On the Shelf
Path Lit by Lightning: The Lifetime of Jim Thorpe
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster: 672 pages, $33
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Jim Thorpe was each a person and a delusion, one which endures a century after his story unfolded. The Native American athlete’s life had the arc of tragedy — a chaotic upbringing; glory in collegiate soccer; two gold medals within the 1912 Olympics, later stripped away — a battle made exponentially extra daunting by the therapy of Native individuals of his period. He has been written about in dozens of books, memorialized in a film and revisited in numerous articles, essays and speeches.
David Maraniss‘ new biography, “Path Lit by Lightning,” goes past the parable and into the center of Thorpe’s life, utilizing in depth analysis, historic nuance and bittersweet honesty to inform the story of a gifted and sophisticated man. Maraniss is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and writer of a dozen books of American political and sports activities historical past, An affiliate editor on the Washington Publish, he faucets a lifetime’s immersion in sports activities and politics to inform Thorpe’s story.
A member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, Thorpe was one in all hundreds of Native kids formed and warped by the federal government’s “Kill the Indian, save the person” philosophy, a concerted try to expunge each hint of Native heritage by turning the kid right into a simulacrum of a white man. The locus of that effort was in Indigenous boarding faculties across the nation. That’s the place Thorpe wound up, separated from his household and despatched midway throughout the nation to the Carlisle Indian Industrial Faculty in Pennsylvania.
At Carlisle, Thorpe joined kids from tribes across the nation. A few of these kids had huge athletic potential, and for Thorpe and different Native athletes, Carlisle turned a gateway into an exciting lifetime of battle and accomplishment on the sector. His expertise was noticed by Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner, Carlisle’s athletic director, who might see that even amongst many gifted gamers, Thorpe was in one other class altogether.
“His teammates might sense he was totally different,” Maraniss writes. “They’d seen his easygoing nature, his lack of nerves, the resilience of his physique and his resistance to ache, the uncommon mixture of power, pace, stubbornness, intuition, and agile grace, the trace of hazard and spark of electrical energy.” Thorpe and the Carlisle soccer group turned a sports activities phenomenon. They performed groups from elite schools up and down the East Coast, compiling an awesome file of wins. (The sweetest: beating the Military group at West Level, symbolic revenge for the havoc the US navy had wreaked on their individuals.)
For Indigenous gamers, the Carlisle group was the apotheosis of camaraderie and honor: Remembering the tip of a successful season, Thorpe wrote, “I felt as if I needed to fling my arms in regards to the subject, the purpose posts, and maintain them tight, in order that with their recollections and traditions they could by no means escape me.”
Carlisle soccer was a warmup for a efficiency that may make him one of many world’s finest identified athletes. The younger Thorpe, grasp of any sport he took on, joined the 1912 Olympic group and carried out on the Video games in Sweden that 12 months. Maraniss’ account of the giddy environment of the Swedish Olympics, the place European royalty bestowed wreaths of flowers and silver trophies on winners who caroused all evening in celebration, is a time journey again to a less complicated period. Thorpe gained gold in each the pentathlon and the decathlon. The king of Sweden proclaimed him the best athlete on the planet.
After which: catastrophe. Earlier than the Olympics, through the Carlisle summer season time period, Thorpe had performed semi-pro baseball and acquired a modest cost in return. After his Olympic wins, the press dug up Thorpe’s file of being paid to play, violations of Olympic guidelines governing an athlete’s newbie standing. Pop Warner and the president of Carlisle went right into a defensive crouch, denying data of Thorpe’s baseball actions (Maraniss exhibits that they actually did know). Thorpe took the autumn and his medals had been taken from him, although his shoddy therapy generated an unlimited quantity of sympathy worldwide.
He emerged from the ordeal “toughened however not ashamed,” Maraniss writes, and the injustice of his punishment solely heightened his celeb. He married a fellow Carlisle scholar, Iva Miller, and was recruited by the New York Giants to play baseball. Thorpe and his bride spent their honeymoon on a world baseball exhibition tour, the Giants battling the Chicago White Sox earlier than adoring audiences in Australia, China and Japan, ending with a run by means of Egypt, Italy and France. Thorpe’s calendar 12 months turned a cycle of baseball in spring and summer season, soccer in fall and winter’s dwelling in Oklahoma, the place he liked to fish and hunt. He performed professional soccer within the Ohio League, the precursor to the Nationwide Soccer League, and at present Thorpe is taken into account one of many founders of the NFL.
However the schedule was punishing, and Thorpe had a shadow facet: an urge to drink and brawl, a carelessness with cash and a neglect of his household. And the reckoning all professional athletes face: The degradation of athletic prowess by age, a battle that each one gamers ultimately lose. The relentless debasement Thorpe and different Native athletes needed to endure simply to make a dwelling makes for cringe-inducing studying. An all-Nativeteam Thorpe joined couldn’t simply play ball; it needed to stage carnival sideshows wearing Indigenous regalia, beating a drum and dancing.
The remainder of Thorpe’s life was a continuing hustle for cash and jobs. One in every of Maraniss’ challenges is to maintain up narrative momentum by means of this era. For essentially the most half he succeeds, although Thorpe’s sample — to begin robust, then flame out, then stroll away — feels unbearably unhappy, the waste of a lot potential and expertise. However Maraniss refuses to color him as both a failure or a martyr: “Thorpe’s life would possibly finest be understood not as tragic dissolution however as gritty perseverance.”
Thorpe earned his dwelling, even when it was with a shovel. He labored as an actor in Hollywood in quite a few bit components. He advocated for Native Individuals within the film trade, lobbying studios to make use of precise Indigenous individuals to painting their onscreen counterparts. He crossed and recrossed the nation, telling his inspirational story and gathering modest charges in return. And eventually, in 1951, a film was made from his life. Although Thorpe was performed by a white man (Burt Lancaster) and although the film was narrated within the voice of a whitewashed Pop Warner, it was largely sympathetic. Thorpe died not lengthy after, in 1953. His descendants have been working to revive his legacy ever since. This summer season they attained the final word validation: 110 years after Thorpe’s wins, the Worldwide Olympic Committee restored him as the only winner of the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912.
“Path Lit by Lightning” ends with phrases from Grace Thorpe, Jim’s daughter, uncared for by her father as a baby however decided to protect his reminiscence: “My father had his faults. Who doesn’t? He was not a businessman and he left solely a small property when he died. He dug ditches to assist his household through the Melancholy when he was too outdated for athletics. However in his chosen subject he had no friends. He stood alone. He was exceptional in magnitude, diploma, and effectiveness. He was nice.”
Maraniss’ biography does justice to the struggles and triumphs of a really nice man.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.