March 26, 2010

Pugilistic Encounters: Pierce Egan's 'Boxiana'

Tom Cribb, Britain's finest champion?

Pierce Egan was out of step. A sporting journalist for the common man (and by that I refer not to matters of class, but to matters of taste), he was cast in sharp contrast to his hobnobbing foxhunting contemporary, Nimrod. Egan celebrated the ‘fancy’, just as the ‘fancy’ went out of style. These were the dog fighting, cockfighting, rat worrying set. These were the prototypes of the modern athlete. These were boxing men. The culture of sensibility that grew up in the late eighteenth century would eventually see to it that these men would look incongruous in a well-heeled empire. Yet this was not mere rough and tumble, even if it was the gutter press. Egan’s love of sports masculine had, at its root, those concerns that motivated his more refined compatriots of the horse and hound, field and stream.

In the dedication to Boxiana, a four volume compendium of English boxing biography from 1829, Egan addressed Captain Barclay, that redoubtable pedestrian:

In viewing you, Sir, as a LOVER AND PATRON OF THOSE SPORTS that tend to invigorate the human frame, and inculcate those principles of generosity and heroism, by which the inhabitants of the English Nation are so eminently distinguished above every other country, is the sole reason of dedicating to the attention of Captain Barclay, the work entitled Boxiana

To those, Sir, who prefer effeminacy to hardihood – assumed refinement to rough Nature – and to whom a shower of rain can terrify their polite frames suffering from the unruly elements – or who would not mind Pugilism, if BOXING was not so shockingly vulgar – the following work can have no interest whatever. But to persons, Sir, who, like yourself, feel that Englishmen are not automata, and however the advantages of discipline may serve for the precision and movement of great bodies, that it would ultimately lose its effects, were it not animated by that native spirit, which has been found to originate, in a great measure, from the fastidious term – vulgar Sports, Boxiana will convey amusement, if not information.

Egan’s argument may be lost on us. It seems that something specific, in fact, has been lost. To be sure, violent sports still exist, and not solely in the realms of illicit gambling and extra-legal gatherings. Ultimate Fighting’s popularity – its usurpation of the boxing fan’s attention – would suggest that Egan’s rough Nature is alive and well. But I see nothing of the spirit that these sports were deemed to activate in Egan’s time. They were to:
Impart generosity to the mind, and humanity to the heart, by instilling those unalterable principles in the breast of every Briton, not to take an unfair advantage of his antagonist.
If they also served to foster ‘the daring intrepidity of the BRITISH SOLDIER in mounting the Breach, producing those brilliant victories which have reflected so much honour on the English Nation’, well, for the men of Egan’s time, so much the better. But what of us? Upon what reserves, and upon what experience, do we derive our mettle? Are we so assured that we do not need it? Will our looking-on at cable television from comfy couches ignite the sparks of generosity of mind and humanity of heart, and do we care? Where is our well of heroism?


  1. Doctor,

    I say with no small measure of shame that heroes are not fashionable anymore. That angry part of man who will not stand injustice and which can be taught to be too ashamed to commit injustice seems lulled on purpose.

    Let me summarize, worriedly, people one sees in a gym in Berlin. Most conspicuous are the conspicuously old, who have abandoned all restraint and are holding on to dear life by exercising. The spectacle is everything one might imagine, but I shall be decent. Next are the women who have taught themselves to keep in shape at the price of shame - that antiquated tool of oppression... - and I might wonder why women want to be very fit, as the phrase has it... Then there are men who love manly things, who have somehow gained public acceptance, though one wonders whether they have earned it or why hey need it - and especially why they would want it, seeing as how it is very easy to explain their passion for men like themselves, given the alternative, and considering what manly virtues a gentled form of exercise may help instill; they remind me, though barely, of olden times. Finally, the hooligans of all descriptions, who seem to be working out in order to better perform those things a hooligan is wont to perform - much like the distasteful prisoners who pump iron in prison movies, presumably becoming more fit for crime.

    Science offers therefore the old a way to abate fear of death; certain women the stamina for the world's pleasures; and hooligans - too many weapons. It is only the men who love manly things who may fit your criteria and who would have thought - of course, the Greeks and the Romans. One hopes at least these last ones will not fall for the idea that science can replace manliness, as it is intimately the concern of their happiness.

  2. Your terminal point was somehow lost. No matter, I have salvaged it:

    'But it is too usual that sophistication breeds effeminacy and that brutality is therefore left unchecked. Without violent sports, there is no courage. Joe Louis was not unlike the Greeks, ordered, disciplined, even refined; champions nowadays are like the Trojans or the Gauls: they holler and they cannot take or follow orders and are quickly moved from anger to fear and cannot control or restrain themselves.'

  3. If you are interested in learning more about Egan, and his 'out of step' approach, then I heartily recommend the book 'Writing the Prizefight: Pierce Egan's Boxiana World'.


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