When I was a kid, Jim Thorpe was still alive (he died in 1953, just short of 65.) Sportswriters and athletes and fans had seen him perform.
He had been dubbed “the most wonderful athlete in the world” or “the greatest athlete in the world” by the king of Sweden after dominating the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
Thorpe was also known as the first great American football player who later played baseball for the New York Giants but could not hit a curveball. (Neither could Michael Jordan, decades later.)
Thorpe was a cautionary tale – via snickering sports-page references to firewater and lack of discipline and other weaknesses. He was part of the broader picture of a country where white invaders felt they had holy permission to kill as many Native Americans as they could.
The new Americans had various words and definitions for Jim Thorpe, back in the day -- "Chief" or "Redskin,” referring to his mixture of Sac and Fox, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Menominee, as well as French and English.
"By that definition, Jim Thorpe would tell people he was five-eighths Indian," writes David Maraniss In the stirring biography, "Path Lit by Lightning," a current best-seller published by Simon & Schuster.
These days, some of us tend to use the word “Indigenous” rather than “Indians” or “Native Americans” for the descendants of people who lived for hundreds, thousands, of years on this continent, very often in harmony with nature and neighboring tribes. They were so far more complex than contemporary Americans can imagine.
Great reporter that he is, Maraniss parses the life of a great athlete born on a reservation in Oklahoma, when the white invaders were taking what they wanted – often at the point of a gun.
The title of the book refers to Thorpe’s name, translated from the Sac and Fox language, as American leadership tried to gouge the native words and ways out of the survivors of the killing fields.
Whereas the Civil War general, Philip H. Sheridan was known for saying “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” his philosophy had been moderated just a tad by Col. Richard Henry Pratt, the first superintendent of the Indian school at Carlisle, Pa.
“In a sense, I agree with the sentiment,” Col. Pratt is quoted by Maraniss, “but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
The most blatant example was in Carlisle, which recruited male athletes from all over the country, playing the top colleges (Ivy League!), and keeping the athletes in uniform as long as possible, in those days before the niceties of the N.C.A.A.
Thorpe arrived in Carlisle, young and under-sized but rugged, hard to tame, motivated to play football better than anybody.
Perhaps the most delightful surprise in the Maraniss book is the young teacher, the same age as Thorpe -- Marianne Moore, later a famous poet ensconced in the gentility of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In letters to George Plimpton decades later, Moore described Thorpe’s strength and athletic gait and recalled him, as a “diligent” and polite student. She also told Plimpton that Thorpe had walked alongside her on campus and said, “Miss Moore, may I carry your parasol for you?”
Another sweet little section is when Thorpe fell in love with a fellow student, Iva Miller, 20, from out west, who was raised among indigenous but was all Caucasian.
Thorpe had been playing baseball for the professional New York Giants, recruited partially as an attraction for an off-season world tour in 1912 – Asia, Australia, Europe.
The two were married before the train headed west from New York, and the 20-year-old bride filled her diary with the details of a girl in love with a man she called “Snooks” and also with the world out there. She took notes about seasickness and rickshas and shopping and parties, later riding donkeys or camels at the Pyramids and wandering around Paris to the Moulin Rouge and Napoleon’s tomb. The reader roots for her life to go on and on like this.
But the “greatest” athlete was already blighted by the “revelation” that Thorpe had played minor-league baseball (for money) in his summers at Carlisle, and his Olympic medals were taken away for violating Olympic amateur standards.
Needless to say, the poohbahs in the “amateur” world of sport and education knew nothing of his minor-league forays. Maraniss describes the role of noted Carlisle coach Pop Warner,”where everything was made to be subservient to athletes and football.”
In other words, college football (and its coaches and presidents and boosters) hasn’t changed a bit in more than a century.
The last third of the biography careers downhill -- divorce, two more marriages, children, tragedies, jumping from team to team, from baseball to football, working in construction during the Depression, erratic behavior, all so predictable, all so sad.
Yet Maraniss points out that the indigenous people did not go away. He refers to the diversity and accomplishments of the indigenous today – doctors and lawyers and civil leaders, teachers and writers and performers.
Off the top of my head, I toss out the current names of Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, a Laguna Pueblo; Buffy Ste. Marie, Canadian-American from the Piapot Cree; and Louise Erdrich, writer, from the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa.
The invaders did not succeed in wiping out the Indian ways. And in this compelling biography, David Maraniss shows how, early in the 20th Century, Jim Thorpe took the hits.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023