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The major theme of the novel is the difficulty of growing up and finding an identity.
At the beginning of the novel, Alfred Brooks presents himself as a timid boy who is afraid to stand up for himself and who has no vision for his future. After Major hassles him and injures him, Alfred wants to grow stronger so he can challenge his adversaries in the future. As a result, he decides he will train to become a boxer and begins to work out at Donatelliís gym. Donatelli is a hard taskmaster and strict disciplinarian, but Alfred follows his regimen and becomes fit and self-confident. After proving himself in the ring, he decides that he does not want to continue boxing; instead, he wants to pursue his education and teach disadvantaged children at the recreation center. He also wants to help his friend James turn his life around. By the end of the book, Alfred proves that he has matured into a responsible young man who knows what he wants in life.
A minor theme of the novel is the importance of discipline and dedication in the pursuit of a goal. Alfred faces many hurdles in his training and in the boxing ring, but he never gives up. In the end, he proves himself to be a successful contender because of his dedication and determination.
The predominant mood of the novel is serious and hopeful as it traces the physical and mental development of Alfred Brooks from an uncertain youth to a confident young man.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Robert Michael Lipsyte was born on January 16, 1938, in New York City. His parents, Sidney I. and Fanny Lipsyte, lived in Harlem, which becomes the setting for many of his books. After attending public schools, Lipsyte went to Columbia University, where he studied writing and graduated in 1957. Two years later, he received his masters from Columbia.
Robert Lipsyte always loved sports and believed that they could positively influence the development of a person. Because of his interest in athletics, he became a sports columnist for the New York Times shortly after graduation. His association with this newspaper continued until 1971. Lipsyte also worked as a radio commentator until 1961, when he joined the military for a short while.
After leaving the military, Lipsyte began to purse his literary career in earnest, dedicating himself to writing for young people. In 1964, he published Nigger. Two years later, he released Masculine Mystique. With the publication of The Contender in 1967, he established himself as a novelist. His later works published for a young audience include Assignment: Sports (1970), Liberty Two (1974) and Sports World: An American Dreamland (1975). In 1973, Lipsyte published his first adult novel, Something Going. It was followed by additional novels for the young reader. One Fat Summer was published in 1977; Summer Rules was published in1981; and Summer Boy was published in 1982. Lipsyte also authored a screenplay entitled "Thatís the Way of the World."
Lipsyte won a number of awards for both his sports and creative writing. Between 1964 and 1971, he won four Dutton Sports Awards. In 1966, he won the Nike Burger Columbia University Award for distinguished reporting. Two years later, The Child Study Association of America presented him the Wel-Met Childrenís Book Award for The Contender. One Fat Summer was selected as one of New York Timesí outstanding childrenís books in 1977.
At the turn of the century, Lipsyte lived in New Jersey with his wife, Marjorie Rubin, who is also a novelist. The couple has two children.
LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION
The literary background for The Contender can be traced to the Post-Harlem Renaissance period. In the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey and Alaine Locke created the image of the "New Negro" and supported the rebirth of the black race. Most of their writing centered on racial problems, which needed to be overcome. The Post-Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, built on the work of their predecessors; but their emphasis was on the predicament of blacks who had to learn to function in a world dominated by whites.
Robert Lipsyte was part of the Post-Harlem Renaissance. Like his fellow writers, he was concerned about how black youth could be successful in a white world. In The Contender. Alfred Brooks, the protagonist of the novel, desires to prove himself as an individual. In order to establish his identity and emerge out of the dark shadows of Harlem, he decides to carve a name for himself as a champion boxer. After fighting three successful boxing matches, Alfred decides to retire from the ring and devote himself to the pursuit of higher education in order to help disadvantaged black youth reach their goals. The Contender also reflects Robert Lipsyteís belief that athletics can help young people to become disciplined and self-confident. It is through his training as a boxer that Alfred learns to be determined and dedicated.