How comprehensive should a biography be? How much detail is needed and desired to get a full picture of someone’s life and impact? I fall on what I’d call the Robert Caro side of the fence – if someone’s life is worthy of study and is told by the right biographer, more detail can only enrich the book. David Maraniss is unquestionably a master biographer who ranks up there with Caro as a perfectionist who turns extensive painstaking research into exceptional biographies. When Pride Still Mattered, Maraniss’ biography of the great Vince Lombardi is, for me, the gold standard of the sporting biography.
In Path Lit by Lightning, Maraniss has turned his pen to Jim Thorpe, arguably the legendary figure in American sports history. Olympic decathlon gold medalist, All-American college football star, Hall of Fame pro-footballer, you’d be forgiven for forgetting he also played Major League Baseball. He was a man so talented that he would help to launch the NFL and make those who piggybacked on his talent, like Carlisle coach Pop Warner, famous in the process.
Thorpe’s life however was far from straight forward. He suffered the indignities common to his fellow Sac and Fox Nation members, dealt with the deep racism of his time, and was unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals for the crime of playing minor league baseball. After his stint at Carlisle industrial school, Thorpe spent most of his life shuttling from from town to town to join various teams in different sports or to escape one failed business ventures after another past. He endured, and his legacy has survived even more so.
Like the best biographies, Path Lit by Lightning is also the story of the era in which Thorpe lived. It captures many of the challenges faced by Native Americans, even the most famous of them all. It is a damning history of the sports establishment of the time, the industrial school approach towards Native Americans and the hypocrisy of the Olympic movement.
Maraniss has taken a subject who is vaguely known by most Americans and brought him to life in vivid, fascinating detail. Thorpe is presented as both a fabulous athlete and a real person grappling with fame without the financial reward he would enjoy today. Path Lit by Lightning is a fantastic edition to any sports library, an immersive, readable, book on a fascinating, complex and talented sportsman.