Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How lucky? Howard, Dempsey and Cash

I have been thinking about Johnny Cash, Robert E. Howard and Jack Dempsey. I never thought much, until lately, why it is that I like the things that I like. I mean, what could a punch-drunk bard like myself gain from studying and enjoying real artists who create real art?  Yep, even though I am moved by that creative steam engine called Americana I am just as amazd that I have had the good fortune to recognize and experience it. But, how did it happen? Must have been a mistake. You see, I'm one of those wanna-be sports warriors; good enough to compete with anyone at almost anything but not quite good enough to be anybody worth mentioning and, like the composer Salieri in Amadeus, I am capable of recognizing greatness in others rather than achieving it for myself - at least so far. I think the same goes for literature and music. I have managed to carve out a little respect writing stories, poems and criticism and, without embarassing myself, can thump the low end with my electric bass. So, while it is true that I aspire to the heights of those mentioned above I recognize that I will likely never create anything half as beautiful as their most mundane accomplishments let alone the genius they are capable of. And that leaves me...in awe of three people.
Let's take Robert E. Howard as an example. I wrote an article, Born to Edit Boxing Stories, for a print publication called The Cimmerian. I hadn't realized, even as I was writing what should have been a kind of cathartic release/confession, just how unlikely it was that I ended up a fan, and caretaker of, Robert E. Howard and his literary legacy. Seriously folks, I'm not much in the way of a caretaker for myself let alone of  the legacy of one of America's greatest authors and creative minds. Currently, I am writing the introduction to what will be the definitive collection of Howard's boxing fiction. It's a pretty big deal, make no mistake, and yet I feel none of the anxiety I should feel. I know the stories, I know the author's intent and can make literary connections that no one has yet made but still...we're talking about me, Chris Gruber, that is steering this ship into portage. I'm not some natural wordsmith, born to the trade like some offspring of Oates and Hemingway whose genetic disposition paves the way to literary and critical stardom before they've shed the placenta. It's me- Chris Gruber, a simple guy who is as likely to be hiking or mountain biking, hitting the heavy bag or doing pull ups, as he is to be typing furiously at the keyboard, trying to convey some kind of undiscovered knowledge to the masses. It just doesn't compute and yet here I am...thank you Robert E. Howard.

I remember my friend, Bill Stephens, haranguing me daily in high school about Robert E. Howard. He would verbally berate me for not acknowledging that I was wasting my time reading and admiring a hack like Howard when I ought to be bowing down at the classical Fantasy feet of Tolkien. I like Tolkien, alot in fact, but he in no way came close to the kind of visceral reading experience I obtained from a Howard short story. I wrote several essays in high school English class about Robert E. Howard fiction and each time the teacher would attack my paper in the most humiliating way, going so far as to suggest that I was making up, entirely, everything I had written - you know, how Howard's stories are allegorical statements of profound significance, yadda, yadda, yadda. Nevertheless, I kept on keeping on and now we're here - with me explaining how Howard's boxing fiction served as a kind of canvass upon which he could paint some of the most remarkable American fiction ever produced. American fiction, inspired by the Great Depression, rural poverty, and of course, boxing during the Golden Age of Sports. Or, at least that's what Ring Lardner and other contemporaries kept saying.

I also remember the first time I ever heard a Johnny Cash song. My cousin Todd had invited my brother Sean and I to Pekin, Illinois to drink and be merry as only close cousins can do. We drove through farm fields, mud bogs, you name it and the whole time the merriment was cloaked in this divine music. It was storytelling at it's best set to a musical score that made me melancholy and reflective. So, I did what any young man who had had a little too much on his mind, and tongue, would do - I jumped out of that moving truck. I needed some time to think about what it was that I was hearing. Until I heard those mournful Cash tunes, I had hated country music - or so I thought. Here was this guy, crooning and moaning, shouting and yodeling - he was saying something that I hadn't heard before but I knew instinctively was pure Americana. I understood it at the DNA level, you know what I am saying? Before too long, my brother and cousin figured out that I had jumped ship and came back looking for me. I stood up, waved my arms so they could see me - a new man with a new perspective and a white hot desire to consume that which I knew was tailor made for me: Johnny Cash, the Dean of American music. Thanks, Johnny Cash.

During my research of Robert E. Howard and his interest in boxing I was able to indulge a fascination I have had with the great boxers of the past. I studied the lives of some of boxing's most colorful and successful adherents, from Jim Jeffries to James Braddock, and spent a great deal of time thrilling to the adventures of that most enduring American Icon - Jack Dempsey. The manner in which he lived his life is both an inspiration and a caution and, in the end, it is a story of strife and success that represents the very fabric of perceived American greatness. From the humble beginnings of his Colorado days as Kid Blackie, where he was forced to fight for bologna strips just to survive, a nobody going nowhere fast to the incredible heights of world champion and movie star, a fearsome, scowling warrior who was tenacious, rugged, and most inportantly determined to "make it" no matter the cost. Finally, even after his roller coaster youth had passed him by, the nation bore witness to the man and his exploits and despite his reluctance was annointed by the masses as an American Legend. What a boxer, what a man, what a life. Thanks Jack Dempsey.
What amount of  star crossing voo-doo was worked that I might find myself enamored of these men, intimately aware of their lives and willing to chronicle those instances that set them apart as men worth studying, worth learning from, and ultimately, worth telling others about? Fortune, perhaps? Maybe - but whether or not it be fate or some other power, what is clear to me is that I am fortunate to have had these men and their endeavors as a kind of backdrop to my own life and can distill my own experience through the looking glass of their lives. They are American and so am I and their lives and work speak to me. How lucky am I, really?

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