Much has been written about the life and times of champion boxer Joe Louis, and Randy Roberts' new biography is not the first book about the champ to cross Bill Littlefield's desk. But, Bill says, the book offers something special.
Some books about athletes are worth reading because the athletes themselves are fascinating and their stories are compelling.
Other books about athletes deserve attention because the writing is powerful and original.
Randy Roberts’s biography of Joe Louis (Yale University Press) qualifies on both counts. Roberts presents the historical context for understanding how important Joe Louis became, first to blacks in the U.S., and then to Americans in general. He gives us the complexity of the beginning of Louis’s career in the ring; the future champion was managed by two criminals and trained by an alcoholic murderer, all of whom were invested in preserving the fighter’s image as a clean-cut alternative to Jack Johnson, who’d outraged white America by winning the heavyweight championship and commemorating his achievement enthusiastically with whichever women chose to join in the celebrations. Some of those women were white, which eventually led to Johnson’s persecution and imprisonment.
By turns and sometimes all at once, Joe Louis was triumphant, naïve, heroic, magnificently inconsiderate of his wife, generous, victimized by individuals and institutions (especially the U.S. government, and specifically the I.R.S.) drug-addled, dependent, paranoid, and happy as a pig in slops. Randy Roberts’s account of what feels like a full story of Louis’s complex life is worthy of our attention.
This segment aired on January 1, 2011.