Academic journal article Nine

Rings Born of Impulse: Gift-Exchange Economies in Eric Rolfe Greenberg's the Celebrant

Academic journal article Nine

Rings Born of Impulse: Gift-Exchange Economies in Eric Rolfe Greenberg's the Celebrant

Article excerpt

A number of critics of baseball literature place The Celebrant on the short list of the best baseball-themed fiction. Indeed, Eric Rolfe Greenberg's narrative of Jewish immigrant jeweler Yakov Kapinski's relationship with baseball and Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson, for whom he crafts a series of commemorative rings, provides a depth not commonly seen in sports fiction. Critics have provided a number of interpretative strategies for reading the work, including viewing the novel as an assimilation narrative, a text guided by religious symbolism, a tale of lost innocence, an example of what Eric Solomon terms "the ever-darkening business ethic," and an exploration of the role art plays in Kapinski's transformation from baseball fan to "the celebrant of [Mathewson's] works." (1) In a previous essay, I discussed how the assimilated Jackie Kapp creates what Howard Becker terms an "art world," which forms "when it brings together people who never cooperated before to produce art based on and using conventions previously unknown or not exploited in that way," yet subsequent readings of The Celebrant have led me to consider other elements within this art world that, in turn, impact how I interpret Greenberg's novel. (2) Not only, as Solomon suggests, does The Celebrant investigate how "growth of a business threatens early family solidarity and a pure art" (Solomon, 90), but a reader must also consider the role gift-exchange economies play in reconsidering Kapp (the artist and fan), Mathewson (the pitcher and artistic inspiration), Kapp's brother Arthur (the businessman and unsentimental pragmatist), and John McGraw (the user of men and, as Solomon calls him, "a pagan devil" [Solomon, 102]).

In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde thoroughly discusses the dichotomy the artist commonly faces: to create works that explore the depth of the human condition, emotions, or perceptions; or to fashion pieces that will appeal to potential buyers. Hyde declares that "a work of art is a gift, not a commodity," in that "a gift is a thing we do not get through our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us." (3) Indeed, as Hyde qualifies further on in his text, "a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection" (Hyde, 56).

This gift vs. commodity conundrum reappears throughout The Celebrant, particularly once Arthur seizes control of the newly-renamed Collegiate Jewelers and pushes Jackie to adapt to creating mass-produced pieces, as well as commemorative works designed to "make a down-payment" on the future services of such budding stars as Giants pitchers Rube Marquard and Jeff Tesreau, a request to which Jackie replies, "the point is that I haven't the impulse to design for Marquard and Tesreau. The Mathewson rings, those early ones, were never assigned or commissioned. They were done on impulse" (Greenberg, 177-78). This impulse closely parallels Hyde's suggestion that "an essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received" (Hyde, 143). In accepting the work--and also understanding the process of invocation or impulse that goes into the creative act--the recipient enters a collaborative community with the artist and giver that Hyde terms the "gift sphere" (Hyde, 276).

Hyde's definition of the gift sphere certainly parallels the dilemmas Jackie faces throughout the text to balance art and the market, family and baseball, and business responsibilities and the impulse to create. In developing a gift sphere, Hyde maintains, "the artist who sells his creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity . …

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