The Weigh In: Pierce Egan reporting it all during the Grub Street Years

by Michael Klimes: Before I went to India for the first time in October 2005, a number of people whom I knew informed me, “I would find myself in India”. Apart from their obvious observation, I soon realised that they were probably alluding to the experience of drugs and how it would be funky (if that is the phrase?) to lose myself in an exotic paradise half way across the world. I had never, up to that point in my short life, experienced drugs and I did not intend to begin in India as I was there on serious business. I was on my gap year and had decided to take up the opportunity of becoming an intern at The Hindu newspaper. Ironically, the people that had prophesised, “I would find myself in India” were right as I discovered I had to become a journalist and this combined with my earlier ambition of wanting to be a writer.. Neither is going too well so far as I have met people at the University of Edinburgh who are simply superior, both in intellectual and literary terms than I am, but there are the two clichés of “no pain, no gain” and taking inspiration from other peoples’ successes and not being demoralised by them. As Chuck D says in that classic number ‘He Got Game’, “Never let a win get to your head or a loss get to your heart.”

Nonetheless, my current predicament is not nearly as shocking as a memory from my stint with The Hindu, which will ambush me every now and then when I encounter a philistine that thinks boxing should have disappeared along with the Greeks about two thousand years ago. I was once having a good lunch with my intelligent editor Makund. Anybody who gets to know me will find out that I love food a little too much. Makund interrupted my enthusiastic eating by inhaling a self-important gulp of air and then wounding me with the rhetorical question, “Michael, how can you like boxing? It is so vulgar!” That was like a punch to the solar plexus by Bob Fitzsimmons and I was speechless. I would probably not have been speechless if I knew then what I know now about boxing. I would have countered that the finest journalism and best boxing frequently sleep together as fighting inspires hacks to write and those hacks reward the inspiration boxing gives them by writing about the sport with tremendous verve and muscular elegance. I would have also mentioned that boxing and journalism share many of the same vices: they have terrible corruption, nepotism, disappointment, are brutally competitive, unregulated and bring out the worst in people.

However, they share many of the same virtues: they are tough but success in them makes a career more rewarding, people in them are incredibly passionate about what they do otherwise they would not survive and both professions can bring out the best in people. The finest example of this mutual marriage between journalism and boxing is the work of the legendary Regency sportswriter Pierce Egan. Egan is to boxing reportage and sports writing, what Albert Einstein is to physics or Charles Darwin to evolution. He is a figure of huge originality, influence and stature. His classic work, Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, From the Days of the Renowned Broughton and Slack, to the Championship of Cribb, is not only a standard boxing text and Magnus opus of a fiendishly talented writer, it is also a work of literature and historical record of British society that Egan encountered numerous times and was part of when he covered bouts.

His greatest disciple and admirer, the New Yorker renaissance reporter A.J. Liebling declares in his introduction to The Sweet Science (page11), “A great charm of Boxiana is that it is no mere compilation of synopses of fights. Egan’s round- by- round stories, with ringside sidelights and betting fluctuations, are masterpieces of technical reportage, but he also saw the ring as a juicy chunk of English life, in no way separable from the rest. His account of extra-curricular lives of the Heroes, coal-heavers, watermen and butchers’ boys, are a panorama of low, dirty, happy, brutal sentimental Regency England you’ll never get from Jane Austen.” How correct Liebling is to mention Egan in the same breath as Austen because although Egan is not the novelist or prose stylist Austen was, he is still a very unique and gifted one, that has been forgotten much like Liebling has.

The only biography of Egan is by John C. Reid called Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England published in 1971. It is a fine study of this man of letters. Reid says (page 11) Egan was, “a convivial spirit who loved to mix not only with fighters and their noble patrons but also the humble of folks of London’s back streets.” This made him, “both ignored and despised by polite society and polite letters.” Reid finds it a sordid scandal that Egan was forgotten since his life and death spawned many imitators, writing style exercised influence on the enormously popular Charles Dickens and that numerous third rate writers from his generation received much more attention posthumously than he did.

If one categorises the literary tradition Egan falls into, he is probably best seen in the context of a long, varied yet distinct niche of English non-fiction essay writing that is the biographical sketch. Therefore, Egan is part of the great tradition of English biographical writing that includes others literary figures like William Hazlitt, Lytton Strachey, George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens. These men have all contributed to numerous periodicals, many of them magazines. All of these diverse writers share the common thread of making a public figure the focus of their attention and Boxiana predominately approaches a fighter individually and discusses their upbringing, character and accomplishments.

Kasia Boddy, in her scholarly, stimulating and meticulously documented book, Boxing: A Cultural History, contextualises the success of Egan and places his journalism at the beginning and establishment of magazine journalism in Britain. Boddy observes (page 57), “Class mobility was a key element in the spread of boxing and its idiom during this period. The early nineteenth century saw the establishment of numerous magazines, many of which catered for growing ‘army of bachelor clerks and lawyer’s apprentices’ whose aspiration to gentility often manifested itself as an interest in traditionally aristocratic past times. Flash slang involved the middle-class imitation of an upper-class imitation of lower-class idioms.”

Egan’s theatrical prose style or ‘‘flash slang’’ as it was known demonstrates him to be a pioneer in sports writing as his language is a singular blend of italicised phrasing, colloquialism, erudition and wit. This made Egan and continues to make him unmistakable in his description of fighters and his style transformed sports writing, which culture snobs might describe as “unliterary”, mere journalism and part of a seedy subculture, which should be ignored into a more respectable and popular mainstream culture. Egan created this literature and aesthetic during the Regency period. Furthermore, Egan’s prose was so exuberant and linguistically inventive that it was able to appeal to different members of society who really did not have a lot in common. Again, Boddy observes the deceptive sophistication and playfulness of Egan where (page 59), “A secret language surely holds other attractions. One is exclusivity, or, in the age of beginnings of commercial journalism, the pretence of exclusivity.”

It is clear that Egan cannot be held solely responsible for this rich culture during the Regency period as fighters that came from a lower class background were supported by rich aristocrats that placed bets on their respective boxers during fights. Nonetheless, Egan, as Reid notes was a perfect ambassador for boxing as he not only loved writing about it but also enjoyed the company of those around him. He appears to have been a good man that liked a drink and was a party goer. I would definitely buy Egan a drink if he was still alive and with his Irish heritage, I am sure he could put it away. He could battle his Irish heritage against my Czech one.

Anyway, forgive me for my digression as I am pretty sure Egan was more committed to boxing than drinking. Boxiana begins with a dedication to Captain Barclay who was the most distinguished trainer of the era. Egan’s polemical commitment to boxing is apparent as he attacks those (page iv), “who prefer effeminacy to hardihood – assumed refinement to rough Nature – and to whom a shower of rain can terrify their polite frames suffering from the unruly elements – or who would not mind pugilism, if boxing was not so shockingly vulgar – the following work can have no interest whatsoever.” Later on in Boxiana, Egan correctly unleashes his caustic wit against the snobbishness of the radical writer Leigh Hunt for criticising boxing and regarding it as uncivilised. Egan remarks (pages 301-302), “although that classic sprig of literature, Leigh Hunt, has with the flourish of his pen, condemned the manly and national practice of Boxing, as debasing the finer feelings of our composition, and tending to degrade the character of Englishman to that of mere brutes, yet they are not decidedly facts.”

Conversely, Egan movingly defends Hunt’s radicalism and activism in other areas, regarding the attacks on him and his wider, dissenting circle by the establishment as wrong. He declares (page 302), “We differ in opinion from these champions of the press [on boxing], we do not detract from their merits, and feel strongly impressed that the world is much indebted to their united exertions.” Egan then references Bacon and makes an observation about education, books and intellectualism in relation to Hunt’s dismissal of boxing (page 302), “Learning will always ensure respect, and GENIUS claim admiration; but we are well convinced, agreeing with the doctrine of the great Bacon, that books alone will not inform us of the true state of things, without an intercourse to the book of books, REAL LIFE; from which we are taught to appreciate and become acquainted with ourselves.”

Such a passage shows what makes Egan so appealing outside of his wit, enthusiasm and bombast is that he is immensely compassionate and generous in his judgements towards other people. In a sport that has shamefully manifested racism, even slavery, and has been, in the generations of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, an expression and extension of oppression, rather than a rebuttal of it, Egan is remarkably fair and clear sighted. It is a tragedy that many boxing fans have probably not read his reportage of the two encounters between Tom Cribb, the white English champion (who won) and Tom Molineaux, the black African-American challenger from Virginia, who was a slave and literally won his freedom from his slave owner by being a successful fighter. Molineaux travelled to London via New York to fulfil his dreams of being world champion. Egan was at both fights. The first was in December 1810 and the rematch in September 1811.

Egan, being the great journalist that he was, knew about the politics and pressures imposed on both fighters, especially Molineaux , due to his skin colour and Egan registered them in his writing. He writes of the rematch (page 367), “Considering all the disadvantages under which Molineaux fought this battle, he performed wonders...the Black had to contend against a prejudiced multitude; the pugilistic honour of the country was at stake, and the attempts of Molineaux were viewed with jealously, envy and disgust.” When it came to the question of a rematch, Egan was supportive of Molineaux, (page 409), “the Moor was entitled to another trial, and the PLEA on which he grounded his fresh challenge...‘being of a different colour would not operate to his prejudice,’ was a strong appeal to the liberality of the Englishmen.” Egan’s generosity of spirit towards Molineaux reveals the defining contradiction running through his work.

Throughout Boxiana, Egan sees boxing linked to and representative of (page iv), “These principles of generosity and heroism which the inhabitants of the English nation are so eminently distinguished above any other country”. Also, he sees it having an educational role to play in society where it establishes a sense of justice, order and fair play in contrast to other European nations. He remarks (page 13), “In Holland, the long knife decides too frequently, scarcely any person in Italy is without the stiletto; and in France and Germany are not particular in using stones, sticks etc. to gratify revenge; but in England, the fist is only used”. These comments can be seen as eccentric, narrow minded and jingoistic yet Egan undercuts his patriotism towards England and Britain repeatedly by praising other fighters wherever they originate from. Egan is (page 111), “well aware that valiant men are to be found in all countries, and true courage is not confined to any particular place, colour or station.”

This is illustrated further by Egan’s reporting on the trilogy of fights between the Jewish fighter Dan Mendoza and his rival ‘Gentleman’ Jim Humphries. Kasia Boddy says (page 39), “Mendoza and Humphries were the first boxers whose careers were successfully marketed on ethnic hostility.” Nevertheless, Egan recognises the qualities of Mendoza in one of his bouts with Humphries that reveals an inclusive masculine nationalism that a person can fight for and win in real terms (page 265), “Prejudice so frequently distorts the mind...more especially when they appear in any person who may chance to be of a different COUNTRY, persuasion, or colour...But the truth riseth superior to all things, and the humanity of MENDOZA was conspicuous throughout the above fight.” Egan respects boxers above all racist prejudices.

It is not too hard to explain why Egan disappeared from sight as time has passed as there are a number of interlocking factors gave rise to his elusiveness to subsequent generations of readers. There is, I daresay it, a degree of looking down on writers like Egan who have the label “sport journalist” attached to them. A lot of the flak probably comes from academia and academics that adhere to hierarchies of writing like a prisoner wearing a straight jacket. Furthermore, Egan’s prose style, although exuberant and groundbreaking, became dated quickly as did the context which produced it. When Egan wrote about boxing during his lifetime (probably born 1772 and died in 1849), it was an extremely successful time for the sport.

Similarly, his intricate yet sweeping observations of London life, ear for city slang and depictions of colourful Cockney characters narrated in his sterling non-fiction were superseded and immortalised by the fictional adventures of Charles Dickens. I will not say that Egan is a superior writer to Dickens, but if one reads Boxiana and Dickens’s fiction, especially his early work, there is a strong link between the prose of the latter and the former. Dickens and Egan both claimed London as the setting of their literary inspirations and Egan lost out to the more influential writer. Finally, the period in which Egan was writing had many outstanding contemporaries such as Walter Scott, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Many of them had the privilege of university while Egan, who was self-educated, did not.

Still, this should not detract from Egan’s immense gifts as a journalist, cultural commentator and wit. He could be repetitive and longwinded but many writers have recycled their best lines and material. The sheer size of Boxiana is evidence of the industriousness and seriousness of Egan’s project. One comes away when reading it thinking there was not a significant fight he missed and a prominent boxer or patron he did not know. He was always on the scene ready to produce copy. He was a self-made man who, apart from being a journalist was also a book maker and editor. I cannot recommend his work to boxing fans, scholars of the Regency period or general people interested in accomplished writing enough.

Still, I should most recommend him to both budding and current journalists. Egan really knew how to write non-fiction and I would rank him with George Orwell and A.J. Liebling as a prodigious non-fiction writer. So if you see journalists feeling delirious about their work, sitting through award ceremonies and congratulating each other about the elegance their prose styles, the wittiness of their commentaries and the vividness of their reportage. The next time you witness that tone of self-regard, you might like to pick up Boxiana and read from the revolutionary reporter about which it is actually true.

Kasia. Boxing: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

Brailsford, Dennis. Bareknuckles: A Social History of Prize-Fighting. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1988.

Brailsford, Dennis. British Sport: A Social History. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1992.

Egan, Pierce. Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism, From the Days of the Renowned Broughton and Slack, to the Championship of Cribb Volume 1. 1830. London: Elibron Classics, 2006.

Liebling, A.J. The Sweet Science. 1956. Introduction by A.J. Liebling. New York: North Point Press, 2004.

Reid, J.C. Bucks and Bruisers: Pierce Egan and Regency England. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1971.

Article posted on 17.06.2010

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