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‘The Temptations of Civilization’
The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux by Robert E. Howard
Previously published as ‘The Fourth Man’, revised and expanded
Published in Ghost Stories magazine in 1929, this is the story of Ace Jessel, a heavyweight boxer who “moved with the smooth ease of a gigantic leopard,” as related by his manager. Ace was an excellent boxer but lacked killer instinct. He did, however have great reverence for the first African American bare-knuckle champion, Tom Molyneaux, a man that fought his way out of slavery, whose picture he bought for the price of four fights worth of earnings.
I suspect that Ace was patterned on Harry “The Black Panther” Wills, who could not get a title shot with Jack Dempsey and had to take looses against white fighters he knocked down repeatedly and dominated, yet remained easy going. Wills also drew the toughest black fighters as a gate keeper.
Ace’s manager steered him to the top of the game, only to have a savage African fighter come into the country and, through his actions, make a match with Ace inevitable. Ace did not believe—nor did his manager—that he was a match for the African. This African fighter was apparently modeled after savage white Argentine fighter Luis Angel "The Wild Bull of the Pampas” Firpo and the giant Italian Primo Carnera.
Before the inevitable fight, the manager finds Ace praying to the portrait of Old Tom in the dressing room and decided to bring it ringside to inspire his man, who, predictably, benefits from the bare-knuckle fighter’s ghostly intercession. This reader did not care much for this story or the manner of its telling. It does represent a steady current in Howard’s fiction, in which a beaten or surprised fighter is rescued from beyond the grave by a ghostly presence.
The tenacity of this trope, along with Howard’s obsession with the racial heritage of his characters, certainly supports the notion that he believed in the living’s ability to channel ancestral memories.
He would handle this theme with more alacrity in later works. His use of boxing as metaphor for civilization is well down in the following passage, “These super-sluggers never last long, any more than a jungle native can withstand the temptations of civilization.”
Again, the “racism” one would suspect, based on Howard’s supposedly evil white heritage, does not appear. Indeed, from a boxing historian’s point of view, this story seems a protest of the unfair treatment suffered by both Tom Molyneaux and Harry Wills at the hands of white fight officials and a racist white public—a-macro-ethnic white nation already suffering from severe emasculation testified to by the erroneous contention, that dominated Caucasian American thought until the rise of MMA and Eastern European boxing champions, that a white man cannot stand in fair against his black counterpart. What racially based nation could but avoid decline once, by popular consent, they surrender their combative will and assign the masculine standard to a servile minority?
Howard seemed to glimpse the truth of this toxic culture and fought—at least in prose—against the notion that men of his race could not overcome enemies and rivals in the physical arena. His heroes are mostly white and hyper-masculine. But in the Spirit of Tom Molyneux we are treated to Ace, a domesticated black man without a killer instinct, managed by a white man who lacks ultimate faith in him. Ace may represent the white man in the story and Old Tom his rough and proud ancestors. The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux is a sketch of masculine decay that sets race aside for a look into the heart of the matter.
The Punishing Art
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