Biographer David Maraniss recounts the life of Jim Thorpe : NPR

NPR’s Don Gonyea speaks with journalist and author David Maraniss about his new book, Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe.


Jim Thorpe is one of those epic names in American lore – the greatest athlete of all time, a Native American who overcame great odds to triumph in a number of sports – football, baseball, Olympic medals in track and field, adored by Hollywood. But his story is also one of exploitation and racism and one that has often been misunderstood or only partially told until now. In a new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Maraniss details the events and myths that shaped Jim Thorpe and his legacy. It’s called “The Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe”. And it’s the latest in a long line of famous biographies written by Maraniss, which includes best-selling profiles of Barack Obama, baseball great Roberto Clemente and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

We wanted to know more about this latest book and the legacy of Jim Thorpe, so we called David Maraniss. David, thanks for being here.

DAVID MARANISS: I love being with you, Don. Thanks.

GONYEA: As we mentioned, you have written long biographies of very impressive people. What attracted you to Jim Thorpe? Was there anything you felt needed to be said?

MARANISS: Well, I did. You know, I consider this the third in my trilogy of sports biographies from – starting with Vince Lombardi and then Roberto Clemente. And in each case, I’m looking for two things. One is the pure drama of sports, and the second is a way of using it to illuminate American sociology and history. And so I saw in the story of Jim Thorpe a chance to really write about the Native American experience from 1887, when he was born, to 1953, when he died, a critical period in American history told to through the lens of what Native Americans endured. .

GONYEA: So let’s dive into that life, starting with his youth, as you said, born in 1887 in Indian Territory in what later became Oklahoma. As a teenager, he was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania. Again, the myth is that this is where he gathered his life and found his athletic skills, but you get a much more comprehensive look at the school.

MARANISS: Oh, absolutely. It was the flagship Indian residential school run by the US government, founded in 1879, just three years after the Battle of Little Bighorn. The first students were Lakota Sioux, who thought they were going there to show their bravery and die. The school’s motto throughout its existence when Jim Thorpe was there too, was Kill the Indian, Save the Man, which meant ridding Native Americans of their culture, language, religion, cutting them off hair, dressed them in US Army ordeal uniforms and attempted to acculturate and assimilate them into white society in a dehumanizing process.

GONYEA: You cleared up a lot of my misconceptions with this part of the book. I mean, I thought it was more of a typical boarding school for high school Native Americans and some college-aged students. But these types of places – and there were others around the country – figured very prominently in the history of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans, didn’t they?

MARANISS: Oh, they absolutely did. And, you know, for – you know, I try to look at the complexity of life. So many Indians who went through these schools found ways to survive and make their mark and became Indian activists by becoming lawyers, doctors, etc. But the general – it was for them to rid them of their pure culture. And, you know, it didn’t work in most cases – thank God – but that’s what he was trying to do.

GONYEA: So he’s a student at Carlisle, and that’s really where the world started noticing his incredible athletic gifts. Talk it over.

MARANIS: Yeah. You know, when he came to Carslisle in 1904 he was 16 years old. And surprisingly, for me, he was 5ft 5in tall and weighed 115 lbs. But he had an incredible growth spurt, and it was really in 1907 that he began to show his athletic talents. He was working at the farm in Carlisle and walked along the track and saw the high jumpers trying to clear 6ft, none of them succeeding. Jim Thorpe was in his suit and easily cleared the bar. The next day he was on the track team and, you know, within a year he was the star of the football team. And then in 1911 and 1912 he was the dominant athlete in those two

sports. In football specifically, he was beating all the major teams in college football, which at that time happened to be East Coast teams – Harvard and Army, Syracuse, Princeton. Probably his best game of all time, the one that really made him nationally famous, was when the Carlisle Indians went to West Point and beat Army 27-6 with Jim Thorpe as the star. You know, that was the only time the Native Americans were on equal footing with the military and they beat them. And it was because of Jim Thorpe. And all the national press was there. And really, that’s when he achieved this incredible notoriety.

GONYEA: Carlisle is where Thorpe met his most famous trainer, Pop Warner. People might know this name for the youth soccer leagues that bear his name to this day across America. It really is a critical relationship in the book.

MARANISS: I think there is a kind of co-dependency. Pop Warner was the football coach and track and field coach when Jim Thorpe was a football All-American and Olympic gold medalist decathlete. Warner was a great football coach. He was inventive, innovative. He really developed the forward pass and one-wing and two-wing attacks. But he was not a trustworthy human being. And at the critical time in Jim Thorpe’s life, he lied about what he knew to save his own reputation. And later it even came to light that in a congressional investigation he was betting on games and physically and mentally abusing some of his Native American athletes. So it’s a mixed reputation, to say the least, about Pop Warner.

GONYEA: I want to come to what is perhaps the basis of the myth for a lot of Americans, especially older Americans. It was 1951. Jim Thorpe was then 63 years old and Hollywood decided to tell the story of his life.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jim Thorpe, All-American, the bronze man who became the greatest athlete of all time, an Indian from Oklahoma whose untamed spirit gave wings to his feet and the brought to immortality.

GONYEA: The movie starred Burt Lancaster as Thorpe. You describe it as well-meaning, but not really how things happened.

MARANISS: Well, Burt Lancaster was a great athlete, but he was 37 years old. And he wasn’t Native American. He had a terrific director, Michael Curtiz, who made “Casablanca.” And it was sympathetic to Jim Thorpe in many ways, but it was also wrong in almost every detail and wrong in the broadest sense. The broader meaning is that the film’s narrator was the aforementioned Pop Warner. And the theme was, you know, as his athletic skills waned and he struggled for the last 20 or 30 years of his life, Pop Warner re-emerged and basically said, Jim, you know, if you just had me listened to and assimilated successfully in white society, you would have had none of these problems. So it was Pop Warner the white savior and, you know, without realizing it was Pop Warner at the critical time in Jim Thorpe’s life that turned on him when he lost his gold medals .

GONYEA: We’ve seen many great athletes struggle with life when their days on the court or in the field are over. Obviously, this can be a difficult transition even if you have all the support and planning imaginable. But Jim Thorpe didn’t have such a big plan.

MARANISS: Well, he didn’t have a plan. And he had no money because he was a great athlete before the days when athletes made money. You know, the most he ever made was $300 playing football for Canton. And he has struggled for the past 20 years. At one point he was digging ditches in Los Angeles during the heat of the Depression. He has acted in several films – more than 70 – as an extra in Hollywood. But, you know, they would say with Jim Thorpe or with Jim Thorpe. But he – you could barely find him on the screen. And he was getting a minimum wage for it.

He continued to work no matter what. And that’s sort of the final conclusion to my book that you can consider this a tragedy in a way. But my goal in writing the book was to try to use Jim Thorpe as an emblem of the Native American experience. And there were times early in Jim’s career – in 1915, for example – when America’s most popular statue was called The End of the Trail. And he had a bent Indian on horseback. And the implication was that manifest fate had prevailed, that progress was making the Indian obsolete, and that the race was dying and about to die.

And that didn’t happen. Native Americans figured out how to survive in a system that was directed against them. You know, kill the Indians, save the man. They managed to keep their integrity, their identity and their culture. And, you know, in 1915 there were less than–less than 300,000 Native Americans. It has continued to grow ever since. And I tend to think of that as another symbol of Jim Thorpe, who despite everything that went against him, he kept trying. And perseverance was what defined him, not tragedy.

GONYEA: Where does the title of this book come from, this sentence – path lit by lightning?

MARANISS: It comes from his birth. He was born in May 1887 along the North Canadian River in what would become Oklahoma Indian Territory. And there was a thunderstorm that night. And his name in Sac and Fox was Wa-Tho-Huk. And the poetic translation of that is path lit by lightning, which as soon as I saw it, I said, that’s the title of my book because it’s enlightening.

GONYEA: We spoke to David Maraniss. His latest book is called “Path Lit By Lightning: The Life Of Jim Thorpe”. David, thank you.

MARANISS: Thank you, Don.

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