"Blackjack": Walter White and Modernism in an Unknown Boxing Novel
Suggs, Jon-Christian, Michigan Quarterly Review
"No black mainstream fiction writer has written a novel using a boxing theme in the same manner as Leonard Gardner in Fat City, Nelson Algren in Never Come Morning, W. C. Heinz in The Professional, Budd Schulberg in The Harder They Fall, or numerous others . . [T]here has been no black novel on boxing by a major black writer." (Gerald Early, The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1994, 13.)
"Dear Bradley: ... I am all well once more and when I get back from Cleveland am going to plunge into the finishing of the novel about the Negro prizefighter about which I believe I told you something. In addition to doing Rope and Faggot I wrote about thirty thousand words of this new novel while in France." (Walter White to William Aspenwall Bradley, June 21, 1929)
Walter White, then Assistant Secretary of the national office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was indeed at work on a major novel about a black boxer in 1929. He had begun it for certain in 1928 in France and perhaps as early as 1925 or 1927 in New York. It appears that he never finished it. The manuscript of 152 pages exists in a file folder at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, where I discovered it in the spring of 1995. With the manuscript are several folders of clippings and notes relating to the novel or to boxing.1
The discovery of the manuscript of "Blackjack" raises a number of questions which I will attempt to frame here. The most obvious is whether this novel is or would have been the effort by a mainstream black fiction writer that would satisfy Early's, and our, sense that something is missing from the literary record of the century. This question, and many of the subsidiary questions which attend it, are not answerable at this stage of my research; some are questions that require critical reflection rather than documentation. Whatever White's current literary reputation, his influence on the development of African-American culture in the 1920s ought to be understood as formative and crucial. His status as a literary and artistic arbitrageur ought not to be underestimated and his work as a novelist ought not to be overlooked. The discovery of his attempt to write a truly modern novel of American values framed by the lives and careers of a black boxer and a young black intellectual should draw renewed attention to his extraordinary career between 1918 and 1930.
Context: Letters and Life
As a consequence of his literary life, as well as of the comfortably enclosed world of black intellectual life in New York City in the early 1920s, White became friends with his mentor, James Weldon Johnson, and Johnson's brother, Rosamond, and with most of the participants in what we commonly identify as the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Alain Locke, Jessie Faucet, Rudolph Fisher. Among his white friends were Carl Van Vechten, H. L. Mencken, George and Ira Gershwin, Arthur Spingarn, and Sinclair Lewis. Through the NAACP, White made and maintained contacts with most of the black bourgeoisie in major cities throughout the country. White seemed to know everybody and everybody knew him.
But beyond this superficial account lie some more difficult questions. Why did this man, whose previous novels had emerged from his own experience with the most central issues of race of his day, choose to write a novel about boxing? In The Culture of Bruising, Gerald Early notes that boxing, "the metaphorical demonstration of the late-nineteenth-century view of the world" (i.e., Social Darwinism), was one of four sports (baseball, racewalking, and jockeying were the others) in which there was a significant black presence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For a bright young man such as White, who had been educated prior to the Great War in a traditional liberal arts curriculum, the nineteenth century was the cradle from which one grew into a perception of the world. …