Academic journal article Nine

"The Girls in Europe Is Nuts over Ball Players": Ring Lardner and Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Nine

"The Girls in Europe Is Nuts over Ball Players": Ring Lardner and Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt

Separated by much more than the same language, England and the United States have nevertheless long shared a common fascination with sports in which the most basic component involves a confrontation between two people mediated by a short distance and two similar pieces of equipment: from a space of several yards, one person throws a fist-sized ball toward a second person, who attempts to hit the ball with a piece of wood. As unofficial national sports, cricket and baseball have each generated a rich literary tradition. For every Eric Greenberg, W. P. Kinsella, or Bernard Malamud, England has produced a novelist whose passion for cricket invests his or her work with equal symbolic significance. On both sides of the Atlantic, even writers who typically pursue subjects far distant from the world of sports have, over the past couple hundred years, essayed onto the cricket pitch or the baseball diamond. Often these literary forays illuminate the depth of the emotional commitment with which English and American citizens invest their national games.

One particularly humorous example of this type of writing occurs in the Scottish writer A. G. Macdonell's 1933 novel England, Their England, in which a young Scotsman, Donald Cameron, recently returned from the Great War, sets off to educate himself about the nature of Englishness. In one episode he attends a cricket match between city and country teams and observes a telling incident involving an American journalist, Shakespeare Pollock, who knows nothing about cricket but has been enlisted as a member of the city team. In a passage in which one needs little if any knowledge of the rules of baseball or cricket (or rounders, a predecessor of baseball that traditionally has been played in rural England) to grasp its humor, Macdonell writes:

Mr. Pollock stepped up to the wicket in the lively manner of his native
mustang ... and, striking the first ball he received ... threw down his
bat, and himself set off at a great rate in the direction of cover-
point. There was a paralyzed silence. The rustics on the bench rubbed
their eyes. On the field no one moved. Mr. Pollock stopped suddenly,
looked round, and broke into a genial laugh.
  "Darn me--" he began, and then he pulled himself up and went on in
refined English, "Well, well! I thought I was playing baseball." He
smiled disarmingly round.
  Baseball is a kind of rounders, isn't it, sir?" said cover-point
sympathetically.
  Donald thought he had never seen an expression change so suddenly as
Mr. Pollock's did at this harmless, and true, statement. A look of
concentrated, ferocious venom obliterated the disarming smile. (1)

Early in the twentieth century, the career of the Chicago newspaper columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner crossed paths, in print, for a brief but fascinating moment with that of one of London's leading literary figures, the novelist Virginia Woolf. Both writers--Lardner as a matter of professional obligation as well as personal interest, Woolf as a feminist theorist--were attuned to an unusual degree to the ideological role of sports in their respective societies. There is no evidence that Lardner ever read Woolf's work, and Woolf's interest in Lardner found its fullest--and only--expression in one page of an essay she published in 1925 on the general characteristics of American fiction as it was being written at that time. They are, in short, a highly unlikely pair. But this brief convergence in the careers of Lardner and Woolf is interesting for the light it sheds on the relations between economics, politics, and sports during the early twentieth century. It exposes as many differences as similarities between their respective world-views, but whatever else it may achieve, in the final analysis the relation between Lardner and Woolf helps us to better understand the ideological role that sport played in England and the United States at a historical moment that so closely resembles our own largely because it was that moment that created ours. …

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