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Q&A: David Margolick on Beyond Glory

mb's Elizabeth Spiers talks to David Margolick about his new book, the importance of long-form journalism and media in the 1930s

By Elizabeth Spiers - October 5, 2005

beyondglory.jpgVanity Fair Contributing Editor David Margolick's newest book, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink chronicles the 1936 and 1938 matches between boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling and the political and sociological complexities that contributed to making the fights important historical events. Margolick is the former legal affairs editor at The New York Times and has also written Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, At the Bar: The Passions and Peccadilloes of American Lawyers, and Undue Influence: The Epic Battle Over the Johnson & Johnson Fortune.

We spoke with Margolick about the making of Beyond Glory, the importance of the story and media coverage of the events when they happened:

When did you start the book and how long did it take you to write it?

After a while I lost count. But I signed the contract six years ago, and had started it about a year before that.

What made you latch on to the Louis/Schmeling fight, especially given that it had already been so extensively covered and analyzed? What convinced you that it was important and that you wanted to devote so much time and energy to it?

First of all, I dispute the notion that it had already been covered extensively. It had already been covered repeatedly and superficially, but people kept writing the same things, and repeating the same canards, about it. There had never been a book about it, let alone a good one, which amazes me to this day. I've known ever since I was a boy that it was one of the great sporting events of the 20th century, a sense that was corroborated before Y2K, when everyone was compiling their millennium lists and the second fight was on every one. The story tied together so many themes that interest me—American racism and the civil rights movement; Nazi culture and politics; Jewish identity and power; the history of New York; radical and reactionary politics in the 1930s—that I had no trouble either convincing myself it was worthwhile or finding the time, energy, and inspiration to do it. Frankly, I feel lucky to have done it.

What did you do to prepare to write the book? What was your research process like? And how much groundwork did you do before you actually began putting together the manuscript?

The research was actually quite simple. First, I tried to locate the few people around who either remembered the fights or had studied them. But by now there weren't very many of them, nor were there lots of documents, official records, diaries, etc. I realized quickly that most of my material would come from newspapers, and reading them was how I spent most of my time. I kept digging deeper and going more widely afield: after I read the daily papers in New York, I looked at Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, Washington and other American cities. In Germany, I started with the major papers, from Berlin, Munich, etc., and then went to smaller cities, too. When I'd finished with those, I looked at papers from London, Paris, Rome, Johannesburg, Warsaw. And after I'd read the most important black weeklies—the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Afro-American, I looked at more obscure ones. I spent three or four years reading before I began to organize the book. Then it took me a couple of years of writing, polishing, and cutting.

What did you think of Joyce Carol Oates' critique in this weekend's New York Times Book Review that your own analysis regarding the moral implications of the fight (or amoral implications, as it were) was conspicuously missing? (And if perchance you happen to agree with her, is your alleged unwillingness to editorialize a product of your experience in newspaper journalism?)

I was delighted with the play and the space the review got. And while I disagree with much of what she wrote, I understand her criticism about my authorial voice. I did not write the kind of book she'd have written, nor did I want to. This was, above all, a wonderful story; it did not need a lot of pontification or editorializing from me. My imprint is on every page, with the hundreds of editorial decisions it represents; that's conspicuous enough for me. And yes, I'm sure you're right: that my reticence is probably a function of my newspaper experience. Though it can be done, it's hard to cultivate a distinctive voice at a place like the New York Times, where I worked for many years, and it's harder still to expand upon it when you leave. I'm still learning how.

How was this book a different experience from your previous books? What did you learn that you'll take with you into the next one?

What was different about this book was that the canvas was so much larger, and the issues were more important. I think I learned that one should not take refuge in the microfilm, as rich a resource as it is, and must find and talk to as many witnesses—i.e. people—as possible. I also think that this is, in a way, an old-fashioned book, a book of the sort I grew up reading and always wanted to write. I hope there's still a market for a rich slice of American history, for a lovingly detailed narrative like this—that readers under 40, say, still have an appetite for it, but I'm honestly not sure. In any case, I think such books are harder sells than before, and though this book is short by my standards, I don't think my next book will be as long or as ambitious. As news consumers adjust to ultra-short-form journalism in the form of TV snippets, blog posts, etc., where does long-form journalism (especially long-term long form projects that may take years to complete) fit? Why is it important?

As the news becomes increasingly snappy and superficial, the need for long-form journalism becomes more acute. There will always be a demand for it; people will always want to get behind stories, to dig in more deeply, to have more perspective on things. So for that reason, I think the future for magazines like mine is bright. But as I've said already, the longest form journalism is clearly getting shorter. I don't think the public has a limitless appetite anymore for 500 page books.

About the topic matter: the book really seems to be, in large part, about race and class, and an another level about the political power of metaphor both of which seem highly relevant right now. Where do you see elements of the Louis/Schmeling story repeating itself in current events? How important or unimportant is it to contextualize a book like this against the backdrop of what's happening now?

The issue of race is never very far below the surface in American history, and in order to understand where we are now, it's important regularly to remind ourselves of where we've been. Writing about Joe Louis's era is refreshing, in a sense, because nobody's guard was up; there was no such thing as political correctness. The stereotypes, the ugliness, the bigotry were all out in the open. And while we've made great progress, these things just don't disappear; they only take different forms. On the other hand, people who see this story as one purely about American racism make me angry, because they imply, first, that everyone was a racist back then, and second, that we're all so much more enlightened today. Neither assumption is true.

If I were judging your book by its cover, I'd assume it was a sports book, but I think it's almost more of a political history. (I think the lines would be more clear cut between the two if it were, say, a book about the 1972 Olympics.) Do you think of it that way? If you have to categorize it—and Barnes & Noble does, even if you don't and the reader doesn't—how do you describe it?

It upsets me to hear that, because we labored very hard to create just the opposite impression. First, look at the title. We wanted Beyond Glory to connote that there was something far more at stake here than mere sports. Then look at the end of the subtitle: "A World on the Brink." That, too, was meant to suggest that more fundamental forces were at work, that the world was on the brink of both catastrophic war and a revolution in race relations. And the picture of the Nazi rally at the bottom of the cover was specifically meant to underline that this was not just a sports book. If it gets relegated to that department in books stores—usually toward the back—I'll be very unhappy. It's really social history. Having said that, though, the sports story in the book is also wonderful. That's the beauty of the Louis vs. Schmeling story: it's gripping on all levels.

In the book you chronicle, in great detail, the manner in which the press covered both fighters—good and bad. When you were researching and looking at old press accounts, was there anything that surprised you about the way the events were covered? If those journalists were your contemporaries now, what would you think of them?

First, there were a lot more of them. Many of them were hacks, who didn't work very hard or write very well, and who had all kinds of ethical conflicts. One quickly learned to discount their work. But others were terrific, and they weren't all on the most 'respectable' papers. Indeed, some of the best writers were on the black papers, and are almost entirely, and undeservedly, forgotten. I was delighted by the high quality of much of the writing. These were people who worked under what would now be considered primitive conditions, using manual typewriters and paper on crushing deadlines, and yet the best of them often turned out luminous prose. Just writing the volume of copy they did, and managing to describe and reconstruct lightning-fast action in the ring, is awesome to me.

The columnists of the day were great, too, and incredibly productive by contemporary standards, putting out as many as five or six columns a week. I've often thought that had I been around then, I'd have gotten nothing done; there'd have been too many newspapers, and newspaper columnists, to read. There's no doubt that readers and reporters had a much closer bond then than they do now; when a game's on television, after all, there's no need to read about it the next day, nor for writers to describe it in a particularly vivid way. The whole conversation between readers and writers today is much more muted. That said, I think many reporters in that era naively thought that politics played no role in sports, and under-covered the political dimension of the fights I described. That made those who did acknowledge the connection, like Dan Parker of the New York Mirror and Nat Fleischer of Ring magazine, that much more admirable. I know I'd have liked them.

Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com



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