but ineffective as source of real or enduring inspiration because of their fundamental lack of verisimilitude:

The tradition that Jack goes up the beanstalk and kills his giant, and that Little Red Riding Hood has the better of the wolf, and many other stories are limited in their inspirational quality by the fact that they are not true.  They are stories that man has invented to console himself on winter’s evenings for the fact that he is small and the universe is large. (131-132)

The superiority of the spectacle provided by Carpentier—and it is important to note that Broun specifies the he is talking specifically about Carpentier’s performance—lies in the fact that it was true, that it actually happened and was witnessed. Consequently, the very specific lesson that can be learned from Carpentier is a realistic one: not that a man can defeat a towering giant or conquer Fate but that a man can give a giant a run for his money and, given sufficient courage, stand up to Fate:

Carpentier showed us something far more thrilling [than the fictional tales].  All of us who watched him know now that man cannot beat down Fate, no matter how much his will may flame, but he can rock it back on its heels when he puts all his heart and his shoulders into a blow. (132)

For Broun, not surprisingly, the moment of highest drama occurred in Round 2, when Carpentier almost put Dempsey on the canvas.  Real tragedy is not losing to a greater power but almost winning:

Fate gets us all in the clinches, but Eugene O’Neill and all our young writers of tragedy make a great mistake if they think that the poignancy of the fate of man lies in the fact that he is weak, pitiful and helpless.  The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.  Or, if you are intent on pointing out that his downfall is inevitable, that at least he completes the gesture of being on the eve of victory. (132)

Appearances to the contrary, Broun’s philosophizing about the fight does not ignore pugilistic fact and he gives an accurate account of the fateful moment in Round 2:

This is what happened in the second round.  Carpentier landed his straight right upon Dempsey’s jaw and the champion, who was edging in toward him, shot back and then swayed forward.  He was an open target.  Carpentier swung a terrific right-hand uppercut and missed.  Dempsey fell into a clinch and held on until his head cleared.  He kept close to Carpentier during the rest of the fight and wore him down with body blows during the infighting. (132)

It is nonetheless clear that Broun’s interest lies in Carpentier the tragedian rather than Carpentier the boxer:

Great circumstances produce great actors.  History is largely concerned with arranging good entrances for people; and later exits not always quite as good.  Carpentier played his part perfectly down to the last side.  People who saw him just as he came before the crowd reported that he was pitifully nervous, drawn, haggard.  It was the traditional and becoming nervousness of the actor just before a great performance.  It was gone the instant Carpentier came in sight of his ninety thousand. (132-133)

Following the age-old tradition of great thespians, Carpentier played to his crowd and they responded in kind:

His head was back and his eyes and his smile flamed as he crawled through the ropes.  And he gave some curious flick to his bathrobe as he turned to meet the applause.  Until that very moment, we had been for Dempsey, but suddenly we found ourselves up on our feet making silly noises.  We shouted, “Carpentier!  Carpentier!  Carpentier!” and forgot even to be ashamed of our pronunciation.  He held his hands up over his head and turned until the whole arena, including the five-dollar seats, had come within the scope of his smile. (133)  

Broun is clear about the fact that the love of the crowd for Carpentier, their spontaneous and genuine response to his charisma, to his stage presence, did not mean that they thought he would win.  Their affection does not blind them to the substantial difference in weight between the two men.  Indeed, it is because he is the underdog, because his loss is inevitable, that Carpentier is so appealing.[3]  Cheering for Dempsey, says Broun, would have been like “cheering for Niagara Falls at the moment someone [was] about to go over them in a barrel.” And thus Carpentier taught the crowd another lesson that day: “[…] we knew for the first time that a man may smile and smile and still be an underdog.”

The crowd cherishes its dream of his victory and resents the much less-appealing reality of his almost certain defeat:

We resented at once the law of gravity, the Malthusian theory and the fact that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points.  Everything scientific, exact and inevitable was distasteful.  We wanted the man with the curves to win. (133)

As if illustrating his earlier definition of tragedy as almost winning against fate, Broun points out that Carpentier’s famous second-round right was perfect and yet not sufficient:

[…] after a moment of fiddling about, he shot his right hand to the jaw.  Carpentier did it again, a second time, and this was the blow perfected by a lifetime of training.  The time was perfect, the aim was perfect, every ounce of strength was in it.  It was the blow which had downed Bombardier Wells, and Joe Beckett.  It rocked Dempsey to his heels, but it had broken Carpentier’s hand.  His best was not enough. (133)

All that was left was the denouement:

The challenger faded quickly in the third round, and in the fourth the end came.  We all suffered when he went down the first time, but he was up again, and the second time was much worse.  It was in this knockdown that his head sagged suddenly, after he struck the floor, and fell back upon the canvas.  He was conscious and his legs moved a little, but they would not obey him.  A gorgeous human will had been beaten down to a point where it could no longer function.

If you choose, that can stand as the last moment in a completed piece of art. […](133-134)

And so the tragedy is complete. Broun points out, however, that this “completed work of art” had a coda, a scene following the tragedy that imparted yet another lesson about the nature of the genre:

We are sentimental enough to wish to add the tag that after a few minutes Carpentier came out to the center of the ring and shook hands with Dempsey and at that moment smiled again the same smile which we had seen at the beginning of the fight when he stood with his hands above his head.  Nor is it altogether sentimental.  We feel that one of the elements of tragedy lies in the fact that Fate gets nothing but the victories and the championships.  Gesture and glamour remain with Man.  No infighting can take that away from him. (134)

By returning to the stage, and flashing the same smile as before the play, Carpentier the tragedian brings things full circle.  The public has had its catharsis and is happy to put aside the mourning of their hero in order to return to merely adoring him. Adoration of Carpentier is in fact the enduring outcome of the event, in spite of the athletic facts of the matter:

Jack Dempsey won fairly and squarely.  He is a great fighter, perhaps the most efficient the world has ever known, but everybody came away from the arena talking about Carpentier.  He wasn’t very efficient.  The experts say he fought an ill-considered fight and should not have forced it.  In using such a plan, they say, he might have lasted the whole twelve rounds.  That was not the idea.  […]

Dempsey won and Carpentier got all the glory. Perhaps we will have to enlarge our conception of tragedy, for that too is tragic.  (134)

The “idea”, then, according to Broun, is that the fight was ultimately a work of art, not an athletic contest.  It is by emphasizing the crowd’s emotional responses to Carpentier and the unfolding spectacle he provided that Broun shores up his characterization of a boxing match as a neo-classical tragedy. If the fight can be said to “mean” something, it is in its tragic dimension, in the emotional responses its protagonist evoked in the spectators. “Sport for art’s sake” has much more to tell us about art than about sport.  Like Greek tragedy, Carpentier-Dempsey provided its spectators with an opportunity for catharsis, for a therapeutic release of a wide range of emotions: admiration, tenderness, aggression, elation, sadness.

 Broun’s essay, with its perfect balance between sly, irreverent humor and genuine emotional response, represents a rare middle ground in the debate between the cynics and the romantics about the proper lens through which Carpentier-Dempsey should be viewed.  By explicitly placing it in the context of art, Broun manages to escape the pitfalls of both factions.  Unlike the cynics, he rejects the notion that the event has no meaning whatsoever other than as an elaborate and successful money-making scheme; unlike the romantics, he does not claim that it has earth-shaking philosophical implications outside the realm of art. Instead, he argues that, as art, its power lies in the emotional responses it elicits; he agrees with the cynics that such responses may be considered silly but refuses to join them in dismissing those responses.  For Broun, there is meaning in a real-life event that has allegorical implications about man’s struggle against Fate.  Observers of the fight may or may not have learned, as the sentimentalists would argue, lessons about life via the fight.  They did, however, whether they realized it or not, learned lessons about the nature of tragedy, the relation between reality and fiction and the sheer power of charisma and spectacle.

The title of Broun’s essay, “Sports for Art’s Sake,” is fittingly self-referential.  The essay argues convincingly that Carpentier’s athletic performance constitutes a work of art: in doing so in such an eloquent, lucid and poignant manner, it is itself a work of art.  No wonder that the essay has become a canonical piece of American sports writing, a true classic that is still being anthologized today.  This piece and others like it, demonstrate the extent to which sports, when they capture the imagination of the right person at the right time, can serve as springboards for art.  The ballyhoo was manufactured by a canny cabal of men out to make big money but the sentiments it engendered, of which Broun’s is the most successful expression, were nonetheless profound and sincere. While it has often been argued that the Carpentier-Dempsey fight had little real pugilistic interest, it can equally easily be argued that very few athletic contests in the history of sport can rival its power to capture, at a remarkably profound level, the minds, hearts and imaginations of truly large numbers of people, on a truly global scale.

[1] Anthologies do not provide the exact dates of its original publication.  The page numbers here are from David Halberstam, ed. The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999): 131-34.  See also, among others, Jeff Silverman, ed.  The Greatest Boxing Stories Ever Told (Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2002): 81-84. Return to text

[2] George Pierce Baker taught the first-ever playwriting workshop course at a university, from 1906-1924 at Harvard and, from 1925 on, at Yale. Return to text

[3] A diametrically opposed view was expressed by at least one writer.  An editorial in the New York Tribune on July 4 (p. 6) argues that “[t] here was nothing dramatic in the Dempsey-Carpentier fight […] because the result was inevitable when the gong clanged, and even centuries before that.” Return to text