Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Robert J. Higgs and "Jock Lit": A Review Essay

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Robert J. Higgs and "Jock Lit": A Review Essay

Article excerpt

In 1976, I designed and first taught a sport literature class, focusing on stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays treating athletes, coaches, and fans in various sports. At that time the class was one of only a few such courses offered by colleges and universities throughout the United States. From the outset the course proved immensely popular with students, and I have continued to teach some version of the course ever since, frequently as often as three times a year.

The generation and acceptance of such a course evidenced significant changes that were then taking place in the teaching of literature. In the 1970s English departments throughout the nation were engaged in the process of redefining and expanding the literary canon. This process effected two major changes: (1) the traditional literature curriculum was revised to include more attention to minority authors (initially African Americans and women and later Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and gays), and (2) theorists and professors of literature began to embrace ideas and approaches from the broader field of "cultural studies," consequently breaking down the long-held distinctions between high and low culture, classic and popular literary texts, and literature and other forms of discourse, such as movies, television, comic books, and popular music. In such an environment, sport literature (or "jock lit," as it came affectionately to be called) found fertile ground in which to grow and thrive, moving from its delimiting classification as a "sub-genre" into a more respectable position within literary studies.

Early on in my involvement with sport literature, both in the teaching and writing of it, I learned that one of the key figures in the efforts to legitimize and promote the scholarly study of the genre was Robert J. "Jack" Higgs, Professor of English at East Tennessee State University. I first became acquainted with Higgs 's work because he was co-editor, along with Neil D. Isaacs, an English professor at the University of Maryland, of the textbook that I chose to use in the early years of my sport literature class: The Sporting Spirit: Athletes in Literature and Life (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), an impressive anthology of stories, poems, and essays on a variety of sports and sports-related topics.1

My favorable impressions of that anthology and its success in the classroom led me to examine Higgs's Laurel & Thorn: The Athlete in American Literature (University Press of Kentucky, 1981), one of the first extended scholarly treatments of the literature of sport.2 Based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tennessee, Laurel & Thorn offers a detailed, insightful, and often entertaining analysis of literary works that dramatize the multiple and contradictory roles of athletes in American culture. Though the book is rightly characterized in its title as a literary study, Higgs's approach to the novels and stories, as his introduction explains, is through the perspectives of philosophy and psychology: from Socrates, Plato, and other ancients, through Nietzsche, Freud, and Otto Rank, to influential recent thinkers such as Johan Huizinga, Paul Weis, Ernest Becker, Robert Pirsig, and Michael Novak.3 Like each of these, Higgs is ultimately concerned with the human attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that can lead to a happy, productive, and meaningful life in a peaceful, orderly, and just society. Sports, interlaced as they are with almost every aspect of society, provide an index by which to gauge American progress, or lack of it, toward that lofty ideal. As Higgs states the matter, "American literature provides some valuable insights toward the understanding of the athlete as a highly symbolic hero intensely engaged in the human drama between self and nature" (7).

Utilizing works by such noted authors as Jack London, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Robert Perm Warren, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Walker Percy, Higgs examines "the manner in which athletic excellence or heroism is transferred from the playing field to A rete [that is, excellence] in society" (7). …

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