Penning pugilism: boxing and the changing literary depictions of heroism in the eighteenth century
This essay examines the interpenetration of the cultural phenomenon of public pugilism and literary trends in the “long eighteenth century”. Little research has yet been undertaken in the links between these two expressions of culture – and I would argue that they have strong and illuminating points of contact. Focusing on Paul Whitehead’s under-examined mock-epic poem The Gymnasiad and Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, changing attitudes towards boxing throughout the eighteenth century are studied in order to show their influence on literary form at that time. From being conceptualised as a heroic, masculine activity redolent of classical culture in the early part of the century, boxing underwent a radical shift in popularity; it was often presented ambiguously in the mock-epic, and eventually became considered as incompatible with notions of male sensibility prevalent at the century’s close. Fielding and Whitehead’s own scuffles in the political sphere are also mentioned, in order to highlight both the divergent attitudes with which they approach pugilism, and the diverse ways in which boxing informs their texts: Fielding would wish to rescue boxing from the encroaching threat of illegitimacy (just as he would the novel form and his hero, Tom Jones), while Whitehead remains much more uneasy about the potential tragic outcomes of male public violence.