Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature

By Michael Cocchiarale; Scott D. Emmert | Go to book overview

Batters and Archetypes: Baseball as Trope in Mid-Century
American Literature

David C. Dougherty

Baseball, the American pastime, evokes something inherently pastoral, bordering on the mythic. Its very designation as the national pastime suggests a comprehensive narrative, or sys-text, which is not sequential but is surprisingly cohesive, about the ways in which a nation is created by its play, as well as by its politics. Ultimately, baseball suggests a revealing, complex relation between play—an artificial, mythically “green” world—and politics and economics—the real, “gray” world. Many writers and filmmakers have constructed baseball and the athletes who play the game as tropes for the American condition: our politics, our aspirations, our concepts of responsibility, and even our theological concerns.

In her signature poem Marianne Moore, who relished having thrown out the first pitch at a Brooklyn Dodgers’ game, pleads for inclusiveness as the proper subject for “Poetry”: She includes baseball fans and statisticians as well as critics, toads, gardens, and traditional subjects for poems. Her friend William Carlos Williams, however, saw baseball games as an emblem for the forces of repression and mob violence in Spring and All XXVI, or “At the Ball Game.” After creating a cluster of positive images celebrating the beauty of the spectators’ vicarious, collective participation in the players’ grace and skill, Williams introduces a somber trope: He equates this collective mentality with the Inquisition and with revolution in general while imaging the solemn crowd as acting “without thought” (line 36). At mid-century, the youthful protagonists of Philip Roth’s short story “The Conversion of the Jews” see Detroit Tigers’ star outfielder and fellow Jew Hank Greenberg as their role model, thensymbol of cultural assimilation. The hero of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) successfully mobilizes the apathetic patients when the Big Nurse refuses to alter her schedule to accommodate the World Series, as close to a tradition as anything McMurphy recognizes. And the embattled “Father” in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975) enjoys a single moment of

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