Jim Thorpe’s Path Lit by LightningA conversation with David Maraniss, about the legendary Native American athlete Jim Thorpe.
I’ve had a special fondness for the phenomenal athlete Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) since grade school in the late fifties. I read all I could about his incredible story. I almost never kept track of sports and I was the worst athlete ever, always the last chosen for teams, if at all. But Jim Thorpe was an inspiring presence—a Native American from humble roots who came out of obscurity to master every sport he attempted.
After he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the Swedish king called Thorpe “the greatest athlete in the world.” In addition to his prowess in track and field, he was an All-American collegiate football player, a star of the first pro-football Hall of Fame, and a major league baseball player, among many distinctions.
But I never knew much about my hero beyond his athletic achievements and yearned to learn more. And when I mention Thorpe to younger people, to my surprise, most have never heard of him. He loomed large for many of us baby boomers.
Thanks to prize-winning author David Maraniss, we now have a magisterial account of Thorpe’s extraordinary life with the meticulously researched, riveting, and first comprehensive biography of this mythic athlete, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe (Simon & Schuster). The book not only recounts Thorpe’s athletic triumphs but also presents his life in the context of the history of Native Americans and sports in first half of the twentieth century. The result is an engaging and assiduously detailed portrait of a man who negotiated between two worlds, between traditional Indigenous society and majority white America that offered opportunity as well as exploitation and racism with the attendant degradation and stereotyping of the internationally renowned sports icon.
Readers of Path Lit by Lightning (Jim Thorpe’s American Indian name) will learn of Thorpe’s childhood challenges with his Native family in Oklahoma, his schooling at soul-crushing Indian residential schools, his spectacular gold medal performances at the 1912 Olympics, the painful rescinding of his Olympic records and medals a year later, and his triumphs in intercollegiate and professional sports.
But after the days of athletic glory, as Mr. Maraniss details, Thorpe became an itinerant “athletic migrant worker.” He endured a Sisyphean cycle of hope and disappointment as he repeatedly made false starts in ventures involving sports and other enterprises. To provide for his growing family, he took on many odd jogs with minimal pay such as playing bit parts in dozens of movies, usually without credit, and even digging ditches during the Depression.
A parade of swindlers and speculators exploited Thorpe’s fame and then abandoned him. His peripatetic life and alcoholism also interfered with work and disrupted his relationship with his family that he seldom saw. And the press tended to romanticize and patronize Thorpe as it dehumanized and mocked him with coverage that was rife with misunderstanding and overtly racist stereotypes.
Despite many disappointments and the disadvantages of life for a Native American in a racist society, Thorpe persisted. As Mr. Maraniss stresses in Path Lit by Lightning, Jim Thorpe was a model of fortitude and resilience and grace despite setbacks. He never gave up.
David Maraniss is a fellow of the Society of American Historians, a visiting distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, and an associate editor at The Washington Post where he has worked for more than forty years. The Thorpe biography is his thirteenth hook, the conclusion of a trilogy that includes his previous biographies of Roberto Clemente and Vince Lombardi. He has also written authoritative biographies of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and a trilogy on the 1960s with Rome 1960, Once in a Great City, and They Marched into Sunlight.
As an editor and writer for The Washington Post, in 1993 Mr. Maraniss received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his coverage of Bill Clinton and, in 2007, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting. He was also a Pulitzer finalist three other times, including for his book, They Marched into Sunlight. He has won many other major writing awards, including the George Polk Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize, the Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and the Frankfurt eBook Award.
Mr. Maraniss generously responded by email to a barrage of questions on his career and his new Thorpe biography.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Mr. Maraniss for discussing your work and your illuminating new book on the life of phenomenal athlete Jim Thorpe. You’re an award-winning journalist and you’ve also written widely acclaimed books of history and biography, always based in painstaking research. How did you come to write these comprehensive books on the likes of Presidents Clinton and Obama, on sports figures such as Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, and on historical incidents?
David Maraniss: For each of the books you mention, there had to be an obsession and a strong theme that drove me to devote years of my life to the subject, and in each case, it was somewhat different.
I had covered Clinton during the 1992 campaign and thought I understood him as deeply as anyone. That was my first biography. My obsession was to capture his duality and at the same time use him (and Hillary) as a means for writing about that generation, my generation, the Baby Boomers. I also wrote about Obama for the Post in 2007-8 and again felt I understood him. My obsession in that book was to understand the forces that shaped him and how he eventually reshaped himself.
I have come to consider the Lombardi, Clemente, and Thorpe biographies as a trilogy. In each case, I was looking to use the drama of sports and their unparalleled lives as a means of illuminating sociology and history.
Robin Lindley: You have a gift for breathing life into the history you recount. Who are some of your influences as a writer of history and biography?
David Maraniss: Before I wrote my first book, I had long conversations with Robert Caro and Taylor Branch about how they did what they did, and I would say they were major influences in both methods of organization and writing. Other influences were my father, a newspaperman with a wonderful ability to write intelligently but fluently and accessibly, and Richard Harwood, my first editor at the Trenton Times and the Post, who had that same skill. Also, I tried to model my work to some degree after George Orwell, not his novels but his essays, which I find models of clarity.
Robin Lindley: What inspired you to take on what has been called already “the definitive biography” of the legendary Jim Thorpe?
David Maraniss: The Thorpe story was first mentioned to me by a writer from the Oneida Nation, Norbert Hill, more than twenty years ago, but I had many other projects at hand at that time. He planted a seed that took a long time to grow. By then I had written Lombardi and Clemente and saw Thorpe’s incredible story as a means of exploring the Native American experience.
Robin Lindley: I’m surprised that several younger people I’ve talked with don’t know of Thorpe. He loomed large in my childhood in the fifties and sixties. How would you briefly introduce him to readers?
David Maraniss: Jim Thorpe rose from the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma to become the greatest athlete in the world. It is impossible to compare athletes from different generations but he accomplished a trifecta that has never been matched: an All-American football player, a gold medalist in the decathlon and pentathlon [at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics], and a professional baseball player. The struggles he faced during his life from 1887 to 1953 mark the struggles of his people.
Robin Lindley: Your meticulous research on Thorpe’s life and times is astounding. You get down to details from ten-dollar loans to parking tickets, as well as recounting many, many major (and minor) events in his life. What was your research process for this magisterial biography?
David Maraniss: I try to use the same research methodology for all of my books, what I call the Four Legs of the Table, but in this case there were some limitations. For instance, the first leg is “Go There,” but for this book I was limited by COVID. For Lombardi, I moved to Green Bay. I could not live in Oklahoma or get to Stockholm, where Thorpe won his gold medals, because of COVID.
The second leg is “Interviews,” but in this case, Thorpe was from an era where none of his contemporaries are still alive. In fact, even his seven children were gone by the time I started, so interviews were less important.
I relied more on the final two legs, “Archives” and “Looking for what is Not There,” meaning breaking through the encrustation of mythology to find the real story. Archives were essential in this case, providing letters, oral histories, and all of the documents of the government boarding schools that Thorpe attended. The archives ranged from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale to the Cumberland County Historical Association to the National Archives to the Library of Congress and many more.
Robin Lindley: Thorpe died almost 70 years ago, but I wondered if you had a chance to interview any surviving family members or friends of Thorpe? The challenges of a biography of a past celebrity must be much different than writing about living subjects such as Presidents Clinton and Obama.
David Maraniss: As I said, none of his children were alive. I did not rely on the family but I talked to a few great grandchildren. It was an entirely different process than writing about live figures such as Clinton and Obama, but my search for understanding the subject is pretty much the same.
Robin Lindley: As you recount, Jim Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox nation and was raised in Oklahoma. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about his childhood? Were there events as he grew up in Oklahoma that presaged his astounding athletic abilities?
David Maraniss: Throughout the book, I connect the story of Jim Thorpe to the larger plight of the American Indian. That starts with the year he was born, 1887, which was the year of the Dawes Act, which took communal tribal lands away from many Native peoples and gave them private parcels instead with a land grab that led to the Oklahoma Land Runs and was essentially another act of forced assimilation.
The Sac and Fox among other tribes lost much of their land. One thing most people don’t know about Jim is that he was a twin. His twin brother Charlie died when they were nine and boarding at the Sac and Fox Indian school when a disease swept through the institution. It was the first of many grievous losses in Jim’s life. There were few indications of his later athletic prowess yet, but it is apparent that he took much of his strength and stamina from his father, Hiram, who was so strong he could walk home 20 miles from a hunting trip with a felled deer on each shoulder.
Robin Lindley: How did Thorpe come to leave his family in Oklahoma as a teen and then wind up at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania?
David Maraniss: The Sac and Fox boarding school was the first of three Indian boarding schools Jim was sent to. The second was the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Jim began to love football there; but did not like the school and ran away. His father then sent him to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Jim was not quite 16 when he arrived. Unbelievably, considering his later stature, he stood 5-5 and weighed about 115 pounds when he arrived.
Robin Lindley: The goal of the Carlisle residential school was to prepare Native American students for assimilation into the majority white society. Its motto was “Kill the Indian. Save the Man,” as you stress. What was the historical context of this philosophy for addressing American Indian students in the early twentieth century?
David Maraniss: The “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” philosophy was developed by the founder of the Carlisle school, Richard Henry Pratt, who thought he was doing good—that it was better to force Indigenous students to assimilate into white society as a means of survival rather than literally kill them, as the wars of the mid-nineteenth century had done. This became the government policy throughout the boarding schools. Take away their culture, religion, language, shear their hair, dress them in military uniforms – this was the way to “save” the poor Indians from annihilation. There was no consideration given to the grave and long-lasting damage done by this approach.
Robin Lindley: There was a similar educational philosophy in Canada, and Pope Francis recently apologized for the abusive treatment of Indigenous students at residential schools there. Were US schools comparable to those in Canada?
David Maraniss: There were all sorts of Indian boarding schools. Some run by the federal government, some by local governments, and some by religious institutions, including Catholic, Lutheran, and Quaker schools. The pope came to Canada because so many of the First Nation boarding schools there were Catholic. But in Canada and in the US, much like in Australia and New Zealand with their aboriginal populations, the nefarious idea was much the same – involuntary assimilation through the boarding schools.
Robin Lindley: You tell the story of Thorpe in the context of the Native American history of dispossession, genocide, and ethnic cleansing (as embodied in residential schools).
Even Thorpe, perhaps the most accomplished and celebrated Indigenous person of his time, could not escape racist stereotyping and degrading mockery. How was he covered by the press after his days of athletic glory? How does his life echo the experience of other Native Americans during his life?
David Maraniss: Like his people as a whole, Thorpe was romanticized and diminished at the same time. Sportswriters for the most part supported the movement to restore his medals and thought they were championing his cause, yet they routinely resorted to stereotypes when writing about him. He was on the warpath and taking scalps and was called chief or the big chief. The common phrase when writing about him was “Lo, the poor Indian ” taken from a line in an Alexander Pope poem.
On Hollywood, where he was an extra in more than 70 films, he tried to push back against the stereotypes perpetuated in many westerns and to force the studio to hire real American Indians to play Indians.
Robin Lindley: The feature-length movie Jim Thorpe—All American, starring Burt Lancaster, a white actor, in the title role came out just a couple of years before Thorpe died. How did Thorpe view that movie and Lancaster’s portrayal?
David Maraniss: The 1951 movie about his life, Jim Thorpe – All American, was for the most part a sympathetic portrait. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, and starred Burt Lancaster, a dynamic actor who was also an excellent athlete.
Many people I’ve talked to since the book came out said they were first attracted to Thorpe because of that movie. I understand that sentiment, yet the movie is wrong in ways small and large. The opening scene for instance shows Jim supposedly at his home in Oklahoma as a boy, yet the San Gabriel Mountains of California are in the background. That is a minor mistake. The big one is that the narrator of the film, and in essence its hero, is not Thorpe but his coach at Carlisle, Pop Warner, and the implication is that if only Jim had listened to Pop more and more successfully, and assimilated into white society he would not have had the post-athletic troubles that he had.
This is not only wrong but maddening, because in reality, when Jim faced the biggest trauma of his career, when his Olympic gold medals were rescinded [in 1913] after it was reported that he had played bush league baseball for two seasons, Warner lied about his knowledge of that to save his own reputation. He knew exactly what Jim and many of his Indian athletes were doing, and that scores of other college athletes were also playing pro baseball in the summers, though most of them were doing it under aliases while Jim played under his own name.
Robin Lindley: Thorpe navigated between Native and white worlds. He never gave up his search for a place in America. His story can be seen as a tragedy, of early glory and ensuing false starts and failures, or as a life of survival, resilience and inspiration. How do you see the arc of his life?
David Maraniss: As I was finishing the book’s final chapter, I kept hoping for something better to happen to Jim even while knowing that it would not. His “afterlife” after his athletic days were done was a struggle. He roamed from state to state looking for stable work, his first two wives divorced him, he did not see his seven children as much as he might have, he tried to overcome his addiction to alcohol, he had two heart attacks before a final one killed him at age 65 when he was living in a trailer park in southern California.
But was this story a tragedy? I decided it was not. It was more a story of persistence against the odds, emblematic of the struggles of all Indigenous people.
Robin Lindley: Is it fair to call Thorpe the greatest athlete of all time? He excelled in virtually every sport or athletic pursuit he tried.
David Maraniss: It’s fruitless to compare athletes from different generations because of differences in training, diet, equipment, and other advancements in the sports world. But no one before or since accomplished all that Thorpe did in the trifecta of football, track and field, and baseball. His feats were unparalleled. In the modern world perhaps, only Bo Jackson comes close.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mr. Maraniss, and for this comprehensive biography of Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete of all time. And congratulations on the overwhelmingly positive response to your heartfelt, engaging and extensively researched book, Path Lit by Lightning. Best wishes.Wait, before you go…
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