In an effort to get back to my book project, I’ve been reading about the eighteenth-century Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836), pictured here.

I’m interested in representations of Jewish masculinity in English literature from around 1680 to about 1820. Mendoza seems like a natural fit for such a project.

Currently I’m reading his memoirs, which were published in 1816. I’m about halfway through them. What stands out so far is the interesting mix of his sense of honor combined with his willingness to thrash anyone who he deems worthy. On the one hand, he’s very gentlemanly in his description of his life and the reasons for his fighting. On the other hand, he clearly seems to relish “trashing” his foes.

Sometimes these early fights are the result of prejudice, people calling him names or demeaning him or someone he knows for being Jewish. But often they seem the result of a general lack of civility in English culture at this time, which stands in marked contrast to my general sense of the period’s politeness and sensibility. It makes me want to go back and reread Anna Bryson’s book, From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England, which was published by Oxford in 1998.

Mendoza’s career as a boxer began in what amounts to street brawls. Once he started to gain some notoriety for his boxing ability, he took it up professionally. Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary of makes him so important to the history of boxing:

Before Mendoza, boxers generally stood still and merely swapped punches. Mendoza’s style consisted of more than simply battering opponents into submission; his “scientific style” included much defensive movement. He developed an entirely new style of boxing, incorporating defensive strategies, such as what he called “side-stepping”, moving around, ducking, blocking, and, all in all, avoiding punches. At the time, this was revolutionary, and Mendoza was able to overcome much heavier opponents as a result of this new style. Though he stood only 5’7″ and weighed only 160 pounds, Mendoza was England’s sixteenth Heavyweight Champion from 1792 to 1795, and is the only middleweight to ever win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In 1789 he opened his own boxing academy and published the book The Art of Boxing on modern “scientific” style boxing which every subsequent boxer learned from.

One of his bouts was also the first recorded instance in English history of charging an entrance fee to the general public for  sporting event. (I also thought it was interesting that he and I are the same height and weight the same amount, though I’m not in athletic shape!)

As a written text, the memoirs are interesting. He has a plain style that seems in keeping with the period. So far, nothing is jumping out at me (other than the civility angle). I haven’t read The Art of Boxing yet.

I have also been reading two critical essays about Mendoza. The first is John Whale’s “Daniel Mendoza’s Contests of Identity: Masculinity, Ethnicity, and Nation in Georgian Prize-fighting,” which was published in Romanticism. Whale picks up on the civility aspect too, examining the way in which Mendoza and other boxers in the period attempted to make pugilism more respectable. The essay is a very nice introduction to Mendoza and the general culture of boxing in the late eighteenth century.

Next on my reading list is Peter Briggs’s’ “Daniel Mendoza and Sporting Celebrity: A Case Study,” which was published by Cambridge University Press in a collection of essays edited by Tom Mole entitled Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850. Briggs focuses on Mendoza’s cultivation of his own celebrity. A quick glance leads me to think that I’m going to enjoy reading it.

Not the least aspect of his celebrity is the fact that Mendoza was the subject of many illustrations and even appeared on china (though that’s not saying too much — every late eighteenth-century celebrity was immortalized on china, which was the equivalent of getting a star on the Hollywood walk of fame!). The result is that we have lots of images of him, which is another thing that interests me about him.

Both of these essays have been published in the past couple of years, so it seems that I’m going to have to get on it if I want to write about Mendoza too. I’m not sure how or even if he fits into my project or if I will have anything more to say about him than what Whale and Briggs have already written. But his life and writings seem promising material for my interests. As a result, I’ve made him my “hottie-of-the-month”!

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