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30 AUGUST 2014

 

H.C. Witwer and Me


By Arthur Krystal

H.C. Witwer's 1920 novel The Leather Pushers went for a song at the auction of boxing books and ephemera at the Swann Galleries this past January. One of six books in lot 51, which included Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall and Harold Ribalow's World's Greatest Boxing Stories, it was not among the sale's more celebrated titles. My paddle was up at eighty dollars, again at ninety, and then I made my mistake. I began to think. Five of the books didn't matter to me and ninety-five dollars is pretty steep for a book that isn't a collector's item. On the other hand, I had been looking for The Leather Pushers for fifteen years, which comes to about seven dollars a year, counting the buyer's premium. While I was considering all this, the lot was sold to a man one row in front of me for a hundred dollars.

Had I been wearing ten-ounce gloves I would have beaten myself up. I was a piker, a cheapskate, a dope. But perhaps all was not lost. During the break I approached the newest owner of The Leather Pushers and wondered whether he might consider parting with it for a fair price. Naturally, he cocked his head at this. Did I know something he did not? Having satisfied himself that I was neither a collector nor a dealer, merely an eccentric, this splendid fellow, a partner in the brokerage house of McFadden, Farrel & Smith, announced that he would make a present of it. I, of course, wouldn't hear of such a thing. He, of course, would hear of nothing else. A week later Witwer's novel arrived in the mail.

An exultant moment certainly, yet not without a vague anxiety. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to revisit a book I had left behind such a long time ago. Instead of immediately devouring it, I was content simply to handle it, a well-preserved 1921 cloth edition of 341 pages, with a cover illustration of two fighters flailing against a splattered red and while background. True, I couldn’t resist glancing at the first paragraph, which to my relief seemed competently written; but then I’d put the book aside, as if not to press my luck. Finally, after a few nights of dithering, I took it to bed. I reread the first paragraph, surged past the first page, then the second, and the third, and gradually it came to me: the reason that I had hunted it down long after forgetting just about everything in it.

To be honest, I had even forgotten the book’s title and author. This was a novel I had last read in 1961, when I was fourteen, and aside from the hero’s name – his ring name: “Kid Roberts”– all I could remember was that he had gone to Harvard; that his tycoon father naturally deplored his brutal vocation; that the beautiful and classy girl who loved him also deplored his brutal vocation; and that Harvard notwithstanding, the Kid goes on to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I was fourteen, what did I know?

Maybe because it had been borrowed from a classmate, or maybe because the Sixties had efficiently sutured off my adolescence, I forgot all about the novel. So complete was its obliteration that I actually picked up a paperback copy of The Leather Pushers at the auction preview without any bells going off. Only the name “Kid Roberts” on the back cover alerted me to the fact that this was the book. A moment later, the cloth edition turned up.

Recovering memories is a mysterious process. Fifteen years earlier, while explaining to a bemused young woman my interest in boxing and boxing literature, the name Kid Roberts, without warning, without the slightest tectonic shift in memory, suddenly burst from oblivion. One moment the novel wasn't there, the next instant it was, and though the characters and plot were all muddled, I remembered distinctly how it felt to have read it. I was nuts about the book. It was what stories and reading stories was all about. And by God, I was going to find it.

I saw myself as a svelte Caspar Gutman traveling the world over in search of the black bird; but without benefit of title or author, mine was a rather messy quest. I asked around – but the people who knew literature didn't know beans about boxing books, and the people who knew boxing didn't read all that much. I checked out every second-hand bookstore in every city I visited, looking for – well, anything that might lead me further. I found plenty of rare books that way, including a copy of Conan Doyle's The Croxley Master and Other Tales of the Ring and Camp, but no novels about a fighter named Kid Roberts. One winter afternoon in the multi-lampshaded reading room of the New York Public Library I ran my eye down tiny-lettered columns in decade-old volumes of Books in Print. What was I looking for?

In time a search takes on a life of its own. Unless the longed-for object is of inherent value -- a jewel-encrusted falcon -- it becomes secondary to the search itself. The Leather Pushers was just a book, but it was a book I had read when there had been no end to novels every bit as wonderful as those by H.C. Witwer, when practically every novel that fell into my hands seemed absolutely right. At fourteen, I read quickly, furiously, compulsively. I went through five, six novels a week or suffered from withdrawal. Reading at this pace is not unique among the bookish young, but as with any obsession there is something faintly suspect about it, as if the allure of books is a comment on the pleasures to be found outside books.

Love of reading, or a reading dependency, is a phenomenon often acknowledged by those incapable of stopping. In Reading: An Essay, one of five small books in J.B. Priestly's Pleasures of Life series, Hugh Walpole divides readers into two general categories: the ecstatic and the critical, allowing of course for the inevitable overlap. Whether one becomes one kind of reader or the other depends, according to Walpole, on "some dominating influence" that appears usually at the age of fourteen or fifteen, "that solves, partly, the question as to whether he will be in later life an aesthetic or unaesthetic reader." For Walpole it was Walter Scott's Waverly novels that sent him tumbling down the ecstatic path. He became what I. A. Richards used to call "a swoon reader." Scott did it for me, too, but he had help from Raphael Sabatini, Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne, Jack London, the two Edgars – Allen Poe and Rice Burroughs – and, yes, H.C. Witwer. Fourteen seems to be a magic age for the confirmed reader. In “The Lost Childhood,” his short essay on becoming a writer, Graham Greene asked:


What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years? Of course I should be interested to hear that a new novel by Mr. E. M. Forster was going to appear this Spring, but I could never compare that mild expectation of civilized pleasure with the missed heartbeat, the appalled glee I felt when I found on a library shelf a novel by Rider Haggard, Percy Westerman, Captain Brereton or Stanley Weyman.

When Greene was fourteen, his library shelf delivered up Marjorie Bowen's novel The Viper of Milan and "for better or worse the future was struck. From that moment began to write." Much as I'd like to say that The Leather Pushers made me into a writer, or even a golden-glove novice, I'm afraid it wouldn't be true. Nevertheless, I can recall the "missed heartbeat, the appalled glee" I felt when the sequel to The Three Musketeers fell into my clutches. To be young was bookish heaven. At fourteen I read every word of every page; I didn't know you could skip words. Why should I when all authors were infallible; all narrators, reliable; every detail, essential? Digressions simply did not exist. Even the famously long dissertation on the battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables was enthralling, as timely and material as any other scene.

And reading was fun -- not serious fun, mind you, but sequestered, magical, self-absorbed fun; nothing mattered but the story: who won, who survived, who ended up happy, who came up short. Moreover, all novels -- adventure, historical, and fantasy -- were on a par; all equally good. If someone had told me then that the books featuring Tarzan, Scaramouche, the Count of Monte Cristo, Ivanhoe, Jean Valjean, Long John Silver and Kid Roberts were written by single person using seven pseudonyms, I would have concurred at once..

Not that I entirely agree with Walpole. The nature of reading is less definitive than Walpole claims for it. Sure, there are swoon readers, but the swooning is modulated by the years. Once the young reader gets past the stage where the brain sucks in books as if they were bubbles of oxygen, he or she begins to sense that Melville is doing something different from Steinbeck, and that Dickens and Balzac resemble each other in certain respects, but not in all. As children we crossed wide-eyed and trusting into the writer's world; as adults we invite the writer into ours and hold him accountable for how he behaves there.

Walpole erred on the side of optimism, trusting too much in the ecstatic reader's resilience. Surely brevity is part of the ecstatic condition, and by omitting to put temporal brackets around ecstasy, Walpole conveniently forgot that reading evolves into the more or less critical. Schooling and swooning don't mesh, and once we begin to differentiate between the rhetorical devices that stylistically and thematically inform different narratives, the innocence, the thrill, the trusting acceptance disappear. Replaced, to be sure, by the edifying feeling that one is learning something valuable. And, of course, there is pleasure to be had from analysis, but it is a more complicated pleasure than giving oneself over completely to stories. However you slice it, reading critically is a more solemn affair than reading ecstatically.

"The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all bad and good bad books," George Orwell mused, "create in one's mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments." At fourteen, I think I knew that boxing was not a happy or noble profession, but books about it did, in fact, become fabulous countries. From The Leather Pushers I went on to find Nat Fleischer's Pictorial History of Boxing, which steered me to W.C. Heinz's Fireside Book of Boxing, which drew me to biographies of John L. Sullivan and Joe Louis, and eventually I encountered the marvelous A.J. Liebling, and through Liebling, Pierce Egan, the first chronicler of the London Prize Ring.

Those repelled by, or simply indifferent to, boxing may be surprised to learn of the vast literature devoted to it. R.A. Hartley's History and Bibliography of Boxing Books (1989) mentions 2100 pugilistic titles published in the English language. One finds in it such names as Thackeray, Dickens, Byron, Hazlitt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, and Arnold Bennet. American authors are represented by Jack London, Nelson Algren, James T. Farrell, Heywoud Broun, Hemingway, Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates. Witwer merits nine entries, which are immediately followed by four from P.G. Wodehouse. So many scribes of the scuffle, one ponders, so many literary eminencies drawn to the sport.

So who was H.C. Witwer? I didn't know. I didn't even know what his initials stood for, since the 1921 Grosset & Dunlap edition I now own neglects to say. But I knew where to look. Page 290 of volume 21 of The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography shows one column of 75 lines for Harry Charles Witwer, not a bad testimonial for a writer no one remembers. Of German extraction, Witwer was born in 1890 in Athens, Pennsylvania and died thirty-nine years later in Los Angeles. A short life, but one that netted him a considerable reputation as journalist, humorist, fiction writer, and screenwriter. As a young man in Philadelphia, Witwer held down a bunch of odd jobs -- errand boy, hotel clerk, salesman, fight manager -- before landing a position with the St. Cloud (Florida) Tribune. From there he moved on to the New York American, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the New York Sun, for whom he covered the first world war.

"Meantime his attempts to write conventional magazine fiction in correct English were unsuccessful," moralizes The National Cyclopaedia. "Ordinary language failed him as an effective vehicle for his vein of humor." Indeed, had it not been for Mrs. Witwer, clearly an estimable woman and critic, The Leather Pushers might never have become my pugilistic Rosebud. It was she who "finally set him on the right path by suggesting that he write as he spoke." The result being an "unexampled outflow of slang stories ... and with the first one printed he won the interest of the large American reading public which prefers its fiction in the vernacular." Just in case we didn't get it the first time: "He achieved a colossal popularity by producing on paper a manner of speaking rather than of writing." During a fifteen-year period, Witwer published four hundred stories, twenty-five screenplays, fourteen novels and four plays. Whew, to use the vernacular.

When Mrs. Witwer advised her husband to write as he spoke, she was clearly giving the raspberry to Comte De Buffon's dictum that: "Those who write as they speak, even though they speak well, write badly." Knowing instinctively that such a rule applies less scrupulously to one who speaks like a mook to begin with, Mrs. Witwer urged her husband on. A good thing, too. Witwer's prose is brisk, workmanlike, and certainly superior to that found in the story weeklies, dime novels, and hundreds of pulp magazines that catered to the tastes of a vernacular-preferring public.

Me and Cockeyed Egan was tourin' `God's Own Country' (Russian for the West), where the natives would rather be Harold Bell Wright than be president, each with a stable of battlers, picking up beaucoup sugar by havin' `em fight each other over the short routes, when Kane Halliday skidded across my path. Besides Beansy Mullen and Bearcat Reed, a coupla heavies, I had a good welter in Battlin' Lewis, and Egan had K.O. Krouse, another tough boy, which made up a set. Them last two babies mixed with each other more times a month than a chorus girl uses a telephone.

Although Witwer wrote about the sharpies, hustlers, louts, and swaggerers of the sporting world, he wrote about them with élan. Loftiness is a question more of style than of substance. And perhaps with the good Mrs. Witwer proofing the pages as they rolled off the Underwood, H.C. mined a vein of hard-boiled prose that appealed to the audience that pshawed the pulps. He wrote with a wink and a nudge; his style, an implicit compact between author and reader wherein each knows better than the malapropisms and solecisms that bedeck the printed page. In short, we and Witwer are in cahoots. Twain had already led the way with Tom and Huck, and if Harry Witwer is no Mark Twain, neither is he any less proficient than Damon Runyon at conjuring up an urban America that was beginning to strut its stuff in books and movies. The obvious resemblance, of course, is to his exact contemporary Ringhold Wilmer Lardner who, although a more serious and more subtle comic writer, might have no cause to resent comparison.

Having now reread The Leather Pushers, I am amazed at how much must have gone right by me. Who in blazes is Harold Bell Wright and why would some people rather be him than be president? (Wright was a best-selling novelist ninety years ago, author of The Winning of Barbara Worth and The Shepherd of the Hills, which romanticized the lives of country folk.) Other allusions to historical figures and events -- "He won more gold and silver cups than the Crown Prince lifted from Belgium" -- also probably made no sense to a fourteen-year-old. But what did it matter? The prose had verve, it had attitude Here the Kid is introduced:

This guy had been committed to college with the idea that when he'd come out he'd be at the very least a civil engineer, though most of the engineers I know learned their trade in a round-house and yard and was civil enough as far as that part of it goes. Halliday's people was supposed to have a dollar for every egg in a shad roe, and the boy treated the civil engineer thing as a practical joke and college as somethin' he had been gave for Christmas to play with.

I can't say I feel a swoon coming on, but I do see how an adolescent male might have found something terrifically adult about this kind of writing. Of course, at fourteen I also thought the narrator just a means to an end, a way of getting to the real story of Kid Roberts, whose actual name is the phony-sounding Kane Halliday. The truth is that the narrator is more likable and more interesting than his high-born hitter. Kane Halliday, in fact, is that stock character in popular novels of the period, "the Gentleman" -- noble as the day is long, a defender of women, a dutiful son, a boon companion, and as a brave a man as ever fastened on a pair of spats. In short, the Kid's a snore.

At fourteen, however, I must have admired him enormously. In fact, it says something that thirty-five years later I could be disappointed at hearing him say: "When I first went into this game, I made up my mind that under no circumstances would I ever step into a ring with a colored man. Never mind my reasons -- they’re ethical and my own." But the Kid does fight a black man because "a real champion should bar no one, whether it be a contest of brains or brawn." A little of this kind of rhetoric goes a long way, though never toward making a character likable. Halliday sounds like a caffeinated Edward Everett Horton, but without the grace to look foolish while declaiming on this or that outrage. Witwer may have been giving his audience what it expected from someone who had all the advantages, except knowing what life was all about, but the Kid's formal speech grates rather than amuses. Speaking of speaking, an irony almost too good to be true is that a few years after the novel's publication, an actual boxer appeared on the scene who, tough enough to outpoint Jack Dempsey twice, resorted, especially when the press was around, to loony locutions that he regarded as college speak.

Will I now go on to read or reread the thirteen other novels by Witwer, including Fighting Back, the sequel to The Leather Pushers? Probably not, though From Baseball to Bosches and The Classics in Slang make for tempting titles. My search, after all, is over. I have my book and I've read it, too. And I learned something. I learned that Kid Roberts didn't actually like to fight; he fought because his father made some unsound investments and lost the family fortune. Nor, as it turns out, did Dad disapprove of his son's profession; in fact, he got a kick out of it. As for the beautiful, classy young woman, a Senator's daughter, even she rooted for the big, educated palooka when he stepped between the ropes. Oh, it was Yale the Kid went to, not ____ – I mean, a heavyweight champion from Harvard? Come on.

So memory has been corrected. But there is more than a tinge of melancholy in such emendation. Neither the book nor its youthful reader exist for the other as they did on first meeting. The Leather Pushers is dated, long-winded, not without its dull patches. The same might be said of its middle-aged reader. But something else can be said as well. For just a few minutes while paging through the novel, I sensed, through the haze of years and the intellectual veil lowered by critics and well-intentioned professors, what it was like to read as if there were no tomorrow. The pure joy of reading may never be regained, but if we're lucky we can still chance across one of those "good bad books" we read thirty or forty years ago, and recall what's it's like to be a child who reads. Such books are like old snapshots taken at the age when the baby fat is just swimming off the bone, when the personality is just beginning to acknowledge what it will find forever interesting, when the eyes begin to reveal for the first time the person who will be using them for the rest of his life.

From "Agitations" by Arthur Krystal.

Copyright Arthur Krystal

Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press

http://www.yale.edu/yup/books/092164.htm



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