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The Idol of France

According to the hype, the Carpentier-Dempsey fight was not merely a boxing match between two professional pugilists but a historic showdown between two cultures, two “races”:

For the first time in the century-old history of the ring, a French boxer is going to take on the undisputed champion of the “noble art” in a match for the world title, a title that, until just yesterday, seemed to be out of the reach of our national aspirations.

In Jersey City (United States of America), the representatives of two races, two methods, two temperaments, two nationalities, will square off. (Victor Breyer, L’Echo des sports, July 2, p. 1)

The French press was explicit, even emphatic, about the fact that Carpentier represented the entire nation:

It would be impossible to deny the fact that our country’s prestige is intimately linked to Carpentier’s destiny.  His victory would be ours and we would have to take an immense pride in it.  […] it would be neither more nor less than a second victory of the Marne—this time without Joan of Arc, without Saint Geneviève and even without Marshal Joffre, who played a role in that victory at least as important as that of the aforementioned saints. (Victor Méric, L’Humanité, July 3, 1921, p. 1)

I allow you, skeptical gentlemen, the right to make the vain gesture of shrugging your shoulders.  But I point out to you that if the glorious uncertainty of sport favors today the Champion of French Muscle, Georges Carpentier will have accomplished, for the prestige, the reputation and the good name of our country throughout the world, an act whose dazzling grandeur I defy anyone to deny! (Victor Breyer, L’Echo des sports, July 2, p. 1)

Frenchmen who expressed skepticism, about either Carpentier’s chances or the overall importance of the event, were skating on thin ice.  Cartoons from the days leading up to the fight demonstrate, albeit humorously, the quasi-obligation to consider Carpentier a national hero and to accord him proper respect, at the risk of being considered unpatriotic. On June 22, the humor publication Le Canard enchaîné ran a cartoon in which one man says to another: “What?! What?! Are you insinuating that Carpentier could get beat?  Do you want me to go get a policeman?” In the July 2 edition of the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, the official stance of which vis-à-vis the Carpentier-Dempsey affair was overtly skeptical, we see two men (probably policemen but that is not entirely clear) beating a helpless man with sticks.  One onlooker says to another: “A bad Frenchman—he expressed some doubts about Carpentier’s chances.”

In fact, Carpentier was viewed by the more extreme of his French fans as a sort of unofficial, secular saint, a deity of the quasi-religion of patriotism.  The most overtly pious outpouring, apparently offered up in completely sincere fervor, is a strange little piece of writing called “Georges’ Prayer” by the aptly named Robert Dieudonné, published on the front page of Le Figaro on July 2. Diedonné’s fictionalized Carpentier displays a Christ-like level of self-effacement: “I am only the chosen one, elected to represent our flag and I do not pray for myself, but for those who want me as their champion.”

Boxing historian Alexis Philonenko sums up the phenomenon of Carpentier-as-France nicely:

If we reread the newspapers of the period, we can see to what extent boxing could embody national values.  They never wrote about Carpentier without calling him, in every third sentence, the Frenchman.  They had no fear of appearing ridiculous in comparing his fight to the battle of the Marne, where, inferior in numbers (Georges weighed less than Dempsey, 78 kilos to 86 kilos), the French army had ultimately been able to obliterate the German offensive.  In short, for the French, Carpentier was France […] (Histoire de la boxe, 253)

It is indeed important to note, as Philonenko implies, that the insistence on Carpentier as an icon of France was not simply an example of a nation going crazy for its favorite athlete.  In the wake of the Allied victory, French identity and honor had to be protected not from the enemy but rather from the allies.  After all, despite courageous efforts and devastating losses, victory for the French was possible only after the intervention of the Americans.  The post-war battle, as is made clear in the French press in the months leading up to the bout, is indeed one of identity: the French, and their European allies, must fight for their status as warriors, as equals of the new superpower across the Atlantic, rather than merely grateful recipients of its largesse.[1]  Carpentier is the Messiah of this quest for collective identity.  A victory by him will be proof that Europeans remain the chosen people and that God is still French (or at least European).[2]

The emphasis on Carpentier as a representative of Europe, as well as of France, is a leitmotif made clear by an article entitled “Old Europe or Young America?”:

Georges Carpentier carries our hopes, and all those of Old Europe, on his shoulders.  In him, the classical soil has produced a model worthy of Phidias and Praxiteles.  

Is this beauty also strength, able to vanquish the best boxing machine constructed by the enterprising and mathematical Young Continent?

It is no longer two boxers squaring off, but two worlds being brought together […]

Compared to [Dempsey], Carpentier is white, pale and slim.  Not at all a decadent incarnation of the end of a race but, on the contrary, a specimen of a race that seems to be harkening back to its origins.

He has in him all the finesse, all the suppleness and all the skill accumulated over a period of centuries by obscure ancestors.  He is like the flower of the old European soil, and brings together in his person the ideal qualities of the pugilistic swordsman: speed, precision and elegance of technique, at the same time as effectiveness of punch.

[…]

Who will win? The tough American or the supple Frenchman?

[…]

Nothing allows for a sure answer to the question. If address, intelligence and perfect equilibrium between body and mind are superior to sheer physical vigor applied to a goal, Georges Carpentier must win.

And I think he will win. (F. Estrade, L’Echo des sports, July 2, p. 2)  

None of this was lost on Carpentier himself, of course. By his own description, he was always a French patriot and was always aware the patriotic implications of his career in the ring.  In his last autobiography, he tells his readers of his decision to have a flagpole erected at the entrance to his training camp in the years preceding World War I (Mes 80 Rounds, 71).  This allowed him, he explains, to have the French flag raised each time he or one of his camp-mates scored a win over a non-French opponent. This awareness of himself as a symbol of France reached its peak with the Dempsey fight, because of both Carpentier’s own genuine feelings of patriotic obligation and the aggressive insistence of  legions of his French (and American) fans that he play the role of icon of France.  Writing before a date had even been set for the Dempsey fight, he says:

Whenever the fight takes place, it will be a mighty one.  I look to it not as I would a personal matter.  I await it as a Frenchman who would always fight for his country.  I will fight for France, and if I go down, I will go down with my jaws set tight; with all my fighting blood boiling and surging; and in the full consciousness that I met a better man. (My Fighting Life, 253)

There were even pugilistic consequences to this awareness.  In the July 6 edition of L’Intransigeant (p. 3), Carpentier, quoted by Gaston Bénac, emphasizes that it was because had seen the French flag that he abandoned his game plan of boxing Dempsey prudently:

I had been instructed to let Dempsey tire himself out, but when I saw the French flag across the ring from me, I immediately changed my mind and made this resolution: “The Americans have been told that I am a courageous fighter.  I must fight,” I said to Descamps.  Watch me.”  So I went right at Dempsey.  I took some very hard punches; none of them hurt me.

When I came back to my corner, Descamps and Wilson said: “Stay away from him.”

“Never!” I responded. “ I will fight until my very last scrap of energy is gone.”

Whether Carpentier actually did allow himself to engage in this sort of egregiously romanticized self-mythologizing or Bénac invented it, the effect is the same: the propagation of the notion that Carpentier had been, above all else and with full self-awareness, “fighting for France.”

The notion is an enduring and integral part of the Carpentier myth.  Boxing historian Alexis Philonenko says that he once asked Carpentier, decades after the Dempsey fight, why he hadn’t thrown in the towel after the second round, when it was clear that his thumb was broken and that his chances of winning the fight with one hand were virtually non-existent:

Suddenly shy, embarrassed, Georges Carpentier told me that he would answer my question on one unambiguous condition: that I never make a big deal out of it.  I promised and in this book, in a footnote, I explain that there is something I can not say.  But on reflection, I think I must break that promise.  Georges Carpentier said to me: “I was sure that Dempsey was going to knock me out.  The thing is: A CHAMPION OF FRANCE FIGHTING FOR THE WORLD TITLE DOES NOT GIVE UP.” I think he had a hero’s modesty.  Boxing consists of punches but of lofty and noble thoughts as well.  (Histoire de la boxe, 9)

Napoleon and Joan of Arc, All Rolled Into One

American sportswriter Grantland Rice, reporting from Paris, compares French worship of Carpentier to the second coming of Napoleon:

You may have heard of idols in sports before but nothing to touch the idolatry in which one Georges Carpentier is held by his favorite nation.  He comes close to filling the gap left by the departure of another fighter known as Napoleon Bonaparte and if he whips Dempsey, he will get a status in some public places to rival any of Napoleon’s bronze remembrances… To France, Carpentier is the man of destiny. [3]

Nor was Rice the only American commentator to make the comparison:

If Georges knocks out Dempsey, he will be France’s greatest man.

The brave marshals and their stalwart poilus will be on the charts in the background.  The immortals will be such in name only.

Georges will be the only immortal for a time at least, will even displace in fame that other French fighter who died years ago—Napoleon.

The celebration if Georges wins will be Armistice Day and New Year’s Day combined.[4]

Carpentier’s glory is also likened to the second coming of Joan of Arc. According to one commentator,  like Joan, the boxer exercised the magnetic charm of the improbable warrior, eager to fight for France:

For those who were near enough to see them, the centre of attention was his eyes—gray eyes, rather eager, rather excited, in a gray face with blond hair brushed back above it; a face that had more than ever the curious girlish quality that would hardly be looked for in an aspirant to the heavyweight championship.  Eagerness and enthusiasm were there, but more than all an apparent realization of the fact that he represented France; that he represented millions of soldiers who fought in the trenches as well as inside the ropes; and that this day was the climax of his whole career.  His eager intensity, his fiery slightness, gave to some of the onlookers a curious sense of resemblance between Georges Carpentier and another French champion of old. He suggested Joan of Arc. (New York Times, July 3, p. 2)

The comparison between Carpentier and Joan of Arc is interesting, especially given the fact that Joan had been canonized just a year before the Dempsey fight (1920).  The adoration of the two idealized French warriors clearly reflects the same desire on the part of the French to underscore a romanticized nationalist narrative of valor and military glory in the wake of devastating bloodbath of the 1914-1918 war.

The Known Soldier

Describing the fight after the fact, a New York Tribune editorialist waxes eloquent over Carpentier’s “Gallic smile” and underscores Carpentier’s role as the representative of an entire people and its history:

The soul of France was in that smile.  It was the smile of Cambronne, at Waterloo, the smile of Papa Joffre at the First Battle of the Marne.  Such a smile must have illuminated the face of the unknown poilu killed at Verdun and sleeping now under the Arc de Triomphe.  […]

It baffled the primitive and simple-minded Jack Dempsey.  The scowl of the champion turned to a look of utter bewilderment as the Frenchman he had battered down stretched out his hand and looked at him with that same inscrutable smile.  Then and there Jack Dempsey felt himself in the presence of a superior being.

And Dempsey’s instincts did not deceive him.  Behind Carpentier through the mists loom the marching men of Wagram, the millions of poilus in horizon blue that imposed the first breastworks of human flesh against the rush of the Hun. Behind Dempsey, so pitifully limited as to imagination, we see only the tradition of the Queensbury Ring. (New York Tribune, July 4, p. 6)

Carpentier was thus perceived not only as the reincarnation of Napoleon, Joan of Arc and other great French historical heroes but as the representative of all the Frenchmen who had fought in World War I as well.  While the comparisons to the historical figures are generally offered with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheek, the instances of linking Carpentier to the soldiers of the war that had so recently ended, the war in which he himself had been a hero, were suggested with earnest, even reverent intention.  The symbolic figure of Carpentier served for many in fact  as a bridge, as a link between the historic military glory of France and the recent conflict, between Napoleon’s men at Wagram and the poilus at the Marne.  The sheer horror of war as it was fought in World War, horrific in ways previously unimaginable, posed a challenge to those who would seek to estheticize, romanticize, sentimentalize and aggrandize it after the fact. Focusing attention on Carpentier, so vividly romantic and esthetic a figure, made that possible.  If Carpentier was Napoleon and Joan of Arc, on the one hand, and a poilu Everyman, on the other, clearly it was possible to link World War I to earlier wars, to inscribe it into a narrative of both military glory and high ideals.

The New York Tribune editorialist cited above, who compares Carpentier’s smile in the ring to that of “the unknown poilu killed at Verdun and sleeping now at the Arc de Triomphe,” makes a particularly poignant and telling gesture.  Carpentier was indeed the opposite of the Unknown Solider: he was an extremely well-known face and name, in sharp  contrast to the facelessness and anonymity of the Unknown Solider.  France mourned the fate of its adopted unknown son, and in so doing achieved some sort of collective solace and catharsis.  The dead soldier represented so many others who had died and served as a focal point for meditation on courage and pride, to be sure, but also on tragedy, loss and grief. Georges Carpentier was also the collectively adopted son of France.  Having famously fought and survived Verdun, the very battle in which the Unknown Soldier had perished, he was not only still alive but intact, smiling, triumphant.  In direct contrast to the Unknown Solider, who represented sacrifice and loss, Carpentier served as the focal point for French feelings of hope and strength.  His shining face in every newspaper and his name on every tongue, he became the “Known Solider.” His image provided an opposite but equally therapeutic form of collective solace to his country from that provided by the Unknown Soldier.  For large numbers of Frenchmen, Carpentier-worship served, at least for few hours, days, or weeks at a time, as a surprisingly effective antidote to some of the ongoing psychic trauma created by the devastation of war.

The Frenchest Man Alive

Jean-Paul Besse likens Carpentier to such august French figures as Saint Louis and Charles de Gaulle.  He alone, along with the literal patron saint of France, Saint Louis, is a worthy French hero:

Carpentier, svelte and tough, like a Frenchman! Saint Louis and Carpentier, the only two Frenchmen who are worthy heroes! Louis XIV was too pompous, Napoleon too much of a social climber, De Gaulle too haughty, it is Carpentier we need!  With him, you get panache, style, vivacity, speed, kindness and ferocity!  With the little French boxer, his heart full of fervor and his fists bloodied, the rage to win, the sheer joy of being French! Go France, as it were![5]

Carpentier is not simply svelte and tough. His svelteness and toughness are of a particularly French type and his presence on the world stage points out those French qualities to the rest of the world.  Closer to home, he makes Frenchmen happy to be French. He is, in a word, the Frenchest Frenchman ever.

Most of the impassioned outpourings of journalists on both sides of the Atlantic in the days leading  up to the fight characterized Carpentier as the archetype of an idealized and essentialized Frenchness. [6] He is not only frequently referred to, with tongue in cheek, as “the ambassador of French muscle” but also, more earnestly, as an admirable representative of the French race.”[7]  Jean Fabry, a deputé from Paris, proposes “racial” identification as an explanation for the extraordinary interest in the fight:

[…] suppleness and vivaciousness, elegance and intelligent imagination [..] are the dominant qualities of our race.

And it is no doubt because Carpentier, at a unique moment in our history, after a victorious war, during a blossoming of sport, incarnates in such astonishing fashion these virtues of our race, that so many French hearts, even those who deny it, are beating a bit nervously at the idea that he could end up losing. (L’Intransigeant, July 2, p. 1)

Carpentier is often depicted as a sort of über-Frenchman, in whom all the most glorious qualities of the French “race” have been distilled and intensified:

He is indeed all ours, Georges Carpentier, not only because he comes from our country, but because his harmonious body, at once powerful and streamlined, supple and graceful, gives off an air of something other than brute force, and because his style of fighting has the qualities of intelligence, of art, of moderation and of beauty that Ancient Greece taught us to seek and appreciate in the sports that would appear to be the most brutal.  (Petit Parisien, July 2, p. 1)

It is of course not clear why the French should be considered the direct recipients of Ancient Greek ideals any more than any other Western European culture and thus why Carpentier’s embodiment of those ideals should serve as proof that he is especially French in some way.  Logic, however, plays a minor role in essentialist hero-worship, as is equally apparent in the remarks of Cécile Sorel, an actress at the Comédie Française, who not only extols Carpentier’s Frenchness but points out that his victory in the ring will demonstrate why France won the war:

Carpentier is the complete and perfect physical expression of our France.  May he triumph, so that his strength, masked by elegance, might tell the world the reason for our victory. (Le Figaro, July 1, pp. 1-2)

Marcel Boulanger, in an article in Le Figaro appropriately entitled “Fétiche national,” gives the most fleshed-out depiction of Carpentier as the Frenchest man alive:

[…] in the particular case of Carpentier, it is not possible to be more French than that Frenchman.  He demonstrates all the characteristics—and the most flattering of them—of our race: compared to other boxers, his rivals, he appears astonishingly svelte, elegant, without any vulgarity or heaviness.  His tactics rely on neither brute force nor dirty tricks; on the contrary, we see in him an extremely scientific technique, quite intelligent, supple, marvelously agile,  and courageous to the point of temerity.  Each of the young champion’s successes was always, in a way, the triumph of the mind over brutality. Isn’t all that truly French? And how could we not tremble for the athlete of our own blood who, in a unparalleled fight, is going into the ring to defend our flag, with our methods, displaying our aptitudes and according to our preferences?  In short, if he does bring back here the official title of the premier boxer in the world, he will clearly have won it à la française. (Le Figaro, July 1, p. 1)

This of course is precisely the sort of nonsense that was ridiculed by observers who actually knew a little something about boxing. (Boulanger’s description of Carpentier’s elegance and lack of vulgarity brings to mind van Raatle’s ironic explanation of why Carpentier’s was unable to knock Dempsey out: “Jack has a coarse nature and is totally incapable of understanding the […] refined feelings of a French boxer.”)

Going back to Gentleman Jim Corbett and beyond, there had been many fighters before Carpentier who relied more on technique than on brute force to win fights—very, very few of them Frenchmen. And it is nearly impossible to imagine what Boulanger thinks he is referring to when he speaks of Carpentier as deploying “our” (i.e. French) methods, given that the French tradition in the sport of “English” boxing had, in 1921, neither the depth nor the breadth to be able to claim methods of its own.  By his own description, Carpentier’s technique was a hybrid of a British and an American style of boxing. It is of course possible that Boulanger is not referring to boxing per se when he speaks of “methods;” in that case, however, he would appear to be alluding to the very fact of using intelligence and cunning to win a fight.  The idea that fighting intelligently, be it in the ring or in the trenches, is a tactic that is exclusive to the French is of course risible.  In the end, narcissistic nationalist babbling such as that of Boulanger is literally meaningless and reveals much more about the flattering ways in which a group of people like to think of themselves than about any objective reality.

At least since Descartes, of course, the French have prided themselves on their rationality, their intellect, their ability to let the head dominate other lesser human organs.  So it comes as no surprise that these are the qualities praised in Carpentier.  Indeed, Carpentier came to be such a poster-boy for the Frenchness-as-intelligence notion that intellectuals previously completely uninterested in boxing were moved to weigh in on the subject.  The most famous example is François Mauriac;

It is […] true that on all the postcards, Georges displays the most intelligent and most serious of smiles.  The initiated insist on the essential role of intelligence in boxing and I find a great significance in that.  Even in the tough century in which we live, the French continue to place intelligence above all else and the fervent followers of the “noble art” profess, as did Descartes and Pascal, that thought is what makes men great.[8]

Mauriac is right when he says that the “initiated” consider intelligence to be one of the requisite qualities of a good boxer. If boxing relies on intelligence and one sincerely believes, as does Mauriac, that the French are the most intelligent “race” on earth, it follows that the French will succeed in the boxing ring, that they are “naturally” suited to the sport.

This line of thinking is not limited to the sole quality of intelligence, however.  There are other qualities that are purported to be both essentially French and of great usefulness in the ring. And the argument is made by those much more knowledgeable about boxing than Mauriac.  In describing the slow development of “English” boxing in France in the very early years of the twentieth century, Jacques Mortane recounts that he and the few other French boxing aficionados at the time recognized what a natural fit there was between the French “temperament” and the sport of boxing:

We would meet up regularly at ringside and count the spectators.  We were delighted if we found that there were a few more people present than there had been the last time.  The idea [of boxing] seemed to be making inroads and we were hopeful.  Journalists and apostles, Rousseau, Reichel, Breyer, Vienne and I pursued our mission relentlessly: we knew that the French temperament—energetic, courageous, adroit, decisive—would necessarily and marvelously assimilate the mysteries of the noble art.  We understood that a man can be at once a gentleman and a boxer.

It is important to note that the remarks above appear in the context of a hagiographic essay about Carpentier.  These early French enthusiasts, according to Mortane, had had, just a few years later, their nationalistic hypothesis confirmed in the person of Carpentier, whose Frenchness and success in the ring were indissociable and who thus seemed to prove that the French were eminently suited to the sport. In so doing he made the sport appealing to the French public; it is accepted as fact that it was Carpentier who taught the French that “boxing was not merely a sport for brutes.”

Boxing was, it was argued, compatible with Frenchness not only because of Carpentier’s successes but because of the enthusiasm of French crowds for the sport in the wake of those successes:

[…] some people […] don’t like boxing at all and see it as a spectacle that is more bestial than truly interesting; they judge the sport to be antithetical to our national character.

You must admit that we have an odd way of demonstrating our profound antipathy for boxing, since we crowd around rings, squeezing in as many people as will fit, both in Paris and in the provinces.  Just go to the big fights and right away you will admire the unbelievable enthusiasm—and the unusual expertise!—of the innumerable audience, drawn from the upper and lower classes.[9] 

A supposed circle of essential affinity between Frenchness and boxing is thus created.  The syllogistic rationale, never fully fleshed out by any one commentator on the subject, seems as follows: 1) there is a natural affinity between certain essential qualities of the French temperament and the sport of boxing; 2) Carpentier is quintessentially French and therefore becomes a great boxer; 3) Carpentier’s pugilistic success (and Frenchness) create enthusiasm for the sport on the part of large numbers of Frenchmen; 4) this passion on the part of spectators, in turn, confirms the natural affinity between the French temperament and boxing.

 Interestingly, the idea that Carpentier succeeded in the ring because of his essential Frenchness is countered by at least one Frenchman who, writing after the Dempsey bout, argues that Carpentier lost because of his Frenchness.  In direct opposition to arguments made earlier by his countrymen, Maurice de Waleffe opines, in an essay entitled “The Lesson of a Defeat,” that boxing is simply not compatible with the French “temperament.”[10]  Waleffe points out that the French are unrivalled in actual warfare (“We certainly won—and all by ourselves!—the Marne and Verdun.  In the military arts, no other people can rival a record like that.”), clearly betraying his underlying concern about French vs. American military prowess with the defensive “all by ourselves!.”  In athletic terms, however, the Dempsey fight should teach the French that they must concentrate their “national efforts” on sports in which “brutal massiveness” is not the fundamental condition required for victory. Each “people,” he explains, has its own “instinctive sports,” determined by heredity and climate.  An American is “built like a Colossus” compared to a Frenchman; it is thus obvious that they will excel at boxing.  His conclusion is thus that it is “illogical” for Frenchmen to persist in seeking success in boxing, which is for them “a specialty against nature.”

Furthermore, he continues, the French “naïvely” let themselves be manipulated by the American press into having “a monstrous publicity” concerning the fight imposed on them.  Rather, they should spend their “moral and financial energy” on sports where “skill and grace, agility and vivacity—qualities that are natural characteristics for us—remain predominant.” His examples are: “fencing with swords rather than with fists, footraces or jumping rather than weightlifting, tennis rather than soccer!” Waleffe believes that while there are many sports that can be practiced equally well by “all races” (cycling, swimming, marksmanship, et al.), some are clearly counter-indicated for certain ethnic groups.  The most obvious example of a sport counter-indicated for the French is boxing; much to Waleffe’s dismay, this is the sport on which the French “quite foolishly” found their sense of national pride.

There are of course multiple ways in which Waleffe’s commentary is absurd.  The most obvious with regard to the sport of boxing is that it is only in the heavyweight division, which has a minimum weight requirement but no maximum (at least until the very recent creation of a “superheavyweight” division), that a difference in bulk can be a serious issue.  All other weight classes are fairly narrowly defined by both an upper and a lower limit, and competitors will by definition be comparable in weight, at least at the time of the weigh-in.  There are of course differences possible in height, in reach, in distribution of musculature, in weight amassed between the weigh-in and the bout, but two fighters in the same weight class are nearly always close enough in terms of sheer mass that Waleffe’s argument about Americans just being too big for Frenchmen to confront in the ring makes little sense.

Even more interesting for our purposes is the fact that the very same qualities (skill, grace, agility, speed) that were cited by commentators before the fight as reasons why Frenchmen in general, and Carpentier in particular, were especially suited to boxing, are now, in the wake of his defeat, now cited as reasons why they are not.  Brute strength will never win out over technique, earlier commentators opined; the exact opposite is true, says Waleffe.  It is as if the pugilistic experiment that was Carpentier-Dempsey had offered up indisputable evidence in favor of the value of strength and size in the boxing ring.

The link between French proponents of the technique-will-win school and their brute-strength-will-win counterparts, despite their opposite notions concerning the sport of boxing, is the unquestioned belief that speed, agility, grace and intelligence are in fact French qualities. This line of thought only makes sense if one completely disregards Dempsey’s own considerable skill and speed and technique, which the French commentators cited here tend to do, both before and after the fight. In order to maintain the idea of these properties as quintessentially French, Dempsey’s skill and intelligence had to be subtracted from the equation. Whether the set of qualities posited as French was effective in the ring ultimately mattered much less to French commentators than getting across the idea that intelligence, technique, grace, speed and agility were in fact linked to Frenchness; win or lose, the French still maintain the ability to define themselves as having precisely those qualities they would like to believe they have.  Dempsey’s victory, based as it was, according to these accounts anyway, on brute strength and size, was un-French and thus undesirable.  Far better to lose and maintain a flattering self-image.

Indeed, boxing is not a domain in which the French should want to excel, according to Waleffe who suggests not only that the French are better at other, more seemly sports but also at other, more serious non-athletic pursuits.  He buttresses his argument by pointing out that a surgeon from Lyon, Carrel, dominates his American counterparts.  An article in Le Petit Parisien, published on July 3, points out not only that France is a much smaller country than the United States (38,000,000 inhabitants as opposed to 110,000,000) but that their engagement in athletics is a much more recent phenomenon.  The French have the upper hand when it comes more worthy pursuits, however:

If we, by a nearly unanimous decision, hold the world championship in the arts, letters and sciences, it is the result of long training, which has developed in us the natural qualities of the race.

While this writer share’s Waleffe basic belief in the “natural qualities” of a “race,” he does not draw the same conclusions from it.  For him, “natural qualities” can be produced through “long and persevering efforts, methodically engaged in for generations.” This, he says, is what explains the Americans’ success in sports. He thus does not urge the French to give up boxing or to seek glory in sports to which they are supposed to be more naturally suited.  Instead, he offers a piece of what is no doubt very sound advice: “If we want to become the great sporting nation, let us work at it!”  

The notion of Carpentier as the incarnation of some sort essential Frenchness was not, it is important to note, propagated solely by the French.  American commentators seemed to concur; Marguerite Marshall, writing in the New York Evening World, called him “an unmistakable exponent of French gallantry and grace, as well as of French valor, intelligence, and endurance.” Nor did Carpentier’s defeat do anything, in either country, to change the notion that he embodied an essentially French version of heroism.  An editorial in the New York Times the day after the fight not only praises Carpentier’s bravery but characterizes it as “a truly Gallic exhibition of courage.” Comparing him to the Old Guard at Waterloo, the editorialist says: “[…] he might be killed, if need be, but he would not surrender. […] there was no escape from defeat, but there can be defeat without dishonor.” France has not been humiliated by such a defeat (“[…] the Tricolor was lowered, but not trailed in the dust”) because Carpentier “proved himself every inch a man.” What the editorialist does not go on to say, and doesn’t need to, is that in proving his own manliness in the ring, Carpentier also proved the manliness of all Frenchmen to the world. Charles F. Mathison, writing in the New York Herald on July 3 (section 4, p. 1), praises Carpentier’s courage and reports that he “took his punishment with all the heroism of a soldier of France.”

For her part, Carpentier’s wife was widely quoted as having said, following the bout, that her husband had “fought like a Frenchman.”[11] In a gesture that makes clear his place in the pantheon of French military heroes, Carpentier apparently made good on his promise to Gaston Vidal, the French “Minister of Instruction,” to give him one of the gloves he had worn in the bout. The newspaper account speculates that it will “have a high place among the relics which remind the people of France of the glory of their history and the greatness of their fighters.”[12]

Indeed, the very fact of gallantry and valor in defeat is characterized as quintessentially French.  A Carpentier victory would clearly have been touted as typically French: the same is true of his loss.  On the front page of the July 3 afternoon edition of Le Journal, Clément Vautel exhorts his fellow Frenchmen to take heart:

Obviously, it’s a tough blow and I for one am still quite stunned.

But you have to know how to smile in the face of adversity.  Come on, Frenchmen, let’s react, let’s pull it together, let’s keep up an attitude that shows the world that we are not beaten down, so that our adversaries and even our friends will say when they see us holding our heads high after this disaster: “When all is said and done, those French can bounce back… It is above all in unhappy circumstances that they show what a truly great people they are!”

Before, during  and after the bout, it was of course the reputation of France in the eyes of the rest of the world that was at stake in all the Carpentier-as-symbol-of-France discourse.  Given the affection and respect that accrued to the Frenchman at the time of the Dempsey fight, he does appear to have accomplished something for his country.  At the least, he reaffirmed an image that already existed of the French in the aftermath of the Great War: a battered but valiant people, noble and upstanding, courageous enough to fight on in the face of overwhelming odds.  His image was golden and some of the gold rubbed off on France itself:

[…] it would be profoundly unfair and misguided to reproach Georges Carpentier for the fortune he has made: he earned the hard way, by always behaving like a loyal athlete, like a virtuoso of the fist, and by doing more for pro-French propaganda abroad than any number of diplomats, whose sole role it is, could have done.  Let us admire him, because he is one of purest examples of our national energy.[13]

Even as serious a publication as Le Figaro is forced to admit that Carpentier is an effective ambassador of the French “cause” in the post-war era:

[…] this big fight, which will have, let’s admit it, the great merit of brilliantly serving the cause of France and of earning our country a worldwide publicity which, in the present circumstances, we can certainly not afford to disdain. (July 1, p. 1)

As far as the feelings of the French themselves are concerned, André Rauch argues that Carpentier’s case is a new phenomenon in which adoration of a man fuels patriotic fervor as opposed to the reverse:

Although the cult of the champion emanates from intense feelings, these are not patriotic feelings; rather, the love of country profits from the passion for the idol. Such is the novelty of this fight.  Even if the flag did receive quasi-religious homage, patriotism does not serve in this case as the foundation for love of the champion. (Boxe, violence du XXe siècle, 152)

While I agree with Rauch that patriotic feelings were fueled by adoration of Carpentier, I would argue that the process is circular rather than linear.  Rauch’s argument that devotion to the idol leads to a renewal of love for France fails to take into account the significant fact that adoration of Carpentier was itself, to a considerable degree, fueled by a perception of his supposed Frenchness.  As we have seen above, Carpentier was consistently posited as a sort of poster boy of qualities supposed to be profoundly French.  Much of the love the French felt for him must thus be read as a testimony to their love of certain ideas of Frenchness.  That love is of course a form of patriotism. So there is in fact a circle of affect: the French cherish Frenchness, Carpentier embodies it, so they love him, which in turn makes them love France all the more. The figure of Carpentier did not create patriotism but rather put a human face on it, thereby fueling a sentiment that already existed.


[1] André Rauch, 217, notes that the campaign mounted by the French press in preparation for the fight becomes, at a certain point, a “reassertion of [French] identity.” Return to text

[2] On the front page of Le Journal on July 3, Clément Vautel recounts an anecdote in which a prostitute shows up at the notorious Notre-Dame-de-Lorette church in Paris to ask the priest if there is “a saint for boxing” to whom she can say a novena on behalf of “the Great Georges.”  The priest remarks that hers is a rather profane object for a novena but that her intentions are good and it couldn’t hurt “the Great Georges.” He indicates Michael and George among the more athletic saints. She opts for George, for obvious reasons. Return to text

[3] Quoted in Kahn, 250. Return to text

[4] From article in Archives of Antiquities of the Prize Ring, dated July 1, 1921 (no author given). Return to text

[5] Jean-Paul Besse, Les Boxeurs et les dieux: l’esprit du ring dans l’art et la literature (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998): 72. Return to text

[6] It is amusing to note that in one of his autobiographies, Carpentier points out that the opposite has also been said: “It is often said that […] I, because of my pale, bloodless, sunken cheeks and cold calculating ways, am no Frenchman.  Which is very true […]” (My Fighting Life, 200).  Clearly, two myths of Frenchness are in direct contradiction here: that of the reasoning, cool-headed Cartesian and that of the hot-blooded, emotional Latin. Return to text

[7] The jocular “ambassador” moniker was apparently widely used; the “admirable representative…” quote is from Daniel Cousin (Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal  Ro 17.769, document #6). Return to text

[8] François Mauriac, “La Gloire de Georges Carpentier,” La Revue Hebdomadaire (2 juillet 1921): 37. Return to text

[9] Marcel Boulanger, Le Figaro, July 1, 1921, p. 1. Return to text

[10] Published in Paris-Midi, July 5; Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal Ro 17-769, document #6. Return to text

[11] See, for example, the New York Herald, July 3, section 4, p. 1, column 2. Return to text

[12] New York Herald, July 4, p. 9. Return to text

[13] Jacques Mortane, “Quelques Souvenirs de Georges Carpentier,” Je Sais Tout no. 179 (15 novembre 1920): 1336. As it happens, this, one of the very best descriptions of Carpentier as ambassador figure, was written before the Dempsey fight.  What Mortane says here will of course become even more true over the course of the subsequent year or so. Return to text