Polemics & Exchanges

On Romantic Fighting

I read Roger McGrath’s engaging memoir, “Boys Will Be Boys” (Views, March), with real pleasure but found the skeptic in me thoroughly awakened afterward.  McGrath offers a surprisingly romanticized vision of schoolboy fighting, which he regards as a healthy expression of boys’ natural competitiveness and, indeed, as a key institution, a defining ritual in an older, tougher, more virtuous America.  Fights, as McGrath remembers them, were “affaires d’honneur,” pitting equal against equal, necessary exercises that tested what a fellow was made of.  We need to get back to those good ol’ days, “allowing boys to be boys—so that, one day, they can be men.”

Like all gifted romancers, McGrath catches an important part of the truth but misses another.  From my own years growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I retain very different memories of what youthful fighting was all about.  It was true that most teenage fighters aspired to a code of sorts—give fair warning, pick on people your own size, hit above the belt, and so on.  But the code always seemed to break down in practice.  The one-on-one protocol often flew out the window when friends saw friends getting hit or when an observer grew intolerably overstimulated, and, in my experience, numerically...

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