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Friday, February 3, 2012

February 3, 2012: The Growth of an American Sports Studier

[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the fourth in the series.]

How three very different but equally talented American authors can reveal the stages of an American Studier’s perspectives on sports, America, and life.

When I was a kid, my growing interest in the stories and dramas of sports, and especially baseball, found literary expression in the novels of Matt Christopher. Christopher’s novels focus on very believable and universal conflicts as faced, and eventually overcome, by their youthful protagonists; as illustrated by my favorite baseball book of his, Catcher with a Glass Arm (1985), such conflicts include the psychological effects of being beaned and peer teasing over an athletic weakness. While there may have been occasional details that revealed the particular setting or time period of the books, I don’t remember any, and my instinct is not: Christopher’s explicit goal was to create books that spanned places and times, to which any reader could connect with equal interest and meaning.

As I started to develop into a teenage American Studier (kind of like a teenage werewolf, but more consistent and less scary), I started to want sports and baseball novels that engaged with those historical and social questions, that felt as if they were a part of our national narratives and stories. A book like Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (1973) was funny and over-the-top and compelling, but the baseball was a bit too metaphorical for it to qualify as a sports novel; Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al (1916) was extremely realistic and biting but a bit too cynical for my young taste. For me, as apparently for many teenage American Studiers, the pinnacle of these contextualized, real world baseball novels were the works of John Tunis, and specifically his classic The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940). Tunis’s novel exists in, and more exactly captures, its Depression-era America quite fully without losing a bit of its narrative excitement; indeed, by the end the Kid’s baseball story and the story of a damaged but resilient America seem very much to have merged.

I haven’t outgrown my love for Tunis—this post makes me want to reread Kid right now, actually—but I have to admit that I have in the years since discovered an author and novel that even more impressively exemplify what an American baseball story can be and do. David James Duncan’s The Brothers K (1992) might seem to be about much more than baseball—it’s a rewriting of The Brothers Karamazov that’s also a multigenerational family saga of the 1950s and 60s, Vietnam, the counter-culture, religion, writing, Eastern spirituality, sibling rivalries and bonds, humor, love, and more—yet at the same time it’s entirely about baseball, not as metaphor so much as metonym, as a representation of the worst and best of American dreams and identities and histories and possibilities. It might be both the great American novel (it’s definitely one of the greatest under-read ones) and the greatest baseball novel, and for this American Studier that combination is most definitely, yes, a grand slam.

One more sports post this weekend,


PS. Any great baseball or sports books you’d highlight?

2/3 Memory Day nominee: A tie between Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, founder of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and an author who translated her own pioneering and inspiring life into multiple volumes of advice and support for future female doctors; and Norman Rockwell, perhaps the most iconic American artist and one whose works could capture both our highest ideals and our most troubling realities.

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