Yet Thorpe’s story evokes a sense of loss. As David Maraniss artfully demonstrates in the biography “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe”, Thorpe was both blown and pilloried. The press shaped his image as both noble Indian and simple savage. Sports administrators stripped him of his gold medals for violating questionable principles of amateurism, and despite his status as a transcendent athlete and Native American hero, he struggled to find consistent, lucrative work. Maraniss states that he has fallen victim to the harmful myth “that the Great White Father knows best”.
A member of the Sac and Fox Nation, Thorpe grew up in the Indian Territory of central Oklahoma and rose to prominence at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a Pennsylvania institution that sought to “civilize” Native Americans through regulation, manual labor and cultural assimilation. Like many of his classmates, Thorpe resented and liked Carlisle. Like other aspects of American politics in the Progressive Era, it sought to uplift Indians, even as it treated them with racist contempt.
Thorpe rose to fame as the star of the Carlisle football team, playing running back, defensive back, kicker and punter. In 1911, his team raised the school’s profile by beating top college programs and winning the national championship. In 1912, Thorpe led a symbolically charged victory over the Army (a team that included second-year cadet Dwight D. Eisenhower). In the words of Maraniss, Thorpe showed “the uncommon multiplicity of his running skills – his change of pace, his stops and starts, his pivoting hip swing, his straight arm and searing speed, all with the power of wild horse pounding the prairie of Oklahoma.
Between those legendary seasons on the grill, Thorpe won both the decathlon and the pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics, a feat so remarkable that King Gustav V of Sweden supposedly saluted him: “You, sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world. .” While some news articles treated him as the Indian stereotype of a wild creature, Thorpe was also hailed as an example of American achievement – an irony, given that the US government did not recognize Native Americans as citizens.
When the Amateur Athletic Union stripped Thorpe of his gold medals in 1913, he followed these historic patterns of condescension and exploitation. In his time, the boundaries between professional and amateur were blurred. Carlisle football coach Pop Warner, for example, handed out money to his athletes, including Thorpe. But when the press began reporting that Thorpe had spent two summers in North Carolina playing minor league baseball — a common practice for college athletes — it was treated as an outrage. Warner, along with Carlisle Superintendent Moses Friedman, dishonestly portrayed Thorpe as just an ignorant Indian boy who unknowingly turned professional.
Maraniss is much friendlier to Thorpe. Throughout a book marked by extensive research and expert contextualization, he sifts through myths about Thorpe and Native Americans, portraying his subject as a proud and complicated man who sought to shape his own destiny, but who was tormented by greater forces of racism and hypocrisy.
Deputy Editor of the Washington Post, Maraniss has a well-earned reputation for crafting meticulous and in-depth narrative histories of American politics and culture, including works on sports. His book on football coach Vince Lombardi, “When Pride Still Mattered,” might be the best sports biography ever written.
If “Path Lit by Lightning” can’t reach that impossible standard, it’s largely because Thorpe kept his thoughts and emotions to himself. His stoic personality lent him a shield against the pressures and prejudices that came with his unique stardom, but he also played a part in his own struggles. He let his first two marriages fail. He had a distant relationship with his eight children. He struggled with alcohol abuse. Maraniss pulls out the few shreds of evidence that reveal Thorpe’s unfiltered personality, but it’s often hard to see the man behind the mask.
Thorpe’s story reaches its dramatic climax during his glory years in Carlisle and the Olympics, so the later chapters of his biography chronicle a still disjointed life on sports teams of diminishing prestige; unsatisfactory stints as a one-line actor or extra in Hollywood films; and short-lived gigs as a speaker, traveling entertainer, or saloon owner.
Yet, by highlighting Thorpe’s perseverance, Maraniss paints a portrait that is both heroic and tragic. He writes: “Rarely demonstrative, more introverted than showman, more solitary than he ever showed the public, he nevertheless endured as a traveling entertainer, athlete, Olympian, ever-moving Indian, moving from one city to city across America, fueled by a combination of willpower and often desperate financial need, seeking ways to adapt and survive.
At the end, Maraniss tells the story of Thorpe’s bones. They now lie under a shrine in the former coal country of the Pocono Mountains. The small memorial park is in a town called Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Despite his decades of constant travel with countless sports teams, Thorpe never set foot there.
Thorpe had asked to be buried near his birthplace in Oklahoma, on the land of his ancestors. His widow instead profited by causing two municipalities to merge and rename themselves after the famous athlete. In return, the city received Thorpe’s remains, along with unfulfilled promises of economic development.
In death as in life, therefore, Thorpe was a famous hero, but commodified beyond his control and stripped of his authentic identity. “Path Lit by Lightning” tells its story with skill and integrity.
Aram Goudsouzian is the Bizot family history professor at the University of Memphis. His books include “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.”
Simon & Schuster. 672 pages. $32.50.