The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

The Boxer's Pain, the Bull's Prose: Race, American Boxing, and Hemingway's Ring Aesthetics

Jesús Costantino
University of Notre Dame

For an author clearly dedicated to violence, manliness, sporting culture, and pain, it is odd that Ernest Hemingway expresses an aesthetic discomfort in depictions of boxing, a discomfort that goes unremarked in critical studies of his work. As a cultural form tasked with voicing class, race, ethnic, and national conflict, the sport of boxing falls prey to what Hemingway identifies as the unwelcome “complications” of context. In response, Hemingway turns to the Spanish bullring as an apparent solution to this aesthetic problem; however, by exposing Hemingway’s frequent transposition of boxing into bullfighting, this essay argues that despite his best efforts, Hemingway cannot extricate “simple” aesthetic experience from “complex” racial experience, nor can he escape its Americanisms. By working outward from Hemingway’s work, this essay begins to map the routes of a transnational American racial imaginary lying submerged within the history of the modernist avant-garde, and aims to recognize the underappreciated ways in which boxing and boxers are an important part of that history.

Keywords: boxing, bullfighting, race, violence, transnational, Ernest Hemingway

Just as in the ceremony the magician first of all marked out the limits of the area where the sacred powers were to come into play, so every work of art describes its own circumference which closes it off from actuality.
—Adorno and Horkheimer (19)

For an author clearly dedicated to violence, manliness, sporting culture, and pain, it is odd that Ernest Hemingway so often turns and runs in the face of his boxers. Like his character Nick Adams—who literally runs away in horror from the boxers in both “The Killers” and “The Battler”—Hemingway expresses remarkable squeamishness at the pain experienced by boxers. More than a source of mere psychological discomfort, the depiction of boxing presents an epistemological, phenomenological, and aesthetic obstacle to the author. Even though he had practiced boxing from a very young age and continued to promulgate an image of himself as a proficient boxer throughout his lifetime, the sport takes on a uniquely diminished aura in his work.1  It marks a well-defined barrier that his poetics of suffering will not cross. As a cultural form tasked with voicing class, race, ethnic, and national conflict, the sport falls prey to what Hemingway identifies as the unwelcome “complications” of context (Death in the Afternoon 2). 

In boxing, context is everything. The sport coheres around its ability to stage social reality in easily digested, schematic, agonistic, deeply contextual binaries. Spectators best understand the violent spectacle in the ring when it successfully renders complex social relationships into the seemingly simple, albeit brutal, competition of two fighting men. As the epicenter of the boxing world shifted to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American racial politics became the central conceit of prizefights domestically and abroad. Interracial fights were an especially heated subject, not only among spectators and legislators, but also among the fighters themselves; well into the 1930s, many high-profile white fighters refused to cross the color line by entering the ring with black fighters. While not unique to the United States, the color line was stronger and more pervasive in the US, a fact whose consequence was the professional exile of African-American boxers to Europe and Latin America.2 

Further, the sport’s ready contrast to bourgeois culture made boxing appealing to the international avant-garde, among whom the sport was widely discussed, practiced, and depicted. Beyond its perceived brutality, the sport came to stand in for the perspective of the urban proletariat in all of its racial, ethnic, and international variety. However, boxing also carried with it an inescapably American flavor, and alongside jazz, boxing was a primary conduit through which the European avant-garde tapped into African-American culture.3  Boxing’s many contextual inflections were not incidental to the interest of the avant-garde; on the contrary, its contexts were what generated aesthetic attention in the first place. Hemingway, however, is more circumspect in his relationship to the sport.

He and his narrators are drawn inextricably to violent spectacle, but as his (and their) aversion to boxing demonstrates, not to its social context. Even though he turns from the boxing ring in his prose and toward the Spanish bullfight, boxing remains a submerged, but nevertheless significant, presence. Attempting to avoid the messy historical particularities central to the structural meaning of boxing, Hemingway finds in the ritualized geometries of the bullring a clean distillation of universal artistic principles. Through the spectacle of the bull’s violent death, he believes he can abstract violence from contextual “complications” like racial politics in order to “face death” directly and unflinchingly as though it were a thing to be seen and felt independently of its causes and effects (Dita 104). If he can concretize in prose the “most fundamental” abstraction of all, so his argument goes, then he can truly and accurately represent anything no matter how seemingly abstract it might be (Dita 2). Hemingway seeks to divorce violence from its historical, political, and social context, and in so doing remove prose aesthetics from the contingencies of everyday life; however, in failing to accomplish the first goal, he inadvertently suggests the impossibility of the second.4 

Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the unstable analogical relationship between boxing and bullfighting. Both like and unlike bullfighting, boxing occupies a troubled place in Hemingway’s oeuvre. If bullfighting offers to Hemingway the possibility for radical decontextualization, boxing threatens the opposite. Hemingway conceives of the bullring as an isolable space that emblematizes the aim of his prose art, while he imagines the boxing ring as an intensely permeable site where aesthetics is indistinguishable from its surrounding social and historical context. Within the seemingly simple analogy between boxing and bullfighting lies a way into Hemingway’s own particular struggle with the relationship between form and content, between abstraction and history. By exposing Hemingway’s transposition of boxing into bullfighting, I argue that despite his best efforts, Hemingway cannot extricate “simple” aesthetic experience from “complex” racial experience, nor can he escape its Americanisms.

Hemingway’s prose style and aesthetic philosophy depend on his ability to confront pain, but only when he channels that experience into a seemingly clear, legible spectacle like the Spanish bullfight does Hemingway believe that he can articulate it in an aesthetically “pure” fashion. As others have argued, the modernist goal of aesthetic purity is not far removed from the political goal of racial purity, but further, as I will argue, a close examination of Hemingway’s curiously vexed relationship to boxing begins to show in negative outline the specifically American racial history behind the modernist pursuit of aesthetic purity.5 

In focusing on Hemingway’s odd circumlocutions around boxing, I intend to point toward the more broadly intertwined transnational histories of modernist aesthetics and American racial politics, and specifically toward the ways in which American boxing culture serves as a bridge between the two histories. When French Incohérent avant-garde artist Paul Bilhaud produced his black monochrome work “Combat de nègres dans un tunnel” (“Negroes fighting in a tunnel”) in 1882 in Paris, Bilhaud could not have known that his racist-aesthetic joke would find its fullest expression forty years later in Hemingway’s own dark-colored blind spot with respect to racially marked boxers. Nevertheless, by working outward from Hemingway’s work, we can begin to map the routes of a transnational American racial imaginary lying submerged within the history of the modernist avant-garde, and to recognize the under appreciated ways in which boxing and boxers are an important part of that history.

The Ineffable Boxer

Written for the Toronto Star in the fall of 1923, Ernest Hemingway’s first piece on bullfighting compares the violent Spanish spectacle to American sports. The seats surrounding the bullring are arranged “just like a football stadium,” the horses “make Spark Plug look as trim and sleek as a King’s Plate winner,” and the bullfighters “all have the easy grace and slight slouch of the professional athlete . . . [and] might be major league ball players” (“Bullfighting Is Not a Sport—It Is a Tragedy” 341). His extended analogy ostensibly facilitates the description of a foreign and unfamiliar practice to his readers back in Canada and the United States. But the title of the piece, “Bullfighting Is Not a Sport—It Is a Tragedy,” betrays the complexities and contradictions of the seemingly intuitive comparison. Bullfighting is, according to Hemingway, nothing like a sport, and “it was never supposed to be. It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy” (344). Considering the increasingly significant role that bullfighting comes to occupy as both a subject of and aesthetic model for his writing over the course of the 1920s, this paradoxical metaphor bears deeper exploration.

This paradox—using sports to describe something that he’s arguing is definitively not a sport—becomes more acute in the decade between that first bullfighting piece and his extended study in Death in the Afternoon published in 1932. Not long after his first introduction to bullfighting in the early 1920s, he remarks in a postcard to Gertrude Stein that after witnessing a series of impressive bullfights, “boxing looks paler and paler.” As Hemingway develops a pronounced artistic affinity for bullfighting, he simultaneously develops a more noticeable distaste for boxing in his fiction. For Hemingway, boxing comes to represent prose style at its most multifarious. He values bullfighting for its “absolute purity of line” and its remarkable simplicity, but he treats boxing like a whipping boy that embodies the unwanted complexity, ineffability, and unpredictability of lived experience—what Mikhail Bakhtin has described as the “spontaneity of the inconclusive present” which defines novelistic discourse (7). Hemingway’s resistance to the heterogeneous language inherent to the genre of the novel is inextricably bound to his discomfort with boxers’ strong association with cultural heterogeneity. What begins as a seemingly innocuous parallel in his piece for the Toronto Star becomes a fundamental aesthetic conflict in Hemingway’s later writing.

Whereas bullfighting, according to his claims in Death in the Afternoon, constitutes the cornerstone of his entire aesthetic project, boxing appears peripherally and by analogy throughout Hemingway’s work. His works include a number of boxers but seldom include any actual boxing; The Sun Also Rises, Green Hills of Africa, “The Killers,” and “The Battler” all include important characters who are also boxers, but none of these works gives an account of boxing itself in any detail. The original draft of The Sun Also Rises includes a lengthy account of Jake and Bill attending the Kid Francis-Charles Ledoux fight at the Cirque de Paris, but Hemingway cut the section in subsequent revisions (The Sun Also Rises: A Facsimile 227-234). As elsewhere, this cut demonstrates one of the many ways in which Hemingway made deliberate efforts to minimize the presence of boxing in favor of more detailed accounts of bullfighting. Hemingway scholar Frederic Joseph Svoboda claims that during the revision of the novel Hemingway “carefully developed the novel’s bullfight scenes while cutting the similarly exciting and immediate description of the Ledoux-Kid Francis prize fight to only a mention” because it was thematically too close to Romero’s corridas (114). Such a claim, however, makes it sound as though Hemingway simply tossed a coin. My claim, in contrast, is that Hemingway engages in a deliberate and carefully crafted process of submerging and subduing his boxing references in favor of bullfighting.

On the surface, Hemingway’s turn from boxing to bullfighting provides a way out of the problems of context. In a seemingly non-hierarchical way, boxing pits cultural, regional, ethnic, national, and ideological differences against one another. Spectators’ personal and financial investments hinge entirely on the sport’s ability to stage social differences in ritual combat. As Elliott J. Gorn claims, “boxing [gives] elemental expression to deep social conflicts, to the pervasive parochialism dividing the working class” and is thus able to “transform chaos into meaning” (Gorn 136, 146). Taken further, boxing “gambles” with identitarian politics, offering no certain and reassuring outcome of one affiliation over another. For this reason, interracial fights faced additional scrutiny from bourgeois legislators and reformers in the early twentieth century, especially in the United States. When Jack Johnson faced Jim Jeffries for the heavyweight title in 1910, the concern and occasional paranoia had less to do with a black man and a white man entering the ring as equals than it did with the presumed chaos that might ensue should Johnson win. For Hemingway, writing a decade later and an ocean away, this fundamental uncertainty found in boxing made for bad art. In contrast to the fluctuating affiliations and unpredictable winners and losers of the boxing spectacle, the certain and violent death of the bull provides an absolute, hierarchical, decontextualized, objective, and “tragic” center around which to build a viable aesthetics. 

In the few direct accounts of boxing and boxers in Hemingway’s work, we can see what happens in the structural uncertainty of the prize ring. In his story “Fifty Grand,” for example, the exchange of insults during the boxing match is a series of deliberately mistaken racial and ethnic slurs. Brennan calls Walcott a “nigger,” a “polak son-of-a-bitch,” a “Dane,” and a “Bohemian” over the course of the fight. Walcott in turn keeps shouting to Brennan, “Be yourself!” Obviously a euphemism for a much stronger insult closer to “Fuck yourself,” the phrase carries the added weight of the identitarian flux circulating the ring. From Hemingway’s perspective, writing about and watching (foreign) bullfighting readily decontextualizes the familiarity of (American) boxing. That two boxers might metamorphose into a bull and bullfighter is less a metaphorical move than it is a crucial hermeneutic shift. For Hemingway to represent boxing and boxers faithfully would also bring the sport’s concomitant complications of identitarian and interpretive uncertainties to the fore. 

Of course, there is nothing inherently ahistorical or depoliticized about Spanish bullfighting. Far from it. Pablo Picasso, for example, drew extensively from images and iconography of bullfighting in his overtly political allegories, most famously in Guernica.6  Even fellow American expatriate writer Gertrude Stein, who first introduced Hemingway to bullfighting, understood the intense nationalism and political pageantry of the bullfight.7  For Hemingway, however, it is the violent spectacle’s distance from—and submerged resemblance to—American boxing that lends it a sense of abstraction, of violence without reference, of ritual without allegory. Hemingway is less interested in the bullfight’s Spanish-ness than he is in its not-American-ness and its not-boxing-ness. It is no coincidence that his well-known iceberg metaphor appears in the middle of his study of bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon; the iceberg is a theory of aesthetic negation, and bullfighting provides him an ideal and abstract negative space. Boxing frequently stands in for that which is being negated: American racial history. 

Even in a rare exception in which boxing does make it to the surface, as in his short story “Fifty Grand,” the boxer’s psyche remains alien to Hemingway’s literary imagination. The narrative is told from the perspective of the boxer’s trainer Jerry Doyle, and in this story, as elsewhere, boxing and boxers perpetually suggest an impenetrable and discomfiting blankness in Hemingway’s work. Doyle tells the reader many times that the boxer Jack Brennan “doesn’t say anything” (309), “didn’t say anything” (310), sat “without saying anything” (311), “didn’t talk” (316), and “don’t talk any” (322). As we see in the story, though, Brennan’s speechlessness is not a literal speechlessness since he has just as much dialogue in the story as any other character. His “laconic” nature signals instead a figurative absence. From his trainer’s perspective, he is the dupe of others’ machinations and is unable to articulate any sense of what’s happening to him, and the final unanticipated twist at the end of the story hinges on Brennan’s consciousness being utterly inscrutable to both the reader and the narrator. 

We see similar tropes in Hemingway’s two Nick Adams stories about boxers. “The Battler” and “The Killers” present washed-up former boxers. Both boxers are pathologically self-destructive and bear the marks (both literal and symbolic) of defeat and decay. In “The Battler,” the boxer Ad is a living, walking stand-in for self-annihilation and emasculation. He is physically deformed, mentally unstable, described as a monstrous corpse, and cared for by a woman and a black man—as low as a Hemingway character can get. Bugs, Ad’s black caregiver, knocks Ad out when he starts threatening Nick. While laying prone, “his face looked bad, the eyes open” in an unnerving resemblance to a dead body (136). Nick again confronts the horrific specter of a doomed boxer in “The Killers.” When faced with the sight of former prizefighter Ole Andreson’s prone body lying in bed inertly awaiting his imminent doom at the hands of two hitmen, Nick flees town (289). As with Ad in “The Battler,” Nick sees in Ole an embodiment of incomprehensible pain and suffering.

While it’s true that Hemingway’s work is full of these male characters—failed, abused, beaten, dead, dying, and self-destructive—only Hemingway’s boxers bear so much of the onus and flavor of defeat. In contrast, his non-boxers almost always achieve an accompanying sense of transcendence, transformation, martyrdom, and self-realization in moments of death and failure. Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not proves his moral worth in death. Francis Macomber’s death in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” signifies his transformation into a more masculine man. The near-insignificant death of Paco in “The Capital of the World” signifies his entrance into manhood. Robert Jordan’s imminent death at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls signifies his linguistic and political transformation. Harry’s death at the end of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” signifies his transformation into a full-fledged writer. And so on. There are so many transformative moments of death and dying, in fact, that to list all of these characters and works would be to list the entire Hemingway bibliography. In an early and lasting estimation of Hemingway’s suffering male characters, Robert Penn Warren remarks similarly that “[t]he typical [Hemingway] character faces defeat or death. But out of defeat or death the character usually manages to salvage something” (1-2). Like Hemingway, Warren seems to acknowledge the possibility of an exception—noting that these are merely the “typical” characters who “usually” find meaning in the experience—but he does not go so far as to define what that exception is or what its significance might be. Warren later comes even closer to acknowledging this exception when he recapitulates Hemingway’s belief that “the code and the discipline are important because they can give meaning to life which otherwise seems to have no meaning or justification” (3). Warren leaves the undisciplined “otherwise” unexplained. For Hemingway’s non-boxers, the experiences of death, near death, and immense physical pain offer the promise (and achievement) of personal fulfillment. There is a psychic mutation in these experiences, a farther shore that exists beyond and through pain and death, but for Hemingway’s boxers, there is no regenerative, restorative, or fulfilling moment. “The Battler” presents an image out of Dante’s Inferno in which Ad is doomed for eternity to repeat his defeat senselessly. Likewise, Ole Andreson in “The Killers” is left eternally awaiting his murderers, an inert emblem of living death and senseless pain. 

Hemingway, like Nick Adams, is haunted by these pugilistic scenes and characters, and his turn to Spanish bullfighting signals his search for a viable aesthetic alternative that allows him to distill a “simpler” and more rational form for violence. Not all of Hemingway’s contemporaries felt compelled, as he did, to make sense of violence. Violence and pain were productive conceits, methods, and subjects for others in a variety of international avant-garde communities. One might easily argue, for example, that the Italian Futurists abhorred the sense-making project of bourgeois morality and aesthetics, and imagined a world that instead hedonistically embraces the chaos of mass destruction (“Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice” (Marinetti 53)). Or closer to hand, as Evan Rhodes has argued, poets like Ezra Pound found in the wildness of boxing an aesthetic model for productive chaos (367). Even though Hemingway chose order over chaos, his turn from boxing to bullfighting places Hemingway squarely within a much larger set of engagements scattered throughout the modernist avant-garde. Violence, or as Hemingway might say “violent death,” was not merely on everyone’s mind; it was the centerpiece of almost any modernist manifesto worth its salt.8 

Bulls in the Prize Ring 

By the time Death in the Afternoon was published in 1932, Hemingway had fully fleshed out a way of framing his career as a prose writer through the conceit of bullfighting—even as he persisted in his private life to fashion himself as a boxer-cum-writer.9  In the opening pages of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway describes his first experiences with bullfighting. In this oft-cited account, he closely ties his development as a writer to his development as a bullfight spectator:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced . . . The only place where you could see life and death, i.e. violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. (2)

Undertaking a study of Spanish bullfighting is, according to Hemingway, crucial to fashioning his writing skills. It is the simple pageantry of “violent death” that makes bullfighting so interesting to Hemingway, and he identifies in bullfighting an intensely appealing dramatic structure whose climactic centerpiece is the death of the bull. However, as “simple” and “fundamental” as this drama might seem to him, he consistently understands and articulates it by analogy to boxing. While the most obvious explanation for this association is Hemingway’s intended North American audience—those presumably more familiar with boxing than with bullfighting—he simultaneously acknowledges and disavows the two spectacles’ resemblance so thoroughly that an audience only familiar with boxing would find no reliable point of comparison. More than merely facilitating his analogy, the specificities of boxing culture in the US are transmuted and translated into the Spanish bullfight. The “violent death” at the center of the bullfight points not only to the immediate sight—and enormous pleasure—of a man squaring off against a bull in the bullring, but also to its disavowed referent: two men standing toe to toe in a boxing ring as representatives of a tangle of deep racial and class antagonisms. 

As with his early bullfighting piece for the Toronto Star, a confusing and paradoxical metaphorical relationship arises between bullfighting and boxing. As frequently as Hemingway compares boxing to bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon, he insists on a fundamental difference: a “boxer does not face death” in the way a bullfighter does (104). Despite the numerous comparisons he has made suggesting otherwise, he disavows the correspondence between the two rituals based on what he sees as their most fundamental difference. If “violent death” is the kernel from which the bullfight spectacle grows into significance, boxing lacks a similar point of origin because the “boxer does not face death.”

However, there’s a subtle disingenuousness at work in his claim. It is the bulls, rather than the bullfighters, that are most often compared to boxers in Death in the Afternoon. Even if Hemingway is right that boxers are nothing like bullfighters, he makes no similar claim disavowing the resemblance of boxers to bulls. The boxing metaphor stands completely unobstructed so long as it pertains to the bulls only. Bulls “are not fed after they leave the corral any more than a boxer would be fed immediately before a fight” (29). Bulls lose their ideal conditioning in late summer “unless they have been fed up on grain which makes them fat, sleek and glossy and very violent for a few minutes but as unfit for fighting as a boxer that has trained exclusively on potatoes and ale” (49). The difference between a bull who escapes the ring and a bull who “welcomes the fight” is like “the difference between street fights which are usually infinitely more exciting, portentous and useful, but out of place here, and the winning of a championship in boxing” (112). In one of his most extended comparisons, a good bullfighter must learn to prepare for a bull’s counter:

[T]he attacker must lay himself open and the counter is certain to arrive if it is as fast as
the attack, since it has the opening before it while the attack must try to create that opening. In boxing Gene Tunney was an example of a counter-puncher; all those boxers who have lasted longest and taken least punishment have been counter-punchers too. The bull, when he is in querencia, counters the sword stroke with his horn when he sees it coming as the boxer counters the lead, and many men have paid with their lives, or with bad wounds, because they did not bring the bull out of his querencia before they went in to kill. (150-151)

The passage begins as an explanation of why a bullfighter must be a good counter-attacker, but as the comparison continues, Hemingway almost imperceptibly transitions to talking about bulls performing counter-attacks instead. He begins by describing how a bullfighter should ready his counter by drawing the bull out of querencia with an initial attack that would allow the bullfighter to counter, but ends by suggesting how bulls often prove to have the superior “counter punch.”

Something is being left unsaid, then, in his claim that boxers do not “face death” in the way of the bullfighters since it is not the bullfighters or their death that lay at the heart of the spectacle, but rather the bull’s. Hemingway explicitly denies the analogy between boxers and bullfighters, while implicitly drawing a stronger parallel between boxers and bulls. He leaves unacknowledged his deeper understanding of the complicated thematic relationship between the bull’s certain “violent death,” the bullfighter who “faces death,” and the boxer’s vexed catachrestic association with both. By shifting the weight of the comparison from bullfighter to bull, Hemingway has slyly cast the source of his analogy, the boxer, into the role of the sacrificial, non-human victim. Conversely, the original title of his short story “The Killers” was “The Matadors.” In this instance, by translating the Spanish bullfight into the story of a boxer and a gangland hit, Hemingway also transforms the bull back into a boxer. But unlike the bull’s death, Hemingway disallows our witnessing the boxer’s violent death. Here again the falseness of the bad-faith analogy rears its head. 

Toni Morrison notes a similar imaginative slippage in her reading of Hemingway’s Africanist imagination in To Have and Have Not. She notes the strange double-speak and linguistic acrobatics that go hand-in-hand with Hemingway’s depiction of black characters in the novel, especially in his depiction of Wesley, who remains nameless and silent through much of the novel. As Morrison points out, “Harry [the white protagonist] says ‘Wesley’ when speaking to the black man in direct dialogue; Hemingway writes ‘nigger’ when as narrator he refers to him” (71). She goes on to argue that it is this slippage (between narrated “nigger” and directly addressed “Wesley”) that locates the character “in a territory between man and animal [that] thus withholds specificity even while marking it.” And when Wesley finds himself in a position of active engagement in the plot—steering Harry’s boat and spotting a patch of flying fish ahead—Morrison draws attention to the fact that Hemingway resorts to an “improbable” sentence construction: Harry “saw he had seen” the fish ahead (72). For her, the sentence reflects the twists and turns Hemingway takes in his writing to avoid granting agency to a black man. If Wesley actually sees the fish ahead, then it must be Harry who actively, at least in linguistic terms, sees Wesley seeing the fish ahead. 

My point, however, is not to make the unsurprising or uninteresting point that Hemingway is a racist. Nor do I think this is entirely Morrison’s point. Instead, what I find telling in Morrison’s reading of Hemingway’s black characters alongside my reading of Hemingway’s boxers is that both of our readings play out in strikingly similar ways. What Morrison has tapped into and what I am attempting to unearth is the fact that Hemingway’s pursuit of “simplest things” has a specifically American racial history made visible through his alternatingly oblique and overt references to boxing.

The Story of Robert Cohn’s Nose

In the novel The Sun Also Rises—Hemingway’s most extended expression of the troubled likening of boxing to bullfighting—the many aesthetic consequences of the lopsided comparison play out through Robert Cohn. That Cohn is a boxer, a Jew, and a scapegoat for the expatriates’ disaffection and ennui proves more salient in this light. Not only is he compared to castrated or less powerful bulls during the festival of San Fermin, but the death of the bull in Pedro Romero’s climactic fight is an obvious double for the singled-out Cohn. Though the terms of the metaphors shift, Cohn always finds himself on the low end of the totem pole. Jake and Bill jokingly compare Cohn to the steers who “quiet down the bulls and keep them from breaking their horns against the stone walls, or goring each other,” leading them to conclude dryly that it “must be swell being a steer” (138). Among men, Cohn is a bull; and among bulls, he is a steer. The festival of San Fermin itself seems, from Jake’s perspective at least, to have to do with foreigners, and the bullfight at the heart of the festival ritualizes the sacrifice of some outsider. Thus, it comes as little surprise that Cohn’s “foreign-ness” so closely parallels the treatment of the steers (among the bulls) and of the bull (among the bullfighters).

Cohn as both Jew and boxer echoes the ongoing demographic shifts happening back in the United States, one of many such reminders to the expatriates in Europe. The 1920s were a high point in the number of Jewish fighters in professional American boxing. By 1928 there were more Jews in the sport in the United States than any other ethnic, racial, or nationally defined group (Bodner 1). The international circulation of the American boxing scene, the unshakable cultural counterpart to the expatriates themselves, dogs Jake in the form of Cohn. The physical appearance of Robert Cohn’s nose—both a boxer’s nose and a Jew’s nose—simultaneously marks him apart and reveals his foreordained doom just as Ole in “The Killers” and Ad in “The Battler” bear physical signs that signify their inevitable damnation. Cohn’s physical injuries merely repeat the psychic injuries of “being treated as a Jew at Princeton,” and despite Jake’s claim that Cohn boxes to “counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness,” Cohn takes no pleasure in the sport (11). The pain of verbal abuse parallels his inability to take pleasure in his supposed means (boxing) of overcoming that mistreatment, a parallel that carries over into the visible sign of his broken nose. Cohn “cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it,” and getting his nose “permanently flattened” by his trainer only “increased Cohn’s distaste for boxing.” Even Jake cannot help but compound Cohn’s pain, adding in a fit of wry anti-Semitism that the injury “certainly improved his nose” (11).

The story of Cohn’s nose begins the novel, and Jake uses this short history as a jumping-off point for a host of other reasons to dislike Cohn. From Jake’s perspective what makes Cohn so unbearable is that he is a “black hole” for mistreatment. He is detestable because he can be endlessly detested: 

I do not know how people could say such terrible things to Robert Cohn. There are people to whom you could not say insulting things. They give you a feeling that the world would be destroyed, would actually be destroyed before your eyes, if you said certain things. But here was Cohn taking it all. Here it was, all going on right before me, and I did not even feel an impulse to try and stop it. (56) 

As with Ole and Ad, here we are presented with a boxer whose suffering is so incomprehensible that nothing can come of it; no libidinous psychic outcome can be achieved, even by roundabout means. Jake acts like a deer caught in the headlights when directly confronted with the bottomless depths of Cohn’s ability to “take it.” Jake later sees Cohn behave just as senselessly while his fiancée Frances browbeats him: “His face was white. Why did he sit there? Why did he keep on taking it like that?” (58). Immediately following this spectacle, Jake flees the scene and returns to his hotel just as Nick Adams had fled from the scene of Ole Andreson awaiting his killers. 

Robert Cohn himself—a professional writer of fiction—cannot voice his own pain; instead, it is the novel’s narrator Jake who seeks to make psychic and verbal sense of Cohn’s situation, often at Cohn’s expense. That is to say, Jake finds the pleasure in Cohn’s pain. In the opening pages of the novel, Jake focuses on Cohn’s nose and imagines a number of stories explaining its misshapenness:

I always had the suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been middleweight boxing champion, and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened or seen something, or that he had, maybe, bumped into something as a young child. (12) 

It isn’t enough that Cohn’s nose simply marks his difference as a boxer and as a Jew; it’s that very marked-ness that begs for expression and verbalization. The effect is similar to the one noted by Erich Auerbach with respect to Odysseus’s scar and Mrs. Ramsay’s brown stocking, but rather than indicating either the flattening of a character’s history (as with the scar) or a turning inward (as with the stocking), Cohn’s nose leads in both directions simultaneously (Auerbach 6, 529). Cohn’s flattened nose is both a “flattened” surface exposing his life’s history for all the world to see and an infinitely deep “black hole” inviting endless narrative speculation. Cohn’s nose conveys the richness of narrative possibility both inside and out, but it is a richness that depends on a perspective that is both anti-Semitic and anti-pugilistic.
As Walter Benn Michaels argues, Jake’s discomfort with Cohn’s presence and Jake’s pursuit of ethnic purity among his immediate circle of friends correspond directly with Hemingway’s aesthetic interests in expertise, directness, and clarity, a connection that Michaels calls “the racial discourse of aficion” (13). What is missing from Michaels’s reading, however, is the fact that bullfighting aficion is distinctly different from boxing fandom, at least in the work of Hemingway. Aficion, in contrast to boxing fandom, requires re-contextualizing bullfighting with its racial history, and as I have argued, it was this ostensible separation between bullfighting and racial history—especially an American racial history—that drew Hemingway to it in the first place. In an extended footnote, Michaels gives a brief racial-historical reading of Spanish bullfighting, noting in particular that its origins correspond to the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. From this perspective, the bullfight arose as a pageant celebrating Spanish racial, religious, and national purity (163-164, n133). The unintended irony, then, is that Hemingway redeploys the bullfight according to its original purpose, but compounds its anti-Semitism to leverage it also against hacks, cultural poseurs, and boxers.

Importantly, Jake’s narrative pleasure derives from crucial aesthetic components meant to guard against the aesthetic threat—i.e., ineffability—posed by Cohn and his masochism. Jake’s relationship to Cohn signals an ongoing dialectic in the novel between the experience of pain and its pleasurable articulation. Cohn is a social outcast who embodies that which cannot be represented (pleasure-less pain), the negation constitutive of Jake’s need to verbalize. Jake plays the role of Freudian analyst, attempting to solve the “economic problem” posed by Cohn’s masochism. Nor is this “economic problem” purely a psychic one. His unaccountable excesses are also aesthetic and Semitic and gesture toward the racially encoded aesthetic philosophies of Anglo-American modernism. As scholars of Ezra Pound have claimed for decades, Pound’s sense of “economy” had as much to do with anti-Semitism as with the efficiency of words.10  Similarly, while Cohn can economize his words, he cannot “economize” his Jewishness—which is why when Cohn attempts verbal efficiency in a telegram (“Vengo Jueves” [“I come Thursday”]), Jake and Bill still find him uncouthly excessive (132-133).

Bullfighting and boxing each, according to Hemingway, approach the experience of pain in very different ways with each leading to very different aesthetic possibilities. Bullfighting indulges Hemingway’s fantasy of a closed-off aesthetic unity and purity (aesthetic terms with undeniably loaded racial connotations), while boxing unwittingly returns him to those points where racial, ethnic, and class histories threaten to explode those clean boundaries with “the spontaneity of the inconclusive present” (Bakhtin 27). In the first, pain can be isolated, articulated, and understood; in the second, it remains perpetually elusive.

Conclusion: The American Scene 

Hemingway’s translation of boxing into bullfighting also transposes distinctly American experiences into specifically European ones. At the beginning of Book II in The Sun Also Rises, Jake meets up with Bill Gorton in Paris. Bill had been in the States for a while and had witnessed a “whole crop of great young light heavyweights. Any one of them was a good prospect to grow up, put on weight and trim Dempsey” (75-76). After he returns to Europe, Bill witnesses a “remarkable thing” in Vienna that “seemed better than it was” (76). He relates to Jake the events surrounding a prizefight, told in the subject-less, article-less, efficient style of a telegraphed note:

“Remember something about a prize-fight. Enormous Vienna prize-fight. Had a nigger in it. Remember the nigger perfectly.”
“Go on.”
“Wonderful nigger. Looked like Tiger Flowers, only four times as big. All of a sudden everybody started to throw things. Not me. Nigger’d just knocked local boy down. Nigger put up his glove. Wanted to make a speech. Awful noble-looking nigger. Started to make a speech. Then local white boy hit him. Then he knocked white boy cold. Then everybody commenced to throw chairs. Nigger went home with us in our car. Couldn’t get his clothes. Wore my coat. Remember the whole thing now.” (76-77) 

Even though this fight takes place in Vienna, there are many signs that the terms of the fight have been only slightly displaced from an originally American context. Bill vaguely recalls the fight, and even though some time separates Bill’s trip to the US and his later trip to Vienna, the two trips blend together in the retelling. Not only does the riot in Vienna closely resemble the exaggerated tales associated with boxing by anti-boxing legislators in the US at the time, but also Bill’s repeated focus on the unnamed “nigger” and the whiteness of the crowd gives the ensuing riot a racial tone peculiar to the American context. 

Bill’s story points to the increasingly American flavor of the global color line and to the parallel conduits of American modernism. The easy blend among modernism, American culture, and boxing was a common nexus in the popular and avant-garde imaginary, especially in Europe. As historian Kasia Boddy argues, in Europe in the 1920s, “‘American’ translated into ‘the urban,’ and ‘the modern,’ [and] ‘boxing’ increasingly featured as a synecdoche for all of these…[B]oxers are frequently found in lists, assemblages, collages and films that claimed to represent cities, Americanism or modernity” (225). Bill’s hazy recollection has the effect of summoning this transnational “Americanism,” which he delivers as though it were a telegram from home. The fact that Bill elsewhere mentions a “local Harvard man” and compares the fighter to Tiger Flowers (the first African-American middleweight champion) confuses the location even further (77).11  Bill collapses vaguely remembered events into a jumble of national signifiers. This is not to say that Bill (or Jake) necessarily misremembers where the fight actually took place, but instead highlights a geographic and cultural displacement at work.

As Hemingway scholars have long noted, The Sun Also Rises contains a variety of boxing references that lie just beneath the surface, a quality that critic H.R. Stone back calls the novel’s pervasive “boxing subtext” (142). But like Bill’s story of the fight in Vienna, it is a subtext that emerges distorted and blurred. Among the likely sources for Bill’s account of the Vienna prizefight is a championship bout between Senegalese fighter Battling Siki and French fighter Georges Carpentier in 1923—a fight that Hemingway and Ezra Pound attended while they were in Paris (Mitchell 10). It was a controversial, and quite possibly fixed, fight during which the crowd turned on the dirty tactics of Carpentier (perhaps Bill’s “local boy”) who repeatedly head-butted Siki. The referee originally called the fight in favor of Carpentier—accusing Siki of illegally tripping him—but the Parisian crowd went wild, forcing the judges to confer after the fight and overturn the referee’s call in favor of Siki. 

Bill’s story echoes the events of this fight, but with an inverted outcome; the black fighter wins, but the crowd turns on him instead of the “local boy.” Bill even mentions to Jake that the fight “seemed better than it was.” Siki was no American himself, but American racial attitudes directly affected who and, more importantly, where he could fight. Even if the Parisian crowd sided with the African fighter, the boxing establishment—promoters, owners of venues, other fighters—turned against him following his win against Carpentier. As scholar Theresa Runstedtler claims, the apparent contradiction between Siki’s adulation by spectators and his ostracism by the establishment reflects the transnational conduits of peculiarly American racial prejudices. If the French prided themselves on their racial tolerance, then any sign of racism among the French, Runstedtler argues, was blamed at the time on the corrupting presence of “American soldiers and tourists in Paris” and other American influences (239). From this perspective, I might argue that Bill, by evincing simultaneously his enlightened egalitarianism and his profound racism, is an American playing at being French (or a Frenchman playing at being American); Bill is both above and deeply enmeshed within the transnational flow of American racism.

Bill does not relay or even remember the nationality of the black fighter in Vienna, even if he supposedly “remember[s] the nigger perfectly.” Instead, the fight itself appears as a chaotic event in which, suddenly, “everybody started to throw things.” The uncertainty of the fight’s events persists—so much so that Bill can’t even remember if he translated for the boxer or not—and its geographical ambiguity only grows in the retelling; but all the while the boxer at its center is remarkably vivid to Bill (77). Like Cohn’s nose, the black boxer is the origin of a series of fictions, and the ambiguities and vagaries surrounding the fight only serve to solidify the vividness of the “perfectly” remembered boxer. As with Hemingway’s descriptions of bullfighting vis-à-vis boxing, this incident is an attempt to translate the too-familiar, multifarious “Americanism” of the boxing world into a predictable, singular, hierarchical, foreign one. The black boxer is made a black hole, a highly visible aporia responsible for the unpredictable chaos it produces and attracts.

And it is no mere turn of phrase for me to refer to this black boxer as a “highly visible aporia.” In the first draft of The Sun Also Rises, Bill receives and reads a letter from this unnamed black boxer who may or may not be American and may or may not speak English. In the draft, the letter is signified by a two-page blank space in the manuscript that Hemingway may have intended to fill in later (212-213). The blank letter is signed “Larry,” then crossed out and signed again “William Tate.” The original signatory, Larry, was almost certainly a direct reference to the black Canadian boxer Larry Gains, with whom Hemingway himself had been in correspondence from 1923 to 1924. Hemingway likely exaggerated some aspects of his connection to Gains (claiming at one point to have turned down the opportunity to be his manager), but since Hemingway regularly received letters from Gains, it is not unreasonable to assume that he intended to use them as the model for the letter to Bill (Mitchel 12-13). One can only speculate as to why Hemingway ultimately decided to cut the letter, but as I have been arguing throughout this essay, leaving the letter blank and later cutting it are perfectly in line with Hemingway’s aesthetic discomfort with blackness and boxers. 

Frederic Svoboda links this cut letter to another of the novel’s subtextual black boxers, the unnamed black drummer at Zelli’s Jazz Club (The Sun Also Rises 69-71). While unnamed in the novel, the actual drummer at Zelli’s in the early 1920s was Eugene Bullard, an African American expatriate and former prizefighter who became a pilot during World War I for the French military. After the war, he returned to prizefighting and supplemented his income as a drummer and bandleader at Zelli’s (“Who Was That Black Man?” 106).12  Svoboda also notes compelling parallels between Bill’s recollection of the Vienna fight and a 1922 fight between Eugene Bullard and Haig Assadourian that took place in Cairo in which Bullard lost by decision (108). Irrespective of its historical sources, Bill’s vaguely recalled fight is a pastiche of multiple fights and boxers and operates according to the associative logic of transnational American racial politics. In this act of cultural translation we see that as much as The Sun Also Rises has been perpetually described as a response to World War I and its aftermath, it also works through the intricacies of the Americanism of transnational racial politics. 

The bad analogy that Hemingway draws throughout his work between bullfighting and boxing exposes the productive difficulty he has in developing a satisfactory metaphorics of pain—and therefore in developing a more comprehensive prose aesthetics that can circumvent the messy transnationalism of race in (and out of) America. Though Hemingway intuitively grasps the rich aesthetic potential of boxing, he instead resorts to the seemingly simple solution of representing pain, violence, and death as eternally alien things. But within the absolute exoticism of death and pain (in the bullring), we see the traces of the racial imaginary that brought it into being (in the boxing ring). Modernism and the avant-garde always had at least one eye to its racial others, and in many significant ways American boxing and boxers were an important part of that imagination.13  Black boxers were the first Americans to be brought into the fold of the European avant-garde and came to occupy an increasingly prominent role in its artistic subjects over the course of the first few decades of the twentieth century. American expatriates like Hemingway had to contend with the fact that black American boxers were there first, and it was their legacy, perhaps more even than immediate influences like Gertrude Stein, that American writers and artists had perpetually to wrestle with and set themselves in opposition to.


1 For biographical details on Hemingway’s personal and professional ties to boxing, see Mitchell.

Some African-American boxers, like Jack Johnson, bore the additional insult of being forced into exile over bogus legal charges.

See Archer-Straw; Boddy; and Scott.

In Wyndham Lewis’s influential invective against Hemingway, he claims that “it is difficult to imagine a writer whose mind is more entirely closed to politics than Hemingway’s” (144). The accusation has had a lasting effect on subsequent studies of the author’s work.

I draw here in particular on the argument in Walter Benn Michaels’ Our America in which the fantasy of aesthetic purity is bound inextricably to what he terms “nativist modernism.”

The collection published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, October 25, 2000-January 15, 2001, gives a broad overview of the many ways in which Picasso engaged with bulls and bullfighting in his work, especially in his more politically oriented works. 

7 In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein—by way of narrator Alice Toklas—rides a careful line between effected detachment from the violence of the ritual bullfight and its political resonances. This becomes especially acute in her accounts of Picasso, who, like Hemingway, claims that most people do not understand bullfighting.

For a book-length study of the role race and violence played in avant-garde projects, see Winkiel.

See Mitchell.

10  See Parker. 

11 For a full account of Tiger Flowers’ career and his cultural legacy, see Kaye.

12 Bullard would go on to own a nightclub and athletic club in Paris, fight in the French Resistance, and be one of three men to relight the Eternal Flame after the liberation of Paris.

13 Modernist studies since Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language & Twentieth-Century Literature has charted the deep relationships between cosmopolitan modernism and transnational blackness. This critical turn has accelerated in the wake of “the New Modernist Studies,” described by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz in their essay of the same name, as seen in many dozens of essays and books engaged in unearthing the racial history and engagements of global modernism. 

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum, 1996.

Archer-Shaw, Petrine.  Negrophilia:  Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s.  New York:  Thames & Hudson, 2000.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.

Baker, Houston.  Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Epic and Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 

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

Bodner, Allen. When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997. 

Gorn, Elliott J. The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. 

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Battler.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 

—. “Bullfighting Is Not a Sport—It Is a Tragedy.” Dateline: Toronto, The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, 1920-1924. Ed. William White. New York: Scribner, 1985. 

—. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 

—. “Fifty Grand.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

—. “The Killers.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 

—. Postcard: Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. 13 July 1924. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Library. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

—. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954. 

—. The Sun Also Rises: A Facsimile Edition, Part One. Ed. Matthew J. Brucolli. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. 

Kaye, Andrew M.  The Pussycat of Prizefighting:  Tiger Flowers and the Politics of Black Celebrity.  Athens:  U of Georgia P, 2004.

Lewis, Wyndham.  "The Dumb Ox:  A Study of Ernest Hemingway."  Hemingway:  The Critical Heritage.  Ed. Jeffrey Meyers.  London:  Routledge, 1982.

Mao, Douglas and Rebecca Walkowitz.  "The New Modernist Studies."  PMLA 123 (2008):  737–48.

Marinetti, F.T. “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” Futurism: An Anthology. Eds. Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. 

Michaels, Walter Benn. Our America. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 

Mitchell, J. Lawrence. “Ernest Hemingway: In the Ring and Out.” The Hemingway Review 31.1 (2011): 7-23. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. 

North, Michael.  The Dialect of Modernism:  Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature.  New York:  Oxford UP, 1994.

Parker, Andrew.  "Ezra Pound and the 'Economy' of Anti-Semitism."  boundary 2 11.1–2 (Autumn 1982–Winter 1983):  103–128.

Picasso: Minotauro.  Madrid:  Aldeasa, 2000. 

Rhodes, Evan. “Forms of Havoc: The Malatesta Cantos and The Battler.” Modernism/modernity 17.2 (2010): 363-382. 

Runstedtler, Theresa. Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line. Berkeley: U of California P, 2012. 

Scott, David.  The Art and Aesthetics of Boxing.  Lincoln:  U of Nebraska P, 2008.

Stein, Gertrude.  The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  New York:  Vintage, 1990.

Stoneback, H.R. Reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: Glossary and Commentary. Kent, OH:Kent State UP, 2007. 

Svoboda, Frederic Joseph. Hemingway & The Sun Also Rises: The Crafting of a Style. Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 1983. 

—. “Who Was that Black Man? A Note on Eugene Bullard and The Sun Also Rises.” The Hemingway Review 17.2 (1998): 105-110.Web. 13 Feb. 2016.

Warren, Robert Penn. “Hemingway.” The Kenyon Review 9.1 (1947): 1-28. 

Winkiel, Laura.  Modernism, Race, and Manifestos.  New York:  Cambridge UP, 2011.

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