Michael Walsh is a New York Times bestselling author. Early in his career, he served as music critic to the San Francisco Examiner and then Time magazine. Walsh wrote a biography of Andrew Lloyd Webber and has since added other nonfiction, novels and screenplays to his repertoire. I recently caught up with him to talk about his experience researching “Great Expectations,” his feature story about what life was like for African-American boxer Jack Johnson and musician Scott Joplin a century ago.
What drew you to this story?
I love sports, and I love music. When my editor and I started talking about possible anniversary stories, I thought, well, what happened in 1910 that would have some resonance for today? Then I realized that the obvious thing, given the sort of obsession we have with racial issues still, was the big fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. It caused race riots, divided the country and it was a source of great pride for black America, who finally got a heavyweight champion. And yet at the same time, I had my own personal hero Scott Joplin nearing the end of his life, engaged in this quixotic attempt to write the great American opera, to show that black composers could reach as high as any white composers.
The two men were completely representative of divergent and competitive strains in the thinking of black America at the time. Jack Johnson was an exemplar, a kind of living embodiment of the whole notion of the New Negro, as articulated slightly later during the Harlem Renaissance, and very much a W.E.B. Du Bois adherent, whether he knew it or not. And Joplin was openly and squarely in the Booker T. Washington camp. So I thought these two great men, who were contemporaries, who were engaged in their greatest work at the same time, made just a fascinating study in contrasts and offered a lot of lessons for today.
You say Joplin is a personal hero of yours. Why is that?
Yes, well, because he came from nothing. He was the son of a freed slave. He embraced the Washington philosophy that the best way for black America to compete with white America was to get an education and to build up the community from the bottom up. What I love about Joplin is that he just never gave up. He was a brilliant musical genius, largely self-taught. He died thinking he was a failure, and yet when Treemonisha, his great opera, was finally done years later in the ‘70s, he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for music for it. It’s a great American story.
It sounds like you felt like Johnson and Joplin were pretty likeable characters.
Yeah, Johnson wasn’t likeable in the sense that he was deliberately provocative. He thumbed his nose at every convention of society, which eventually, of course, got him thrown in jail, whereas Joplin was self-effacing. There’s very little coverage of Joplin during his lifetime. He’s the exact polar opposite of Jack Johnson in every way, and yet they’re both great men. I think that’s what makes it interesting.
What was your favorite moment during your research?
Oh, I think watching the fight [between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries]—not just to see the fight itself, but also to see how different the boxing styles were a hundred years ago than they are today. It’s a lot less slugging and a lot more slapping and dancing. Also, to see the crowds and get back into the music of the time, which of course Joplin would have defined because that was the Ragtime era by that point. It’s always fun, as a writer on historical subjects, to immerse yourself in the period and to try to see it from their point of view, not our point of view.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
I hope they’ll go back and rediscover the music of Joplin, for one, because it’s such a great, rewarding and rich body of music and seems to come around every 30 or 40 years. We had a big revival of it in the ‘70s, when the movie The Sting came out. With Johnson, I think if you like boxing, which I do, then it’s great to go back and look at one of the guys who was considered one of the top five heavyweights of all time. You get a new appreciation for the lives that they lived.