- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
W. H. Lowdermilk & Co. of Washington was an "old bookstore" in all senses of that ambiguous term: it sold old books, the firm dated from 1872, and the building that housed it had obviously not been troubled by the theories of modern architecture. In the early 1960s, the time of my patronage, its three floors were filled with something over 200,000 volumes. Now the building is gone; soon a subway station will occupy the site.
Receiving word of the closing of Lowdermilk's stimulated the recollection of hours spent there and books discovered. In particular, I remember an afternoon in the fall of 1964. I am sure I did not linger long on the ground level of the shop, which contained only Americana, biography, some new books and framed portraits of the likes of the first Mr. Justice White. I would have proceeded quickly upstairs to the second floor—military and naval books, belles-lettres, England, France, politics, gastronomy and sport.
Lowdermilk's was always a Proustian sort of place, rich in stimuli. In addition to the books it was well supplied with dust, with odors redolent of times past and with dark places to bring out the owls of the mind. But the image Lowdermilk's most often summoned up for me was that of a large, well-stocked wine cellar. There was the obvious similarity of the shelves of books to racks of bottles, and the spines of books, like the labels of wine bottles, can be studied with profit even without sampling the contents. The cellar-like atmosphere was also enhanced by the darkness and the musty odor. The characteristic odor of wine cellars is created by the traditional tasting procedure: the taster rolls the wine around in his mouth and spits it on the floor, thus avoiding the diminution of his critical faculties that would otherwise result from tasting a hundred wines in a day. While this attribute of cellars was, undoubtedly, not present at Lowdermilk's, some people who looked as if they might have been poets living on sinecures in the patent office occasionally drank soup in obscure corners of the stacks, and they may have provided the effluvium that triggered the association. In any case, it was the inventory more than its setting that recalled a cellar.
Some books, like some wines, improve with age. A few of these are good from the start and merely get better, but most are unpleasant when young and only after a number of years is their greatness made manifest. On that fall afternoon I found a book of the latter type. It is like the clarets of 1928. For years 1928 was regarded as a poor year for claret; it suffered especially by comparison to 1929, which was hailed as "the vintage of the century." But now the 1929 has faded, while the 1928 has developed into a fine, supple, full-bodied wine. When the book I found at Lowdermilk's was published, early in this century, its style must have seemed grandiloquent to all but the most reactionary readers. Now it seems merely to have the grace appropriate to its subject—boxing.
The book is The Complete Boxer by J. G. Bohun Lynch. As I picked it up, it fortuitously opened to a quotation from Pierce Egan. Now I know that the late A. J. Liebling often quoted Egan, an early 19th century English journalist, and called him, variously, the Herodotus, the Froissart and the Sire de Joinville of the London prize ring. Now Egan's quotation disposed me favorably toward the book, for it demonstrated that the author was a man of discernment and that he had done research in the right places. The substance of the quotation was equally sound.
can produce thoroughbred actions will outlive all the sneers of the fastidious,
and cant of the hyper-critics."
This is a slight misquotation of the dedication from the first volume of Egan's Boxiana, dated 1812.
When Lynch republished Egan's dictum a century after it was written, the sport of boxing was still lively in spite of abundant sneers and cant; another half a century later we, too, experience the sneers and the cant, but now boxing's health is suspect. There have, however, been periods of malaise before.
During the third quarter of the 18th century, after the time of Figg and Broughton and before the rise of Mendoza and Jackson, the prize ring was in decline as a result of a series of what were then known as crosses, what the 20th century fancy would call fixes or boat races. And in the 1820s Daniel Mendoza complained that there were few honest fights anymore. But the time of Cribb, Molineaux and Spring, a time when boxing enjoyed the patronage of His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, afterward George IV, was a time that in retrospect seems a zenith of the ring. The probable explanation of Mendoza's statement is that he was 60 years old when he made it and that more than 30 years had passed since he had been champion. In our time Gene Tunney has grumbled similarly.
The 1930s, with five champions in seven years before Joe Louis and his "bum of the month" campaign, seemed a miserable display back then, but by comparison with the present the '30s appear to be an era of genius. Things had become so bad before the Frazier-Ali match that the foremost attraction anyone could muster was a cinematic simulation of a fight between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano. The film was made 13 years after Marciano's retirement and shortly before his death in a private airplane. According to the promoter, the characteristics of the two boxers were given to a computer named Irving and it decided the outcome—Marciano by a knockout. This was nonsense, of course. Boxing is a dynamic art, and a fight between boxers of different times is therefore as impossible artistically as it is physically. It is like a contest between Rembrandt and de Kooning.