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Robert Lipsyte was for many years a sportswriter for the New York Times. He has also written several well-regarded novels for young adult readers, often utilizing sports as subject or background. Lipsyte is recognized as an insightful author who combines enthusiasm for sports with a perceptive awareness of social issues, including the problematic role of sports in American culture. He has also published nonfiction works including biographies, social criticism, history, and memoir.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Copy Boy to Sportswriter
Robert Lipsyte was born January 16, 1938, in New York City, and grew up in Rego Park, Queens. His father was a school principal, his mother a teacher and guidance counselor; in the intellectual environment of his home, he read a lot and was not athletically inclined. He was overweight in his pre-teen years, and as he puts it in an autobiographical sketch, ”[I] started writing so I could make up stories in which thin kids died horribly.” The effort he undertook to lose weight became, later, the source of his novel One Fat Summer (1977).
In 1957 Lipsyte received an undergraduate degree in English from Columbia University in New York and planned to attend graduate school. A summer job as nighttime copy boy for the New York Times sports department led him into a journalistic career. Lipsyte opted to stay and eventually rose from gofer to cub reporter. He earned his first major assignment in 1962, covering the New York Mets’ first year in the National League. The expansion team’s woeful performance gave him an opportunity to put a colorful stamp on his reporting. In his story on the team’s very first spring training game, he talked of an older fan who left in disgust when the Mets fell behind, saying, ”Same old Mets!”
Lipsyte’s refreshing style and sharp insights made him a standout at the Times, and because of the paper’s influential status, he soon gained national attention. He later wrote that the 1960s was an especially fruitful period for breaking into sports journalism. The spread of televised sports meant that print reporters had to go beyond summarizing games and provide more detailed information as well as opinion. In addition, the social conflicts of the 1960s, from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War, profoundly influenced athletics as well as the wider culture. Lipsyte courted controversy by infusing social issues into his sportswriting, reporting about athletes’ off-field troubles.
The Champ and The Contender
On the boxing beat, he took interest in a rising heavyweight named Cassius Clay, who converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali after winning the world title in 1964. Lipsyte defended the fighter, although much of the press corps refused to call him by his new name. In 1967, when Ali refused to serve in Vietnam, Lipsyte was again sympathetic. He later wrote a biography of the charismatic champion, called Free to Be Muhammad Ali (1978).
Lipsyte drew upon his experiences as a boxing writer to produce his first novel for young readers, The Contender (1967). The book chronicles the metamorphosis of seventeen-year-old Alfred Brooks from an aimless orphan in Harlem to a disciplined young man. He achieves this change by applying principles he learns in training to be a boxer. His trainer, Donatelli, insists, ”Everybody wants to be a champion. That’s not enough. You have to start by wanting to be a contender. . . . It’s the climbing that makes the man.” Alfred does not realize his boxing goals, but his inner resolve helps him form long-term plans to serve his community. As a white author writing about the black experience at a time when such topics rarely appeared in juvenile literature, Lipsyte is credited with vividly describing ghetto life and the boxing world.
Soon after The Contender was published, Lipsyte became a sports columnist for the Times. His columns became a vehicle for pointed observations about the intersection of sports and society, with particular skepticism about the role of journalism and the media. For his 1970 book Assignment: Sports, he selected and edited his Times columns for a younger audience. In a companion volume, Sports World: An American Dreamland (1975), Lipsyte explores his disillusionment with the impact of sports on young people—for example, the sense of inadequacy normal kids feel when they cannot compete with star athletes and the unhealthy emphasis on winning among coaches and parents. Lipsyte has continued to critique what he calls ”jock culture” in fiction as well as essays.
Lipsyte wrote his second young adult novel, One Fat Summer (1977), to contend with the pain of his youth and with the summer when he lost forty pounds. He followed it up with two sequels, Summer Rules (1981) and The Summerboy (1982), also set in the 1950s and narrated by Bobby Marks, an overweight youngster with a wise mouth, a vivid imagination, and a confidence problem. The novels take Bobby from the ages of fourteen to eighteen and demonstrate how Bobby becomes a thin, independent young man who is unafraid to stand up for what he believes.
Lipsyte was forced to battle his own problems beginning in 1978, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After surgery and chemotherapy, he recovered and returned to an active life. His next book for young adults, Jock and Jill (1982), tackles tough topics such as the use of drugs in athletics, gangs, inner-city housing advocacy, and conflicting ethical responsibilities. Following its publication, Lipsyte began another career—in television news. He worked as a correspondent for the program ”CBS Sunday Morning,” then for NBC. He won an Emmy award in 1990 for hosting the nightly public affairs show ”The Eleventh Hour” on New York’s public broadcasting station, WNET. In 1991 he returned to the New York Times after a twenty-year absence to write two columns, one for the sports section and one for the city section.
After two decades fielding young people’s questions about Alfred Brooks from The Contender, Lipsyte decided to pick up the character’s story. In The Brave (1991), Sonny Bear, a seventeen-year-old half-Indian runaway, meets Brooks, now a forty-year-old New York City police sergeant. Sonny Bear becomes a boxing contender in The Chief (1993). Warrior Angel (2003) completes the Contender quartet.
Robert Lipsyte has continued to distinguish himself in numerous genres of prose. His memoir In the Country of Illness: Comfort and Advice for the Journey (1998) sensitively chronicles both his own and his wife’s battles with cancer. He has written a series of sports biographies and delved into the history of the American national pastime with Heroes of Baseball (2006). The young adult novel Raiders Night (2006) looks unflinchingly at the dark side of high school football, including the brutality of hazing rituals and the complicity of adults in covering up their damaging consequences. At age sixty-nine, Lipsyte still connects to teenage readers, and his depictions of jock culture remain penetrating and enlightening.
Works in Literary Context
Young Adult Fiction
Lipsyte is widely admired for his novels for adolescent, or young adult, readers. The young adult (or, in literary lingo, “YA”) genre is of relatively recent vintage, although such outstanding novels as Great Expectations (1860) by Charles Dickens and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain feature adolescent protagonists and appeal to that age group. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) helped to shape modern young-adult fiction with its troubled hero and edgy subject matter. Contemporary YA authors, such as Robert Cormier, Judy Blume, and Walter Dean Myers, unflinchingly confront serious issues in their novels, issues that teenagers must grapple with in their lives, such as sex, drugs, dangerous behavior, and death. Like his peers, Lipsyte writes about teenage characters facing challenging ethical quandaries, and in so doing, they take steps toward maturity, self-knowledge, and self-esteem.
The Literature of Sport
In The Contender, Lipsyte presents sports involvement as a form of discipline that will help his protagonist survive and be productive in his environment. This orientation—and the gritty realism that invariably characterizes his portrayal of athletics— makes Lipsyte an exception to the norm of sports storytelling. He is not content merely to tell the story of the game. Nor is he willing to accept the traditional myths of sports, such as that hard-nosed discipline leads inevitably to triumph. His perspective treats the athletic world skeptically and studies it as a source of more complex issues, such as the cultural implications of steroid use and hazing rituals in high school football.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have commended Lipsyte’s efforts to portray real and fictional personalities with reverence for their depth and complexity. Lipsyte twice received Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award for Distinguished Reporting, in 1966 (for his sportswriting) and 1996 (for his columns in the New York Times city section). In 2001 the American Library Association gave Lipsyte its Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature. Teenagers who are attracted to Lipsyte’s books often enjoy his descriptions of athletic life as well as his strong characterizations and insights into human nature.
SportsWorld: An American Dreamland and Raiders Night
Lipsyte has been criticized, however, for being overly moralistic when reflecting on the evils of society. This tendency is most evident in his commentaries and in the book SportsWorld: An American Dreamland (1975), a work of social criticism. This book prompted some reviewers to categorize Lipsyte as a disenchanted writer harboring an intense dislike of sports. Baseball writer Roger Kahn, writing in the New York Times Book Review, finds that “SportsWorld lacks a sense of joy.” On the other hand, in Newsweek, Paul D. Zimmerman deems the book a persuasive volume of dissent.” Readers sensitive to Lipsyte’s political orientation may be more inclined to accept his sometimes grim conclusions. On the Web site Political Affairs, Dave Zirin calls Raiders Night a book that manages to capture both the seductive adrenaline of sports and the rot beneath the surface.” Zirin concludes: ”This is the best fictional critique of the athletic industrial complex I’ve ever read.”
- Cart, Michael. Presenting Robert Lipsyte. New York: Twayne, 1995.
- Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen, eds. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1980.
- Scales, Pat. A Teacher’s Resource to Robert Lipsyte. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1992.
- Forman, Jack. Review of The Chief. School Library Journal (August 1993): 186.
- Miles, Betty. ”Robert Lipsyte on Kids/Sports/ Books.” Children’s Literature in Education (Spring 1980).
- Simmons, John S. ”Lipsyte’s Contender: Another Look at the Junior Novel.” Elementary English (January 1972): 117.
- Watkins, Mel. Review of Free to Be Muhammad Ali. New York Times Book Review (March 4, 1979): 32.
- ”Robert Lipsyte.” Personal home page. Retrieved November 6, 2008, from http://www.robertlipsyte.com.
- Zirin, Dave. “Raider’s Night: Reclaiming Sports as True Fiction.” Originally published July 17, 2007. Retrieved November 8, 2008, from http:// www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/5585.
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