A conversation with David Maraniss, author of new biography on Jim Thorpe

Published on: September 30, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: September 30, 2022 5:08 PM EDT

For serious students of the intersection of sports, culture and the larger segments of society, ground zero of that pursuit is an exploration of the life of Jim Thorpe, a Native American man considered by many to be the greatest athlete who ever lived.

In “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” author David Maraniss — one of the great biographers of our time — sheds light on the life and legend of Thorpe in ways that are remarkable and sobering. It’s a true treat for longtime Thorpe enthusiasts and a new generation who are learning about one of America’s most celebrated indigenous heroes for the first time.

Maraniss is a master at his craft, especially when it comes to sports bios that illuminate the higher meanings, the overarching history, the sociology and the greater human condition of the stories and subjects on which he focuses.

His previous works, “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi” and “Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero,” are required reading for anyone interested in sports, and in particular how they’re woven through, and pulsate within, the encompassing American historical narrative.

The lives of Lombardi, an Italian American from Brooklyn who led football’s Green Bay Packers to greatness, and Roberto Clemente, an Afro-Latino from Puerto Rico who played 18 seasons for baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, offer a distinctive and deep inspection of the greater American experience, as does his latest book on Thorpe.

“Thorpe was an archetype, a gifted athlete, and a stereotype, the romanticized noble Indian,” Maraniss wrote in the book’s preface. “He was the foundation story of American sports.”

Here was a man whose life intersected with so many legendaryfigures of his time. He was an Olympic teammate at the 1912 Stockholm games with George S. Patton, the future World War II general. In college football, he competed against Knute Rockne, who became a legendary coach at Notre Dame; Dwight D. Eisenhower, the future World War II general and president; and George Halas, who founded, owned and coached the Chicago Bears.

He played baseball against future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. In the pro football league that would later become the NFL, he competed against the great actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson.

Amid the hyperbole and allegories of his rise from an Native American boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Maraniss wrote that, ”there was another myth at the center of the Jim Thorpe story, a deeper and more pernicious myth that had to do with the history and treatment of the American Indian: the myth that the Great White Father knows best.”

“Thorpe’s life spanned a sixty-five year period when the dominant society believed the best way to deal with Indians was to rid them of their Indianness and make them as white as possible,” the author continued.

Thorpe, an Oklahoma native, was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a young teen, where he rose to fame thanks to his football exploits, leading the institution to victories over then-powerhouses Harvard, Army and Penn.

But the government’s flagship boarding school did not stress an academic education, but rather the forced acculturation of Native Americans in ways that were brutal, wicked and dehumanizing.

The story of Jim Thorpe stretches way beyond his Olympic gold medals, or his time playing Major League Baseball and professional football in the league that would later become the NFL. It’s an honest examination of America at the time, seen through the lens of a remarkable and flawed man.

The Baltimore Banner caught up with Maraniss ahead of his scheduled talk at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Monday to talk about Thorpe, why the project increasingly beckoned and his hopes for the impact it will have.

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Banner: Anyone truly interested in sports in America must start with an examination of the life of Jim Thorpe. When did this project go from a thought to an obsession? I say obsession because the research and writing are so meticulous, the story really jumps off the page, driven by a rare passion.

Maraniss: The seed was planted 20 tears ago when Norbert Hill, a writer from the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, approached me with some materials, suggesting I write a biography on Thorpe. My initial response was to politely decline, explaining that I don’t take ideas from others, they have to spring out of my own passion. It took a long time, but that seed eventually did grow into an obsession about four and a half years ago.

What was it about Thorpe’s story that appealed to you in terms of what you look for in a potential biography?

This is my third book in a trilogy of sports bios that transcends sports. In Lombardi, you had his incredible success as a coach, using his life as a study in leadership and the mythology of competition and success. Clemente offered a window into the Latino experience on the mainland, what baseball means in Puerto Rico and the Spanish-speaking world, the stereotypes and discrimination that he and other players faced, and the qualities that made him a true humanitarian. Pro athletes are often portrayed as heroic, but Clemente was the one player truly worthy of being called a hero.

What were one of the fascinating aspects of the story that really began to speak to you during your research?

That his lifespan fit into the story of the dominant white society and its effort to assimilate Indigenous people. The motto at Carlisle, the boarding school he attended, was “kill the Indian, save the man.” Their religions, culture, languages, dress and way of life were all taken away from them.

Thorpe was born in 1887, the year that the Dawes Act was enacted. It was basically a rigged set of laws and system to take away the lands of the Indigenous populations.

What did you find disheartening about the people who claimed to champion Thorpe, presenting themselves as his savior during his days of athletic triumph, but later abandoned him when he was most at need, along the lines of what you refer to in the book as “the hypocrisy of moral superiority”?

You had these very powerful men like Pop Warner, his coach at Carlisle, who later proved himself to be a hypocrite and a coward. When his Olympic medals were being taken away because he’d previously played some semi-pro league baseball, Warner lied about his knowledge of the situation to protect his own reputation.

The same can be said for Moses Friedman, the Carlisle superintendent, and James E. Sullivan, the most powerful man in American amateur athletics who was most responsible for the decision to deny Thorpe his gold medals.

For people that are just now coming to read and learn about Jim Thorpe, how would you describe him as an athlete?

What he accomplished athletically is unparalleled. It’s hard to compare athletes of different eras because of the modern advances in training, sports medicine, diet, exercise, etc., but what he’s done, no one else has done since. He won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon, he was an All-American college football player, he played Major League Baseball and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There was a human frailty in Thorpe that became more prevalent later in his life. He struggled in his post-athletic endeavors and most people paint that as a tragedy. But you’ve come to another conclusion and believe it’s something else.

In 1915, when he was at the peak of his athletic powers, the most popular sculpture in America was The End of the Trail. It portrays an exhausted Native man atop an equally-fatigued horse at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It was meant to convey the Indigenous race as dead, that Manifest Destiny had prevailed, that the Indian Nation was soon to be obsolete.

But Native nations learned how to survive, that the efforts to rid them of their culture was ultimately unsuccessful. Thorpe’s life was emblematic of that. He persevered through the end. It’s easy to put his life into the category of tragedy, but I see it as a true story of perseverance.

Want to go? Author David Maraniss will discuss his new book, “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Central Library’s Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St. The event is free and attendees are encouraged to register. It may also be viewed virtually on the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Facebook or YouTube page.

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