David Maraniss’s “Path Lit by Lightning” is a masterful, in-depth portrait of a monumental figure. Until the rise of superstars like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, many Americans considered Jim Thorpe the greatest athlete of all time. Thorpe, in fact, is one of the few Native Americans that most people can name. As Maraniss carefully details in over 550 pages, Thorpe’s fame, however, came with a price. The great athlete could not outrun the confines American society placed on Native Americans.
Born May 22, 1887, and named Wa-tho-Huk, translated as Path Lit by Lighting, from birth Thorpe had a cloudy future. By then, the federal government had a policy of “kill the Indian, save the man,” a belief that Native Americans needed constant care, designed to remove all traces of their culture, opposed to military annihilation. The Dawes Act, passed just months before Thorpe’s birth, claimed to assimilate people like Thorpe’s Sac and Fox Nation by making them farmers. Most struggled to adapt to this forced way of life, and adding to the troubles, the government sold off the unused land. The Sac and Fox lost ¾ of their land within five years. The other assimilation strategy sent kids to boarding schools. Thorpe enjoyed his independence and ran away from a few of these schools, until 1904 when his father sent him to Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, a school too far away for him to escape back home to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
Carlisle was a football powerhouse. Football was said to civilize. Make boys into men. Indians into Americans. Carlisle defeated elite schools like Harvard, Yale, and Penn. During the 1912 season, in which they went 12-1-1, they had their most significant victory when they defeated Army, a game that is now mythologized as a revenge match for all the years the US military violently repressed Native Americans. That season, Thorpe earned All-American honors, capping off a tremendous year in which he also won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics.
Those two medals, in the pentathlon and decathlon, are at the heart of Thorpe’s legacy. After his victories, the Swedish King crowned him the greatest athlete alive. In one of the great ironies in American sports history, Thorpe, who was not a citizen, became an American hero. Thorpe’s athletic ascent and assumed assimilation were proof that America was the greatest nation. Thorpe soon learned, however, that America wanted the story but not the man.
All myths aren’t made the same. We like legends. They make us feel unstoppable. Other myths, however, are used to control the subject. Maraniss understands this delicate balance. He corrects the record of some of the biggest myths in Thorpe’s career — he didn’t hit three home runs into three states in one game — but Marannis doesn’t take out his hammer and smash Thorpe’s legacy. Instead, he uses the facts to restore order. Readers still come away believing Thorpe is one of the greatest ever.
Maraniss, however, shatters the myth of the child-like savage. He introduces readers to the phrase “Lo, the poor Indian,” often shortened to “Lo,” to explain how white America saw Natives. In America’s lexicon this became a catch phrase to explain Natives’ supposed sorrow state. They needed the white man’s pity, and they needed his help even more. Maraniss uses “Lo” at Thorpe’s lowest athletic moment when the star had his gold medals controversially stripped away for having played semi-pro baseball two years prior. Back then, the Olympics were guided by a strict code of amateurism. Thorpe’s coach, Pop Warner, often presented as a white fatherly figure in Thorpe’s life, knew about Thorpe’s professionalism, but when the story broke, he let Thorpe take the fall. He made Thorpe blame his Indianness for his transgression. Lo, the poor Indian.
As Maraniss magnificently details over the next 300 pages, even after his lowest moment, Thorpe continued to have a stellar athletic career but, like a hurdler who tripped during a race, he never fully recovered. Thorpe played pro baseball and football, but unsuccessfully chased the illusion that he could control his own destiny. The government controlled his people, the sports world controlled his fate. He spent the last 40 years of his life as a dreamer and a schemer, chasing one failed money-making idea after another. Always on the move, he never had a real relationship with any of his eight children.
In his later years, Thorpe had help from his third wife, Patsy, who shared the same toxic traits. Schemes and dreams. They believed that if his story would be properly told, and of course sold, then everything would be fine. When Warner Brothers finally made the film “Jim Thorpe — All American” in 1951, he received little of the financial benefits. Moreover, Thorpe, who spent the past two decades advocating for better treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood, had to watch a white man, Burt Lancaster, play him, and his story be told from the narrative of Pop Warner, the great white father who saved the childlike Indian. Two years later, Thorpe died broke and destitute in his California home. The International Olympic Committee did not return his medals for another 30 years.
A dogged researcher, Maraniss leaves nothing unturned. Using federal records and newspapers, he gives equal treatment to Thorpe’s Carlisle days, his baseball career, and his pioneering pro football career, while at the same time complicating the myths that made the legend. Thorpe was more than an athlete. He was a man of the Sac and Fox Nation who spent his life searching for independence in a country designed to confine him and his people.
PATH LIT BY LIGHTNING: The Life of Jim Thorpe
By David Maraniss
Simon & Schuster, 672 pages, $32.50
Louis Moore is a history professor at Grand Valley State University and the author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.”