Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature

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

Fouling Out the American Pastoral:
Rereading Philip Roth’s
The Great American Novel

Derek Parker Royal

It would seem rather that they were transfixed, perhaps for the first time in their
lives, by the strangeness of things, the wondrous strangeness of things, by all that is
beyond the pale and just does not seem to belong in this otherwise cozy and familiar
world of ours.—Philip Roth, The Great American Novel

It has been roughly thirty years since the publication of The Great American Novel, Philip Roth’s comically outrageous send-up of America’s favorite pastime; and in light of recent developments in Roth’s fiction, perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of the novel. At the time of its publication in 1973, reviews of the book were mixed. Many critics pointed out the novelist’s excessiveness and lack of discipline, his misuses of satire, his problematic narrator, and his overall inability to follow up on the promise of Portnoy ‘s Complaint.1 Subsequent assessments of the novel have also been diverse, with most scholars pointing out the book’s curious but nonetheless mediocre place within Roth’s oeuvre. Yet while many of these studies have proved insightful, most are at least two decades old, written well before Roth’s most recent critically acclaimed work.2 His American Trilogy, including the novels American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, has garnered him increased recognition, and it is to these novels that one can turn to reassess his literary excursion into baseball. Much like the latest trilogy, The Great American Novel has at its core the demythologizing of American “truths,” the most significant of these being the pastoral ideal.

As several critics have noted, baseball is one of our most prominent cultural manifestations of the pastoral. Roger Angell, for instance, emphasizes the timeless element of the game and, at its most ideal, the suspension of worldly concerns. In its refusal to be played against the clock, the game becomes “a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors,” allowing its participants to “remain forever

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