Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe
by David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster
Published: August 2022
“Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe” by David Maraniss was published last month and has spent most of its life as a New York Times best-seller. Maraniss is associate editor at The Washington Post and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of thirteen books including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Jim Thorpe (1887-1953) is a name only somewhat familiar to most members of my generation. More familiar to me are sports icons such as Earl Campbell, Rickey Henderson and Carl Lewis. But during his own time, and for decades thereafter, the myth and legend of “about five-eighths Indian” Jim Thorpe was widely known. And the story of his life, legacy and resting place has only been settled within the last ten years.
Maraniss’s biography dutifully traces Thorpe’s life from his humble origins on the Sac and Fox Nation (in what is now Oklahoma) to his academic career at a government-run “assimilation” school in Pennsylvania to his success as “the world’s greatest athlete.” The 568-page narrative then traces his slow but conspicuous decline through three decades of itinerant wandering as he bounced from one professional sports team to another in a search for athletic glory he would never again enjoy.
Readers are treated to a front-row seat to observe the steady decay in his personal and professional lives at the hands of his nomadic nature, three marriages (and eight children, who he rarely saw) and a lamentable tendency to being exploited. Maraniss is sympathetic toward his subject but diligently documents Thorpe’s flaws including a habit of abandoning his family, a persistent penchant for alcohol and a naive generosity.
Other notable merits of this book: an abundance of cultural and historical context, meticulous care in distinguishing fact from fiction (including myths originating with Thorpe himself as well as those created by his enemies) and the incorporation of as much of Thorpe’s personal life as is accessible to a biographer.
The most interesting part of the book, though, may be the twenty-eight pages that follow his death. Here, the reader learns of the decades-long struggle by his third wife and surviving children to restore his Olympic titles (stripped in 1913 in a dispute over his amateur status) and of an even longer effort to move his remains. The former struggle was partially resolved in the 1980s; the latter was unceremoniously ended by court order in 2013.
But for all the biography’s success it is not a perfect evaluation of Thorpe’s life. As a biographical subject, Thorpe proves frustratingly elusive. He was famously reticent, often masking his emotions, and most of his correspondence with his first wife was destroyed. So despite Maraniss’s efforts, readers never really feel as though they have fully penetrated his subject’s stoic exterior.
In addition, while Maraniss has done a wonderful job researching his subject’s life and contextualizing his attitudes and actions, there is often so much “context” provided that Thorpe disappears into the background. Finally, Thorpe’s peripatetic predilections can leave readers struggling to keep up with his whereabouts as he moves from city to city trying desperately to support his family.
Overall, David Maraniss’s biography of Jim Thorpe is as piercing and thoughtful as it is well-researched. There is something for everyone to love: sports fanatics will appreciate its insights into the evolution of “American football” and history fanatics will appreciate its perspectives on US-Indian relations in American history. But almost everyone will find Maraniss’s interpretation of Jim Thorpe’s simultaneously heroic and tragic life nothing short of fascinating.
Overall rating: 4 stars