The great African American heavyweight Joe Louis (1911 -- 1981) dominated the world of professional boxing from 1935 to the late 1940s. Louis' life involved far more than his prowess in the ring. He became an icon and a symbol of hope to the African American community of his day. With his famous one-round knockout in his rematch with the German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938, Louis became a hero to all Americans in the impending fight with totalitarianism and Nazism. With the outbreak of WW II, Louis served in the military and continued to inspire Americans of all races and persuasions with his active patriotism and service. Yet, Joe Louis was a deeply troubled man. He was heavily and inextricably involved with the shabby elements of professional boxing. Although he earned astronomical sums for his day, Louis far overspent his means, lived deeply in debt and owed a huge tax liability to the I.R.S. which he could not hope to pay. In his last years, Louis had problems with drugs and required institutionalization at one point for mental difficuties. He also worked meeting and greeting patrons of Las Vegas casinos and in making appearances at title fights.
In "Joe Louis: Hard Times Man" (2010) Randy Roberts offers a moving biography of Joe Louis. More importantly. Roberts focuses "in large part on the meaning of that life and career." (Preface, xii). Thus the book offers a great deal of insight into African American and broader American perception of Joe Louis. He examines Louis' career and the changes in the sport of boxing in light of changing American understandings of masculinity. Roberts also has a feel for the nature of boxing, and he captures Louis' great fights with tense, riveting prose. A Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University, Roberts has written, among other things, biographies of fighters Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson, both of whom figure importantly in this biography of Louis, and a history of American sports since 1945.
Roberts begins with Louis' hardscrabble childhood as his family of rural Alabama sharecroppers moved to Detroit when he was young. With no skills and a life on the streets seemingly ahead of him, Louis found his way to a boxing gym with money that his mother had given him to learn to play the violin. He fell in with trainers in Detroit that stayed with him for his career. Although emeshed in crime and violence, his handlers showed a devotion to Louis. After winning a long series of professional fights in 1934-1935, Louis moved to New York City. At this point, Roberts' real story begins.
With skillful, if self-interested management and promoting in New York, Louis won highly publicized fights against Primo Carnera and Max Baer and became a hero of African Americans. An earlier African American heavyweight, Jack Johnson, brought the wrath of the establishment upon himself by his flamboyand lifestyle and womanizing. In contrast, Louis' handlers advised him to develop a quiet, self-effacing public personality. Louis, however he lived his private life, played this role remarkably. Louis' career tottered after he was knocked out in 12 rounds by Schmeling. But he captured the heavyweight championship by knocking out Jim Braddock. Louis then redeemed himself in his rematch with Schmeling in what still remains one of the pivotal moments of 20th Century sports. Louis badly defeated Schmeling in the opening round in a fight that was billed, and properly so, as a conflict between freedom and Nazism. Louis became a national hero. There followed a lengthy series of Louis fights which culminated in 1941, with Louis' 12-round knockout of a young fighter named Billy Conn, in a fight the champion appeared to have lost.
Roberts has a great deal of love for Joe Louis. He shows an understanding of Louis derived from the news media, from private sources, and from interviews. He also has a broad-based knowledge of boxing and of its place in American culture. His story is enlarged greatly with discussions of the early days of American boxing beginning with John Sullivan and continuing with the first great African American fighter, Jack Johnson. The book his full of references to literature and the blues, including for example the poet Langston Hughes and the bluesman Josh White. But Roberts won my heart with his knowledge of the poem "Dempsey, Dempsey", a story of the great fighter of the 1920's relating him to the down-and out years of the Depression. The poem is by Horace Gregory, now, unhappily, almost forgotten.
Roberts has written an excellent biography of Louis. He has also succeeded in his aim of discussing broader areas of African American and American history and in describing American life in the years surrounding WW II. For all the scope of the book, the work is at its best in the fight scenes. Although the most obvious appeal of this book is to boxing fans, the book also has a great deal to say about American history in the 20th Century.