History as Myth in Bernard Malamud's the Natural

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Written between 1949 and 1950 and published in 1951, Bernard Malamud's The Natural has garnered more critical attention than any other baseball novel. This attention is not surprising, for The Natural is the first novel of a writer who subsequently achieved canonical status, and, following Lardner's work, it is the first of many serious baseball novels in the latter half of the twentieth century. Critics are also attracted to The Natural because Malamud infuses his story of star-crossed phenom Roy Hobbs with allusions drawn from a variety of mythic sources--Arthurian legend, the Bible, Homer, fertility myth, the myth of the hero--as well as with central constructs from the work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. At the same time, the novel draws on events from both documented and accepted baseball history, most notably from the Black Sox scandal but also from the careers of Babe Ruth, Eddie Waitkus, Wilbert Robinson, Bob Feller, Chuck Hostetler, and Pete Reiser.

In several interviews Malamud has admitted that he clearly intended to depict the twentieth-century baseball star as a mythic hero--in the case of Roy Hobbs, as one who fails in his quest, disappointing the hopes of his culture and community. In 1983 he told a USA Today interviewer, "I lived somewhere near Ebbetts Field. The old Brooklyn Dodgers were our heroes, our stars, like out of myth." (1) He also noted in another interview that his studies of myth in college had given him the background he felt he needed to treat baseball: "I transformed game into myth, via Jesse Weston's Percival legend with an assist from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland plus the lives of several ballplayers I had read, in particular Babe Ruth's and Bobby Feller's." (2)

This fusion of myth and baseball has proven problematic for Malamud scholars over the years. First of all, the use of baseball itself as subject matter is an anomaly for a writer who subsequently wrote prolifically about the inner sufferings of Jewish grocers, salesmen, teachers, landlords, and tenants. Indeed, Malamud is most often seen as a Jewish novelist in the vein of Isaac Bashevis Singer. While some critics reconcile The Natural with Malamud's other work by comparing the suffering of Roy Hobbs with that of Malamud's numerous Jewish protagonists, many are troubled by his use of baseball as a vehicle to treat a twentieth-century man as a mythic hero. Reflecting the critical consensus, Edward Abramson questions "whether baseball, despite its important position as an American ritual, can carry the weight of [mythical] allusion Malamud places on it." (3) Like Abramson many other critics devalue baseball, concluding that the game lacks the intellectual depth to support the layers of myth imposed on the story.

Only Earl Wasserman strongly argues that the game proves appropriate subject matter, arguing that Malamud "has rendered the lived events of the American game so as to compel it to reveal what it essentially is, the ritual whereby we express the psychological nature of American life and its moral predicament." (4) Unlike most critics, Wasserman demonstrates an extensive knowledge of baseball, cataloging at the start of his essay the various baseball events and circumstances Malamud draws upon. Wasserman, however, like other critics, is more interested in The Natural beyond baseball, following his brief review of baseball history in the text with a complex and detailed Jungian reading.

My intention here is to treat the baseball history in the novel in terms of the ways it contributes to rather than detracts from the mythic treatment of the subject matter. As a boy and young man, Malamud saw ballplayers in mythic terms, and his appropriation and reworking of actual events serve not only to support the external mythic allusions but to illustrate how the real events of the game, both those recorded faithfully and those embellished by time and memory, ascend to the status of myth in the imagination of the fans. …