Loic Wacquant was a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago when he joined the Woodlawn Boys Club at 63rd and Woodlawn in 1988. He thought the club, a boxing gym that served the surrounding community, might provide a good point from which to study the social lives of young men in the ghetto. An acolyte of fellow Frenchman Pierre Bourdieu, he wasn’t planning on sparring himself. He was a thinker, not a fighter–a student with a bright academic future. But within two months Wacquant had thrown his first punch in the ring. “I was seduced by the thick atmosphere of discipline, dedication, and devotion that suffuses the gym,” he says. “And the camaraderie. After a while I just couldn’t stay away.”
As his interest in boxing grew, his academic commitments fell by the wayside: “I really knew nothing about the game and had no interest in it whatsoever,” he says. “Two years later, I was ready to give up a position at Harvard University and junk my career to stay in the gym and even turn pro. That little boxing gym on 63rd Street had become my primary world.”
He tells the full story of his seduction in his new book, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, out this month from Oxford University Press. A first person bildungsroman, the book offers a portrait of the life of the gym full of vibrant, fully realized characters like Illinois state superlightweight champion Curtis Strong and trainer DeeDee Armour, who’d been volunteering at the club since it opened in 1977 and who became a surrogate father to many of the boxers.
But Body & Soul is also a scholarly experiment: an ethnography in which Wacquant endeavors to convey the “carnal dimension” of existence by immersing himself in his subject and using his own physical experience as a tool of inquiry. Writers from Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates have analyzed boxing before but few have tried to capture the pain, sweat, and discipline of being a boxer by actually becoming one.
After three years as a pugilist, Wacquant pulled himself away from the gym. He went on to a prestigious fellowship at Harvard and has since become a respected, though controversial, figure in sociology: a MacArthur fellow and author of numerous works on urban inequality and racism who has notoriously condemned his peers for failing to recognize the complicity of the state in the perpetuation of urban poverty.
Perhaps inevitably, then, Body & Soul, which sharply sketches the relationship between the gym and its neighborhood, resounds with the politics of its author. According to Wacquant, the lessons learned at Woodlawn helped young men get by. “The boxers were nearly unanimous in saying that boxing was a positive force in their life,” he says. “It instilled in them discipline, self-esteem, and confidence. It gave them . . . the ability to better control their emotions and to deal with different personalities and situations.”
The gym also offered its fighters refuge from the crime and violence that plagued the neighborhood. “The gym was a little haven, a shield from the everyday perils and temptations of life on the street,” says Wacquant. “It was a place of protected sociability where men could engage in ordinary interaction marked by the mutual respect, cordiality, and predictability that was too often forbidden in the harsh, dog-eat-dog world outside.”
As a boxer, Wacquant was no slouch, jumping rope, doing sit-ups, working the pads, and running three to five miles a day. Ultimately, all the hard work paid off: Body & Soul culminates in his participation as “Busy Louie” in the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament as a junior welterweight. He was eliminated after three rounds, but it remains one of his proudest moments: “If you had told me back when I first entered the gym that I would fight in the Golden Gloves one day, I would have thought it ridiculous, that I was more likely to walk on the moon.”
The Woodlawn Boys Club closed in 1992 and Armour died in 2000. Wacquant currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. He’ll read from Body & Soul at 7 on Wednesday, November 19, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th. It’s free; call 773-684-1300 for more information.