UT exhibit shows how sports tales bare the soul

Updated July 20, 2013
  • By Megan Barnard
  • Special to the American-Statesman

Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” is a classic baseball novel. Filled with heroic plays, remarkable feats of talent and outrageous characters, it has become one of the most cherished books about the sport. Yet the author didn’t consider his book to be a baseball novel. In a browned and brittle letter to his agent in 1950, Malamud noted: “I’m writing a novel about a baseball player (not a baseball novel). It will deal with a man, an American hero, who does not understand what it means to be a hero — in this sense of the term — and is too immature (though not necessarily a too simple person) to understand the meaning of his talent. On another level, it is a story about a man who has once been wounded but does not understand his wound and so ‘has’ to be wounded again.” Evoking the fundamental hero-figure, Malamud built his story upon the archetype of the Arthurian legend. The league pennant is the Holy Grail, the baseball team is called the Knights, and the hero’s bat — “Wonderboy” — is his Excalibur. The book casts a scrutinous eye on the mythic American hero, one who is flawed to his core, haunted by his past and unable to reach his astonishing potential.

Malamud is one of many authors who has used sport as a foundation from which to explore deeper themes. The competition, spectacle, personal struggle and exaggerated personalities so characteristic of sport offer writers a rich backdrop upon which to delve into human nature and expose the gritty complexities of life.

Malamud’s original letter and many other manuscripts, books and personal effects are on view through Aug. 4 in the “Literature and Sport” exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at the University of Texas. Together, these items demonstrate how great works of literature transcend sport itself.

In a 2006 interview, John Updike noted, “One of the dominant impressions of my growing-up in Pennsylvania — where I saw a lot of basketball games, thanks to my father’s being a high-school teacher and a ticket taker at home games — was the glory of home-town athletic stars, and their often anti-climactic post-graduation careers.” Updike wove this impression like a thread through two of his most famous works, his 1954 poem “Ex-Basketball Player” and his 1960 novel, “Rabbit, Run.” Though no one would argue that “Rabbit, Run” is a sport novel, the significance of basketball to its main character is profound. In the book, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom states: “I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate.” Before the novel was published, an editorial reader at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house wrote of the book: “At first I thought the author’s choice of background for Harry was limiting. Then it dawned on me that his athletic career was symbolic of so much of the puerile nonsense of competition.” Updike’s novel demonstrates both the universal appeal of competition and its frequent consequence: unfulfilled promise and a deeply rooted sense of dissatisfaction with mediocrity.

The sport of boxing has a rich literary history. Author Colum McCann has noted: “What’s most beautiful about boxing are the lives behind it. They’re so goddamn literary. Every boxer you ever met was fathered by Hamlet. … Every promoter you’ve ever seen has Shylock on his shoulder. You know there’s a little bit of Prufrock in that grey-haired trainer. … And that boxing wife or girlfriend … she has a little Molly Bloom to her.”

Boxing has long been the domain of men, but author Joyce Carol Oates has written about “the sweet science” as both an avid fan and an unsentimental cultural critic. In her numerous essays about the sport and her 1987 book, “On Boxing,” Oates alternately celebrates boxing as an art and attempts to untangle some of its unsavoriness, from the violence of spectatorship to the sport’s history of racism. On display in the exhibition is an exchange of correspondence between Oates and Norman Mailer, another author who used boxing to explore many of the violent debates of modern American life. In a letter to Mailer dated October 1, 1985, Oates writes: “My theory is that, being an outsider by dint of my gender, I am in a peculiar way better equipped to ‘understanding’ the unique phenomenon that boxing is.” She continues, “To speak of boxing is, for me, at least right now, to speak of something as infinitely provocative and rich and ambitious and hopeless as life itself.”

In “On Boxing,” Oates’s book-length essay on the sport, she writes, “Each boxing match is a story — a unique and highly condensed drama without words. … The boxers will bring to the fight everything that is themselves, and everything will be exposed — including secrets about themselves they cannot fully realize.”

Although football is America’s favorite spectator sport, it hasn’t penetrated American literature as thoroughly as sports such as boxing and baseball. Yet there are outstanding examples of literary works about football, from Don DeLillo’s masterfully comic novel “End Zone” to T.C. Boyle’s satiric story “56–0.”

Irwin Shaw played football at Brooklyn College and wrote about the sport in several works, including one of his most celebrated stories, “The Eighty-Yard Run.” The story begins with former college football player Christian Darling’s return to his school football field, where he remembers his greatest moment of glory: an 80-yard run he made during practice one day. Fifteen years after this moment, Darling finds himself past his prime in a troubled marriage. The story is a lament of lost youth and unfulfilled promise, a portrait of a man trapped in a fanciful dream that has prevented him from flourishing into manhood.

Few people know that Willa Cather, the author of “My Ántonia,” considered herself to be a die-hard football fan. While a student at the University of Nebraska, Cather wrote about the sport in her diary and in the university’s newspaper. In one such column, she defended football against one of its most common complaints. She wrote: “It makes one exceedingly weary to hear people object to football because it is brutal. Of course it is brutal. So is Homer brutal, and Tolstoi; that is, they all alike appeal to the crude savage instincts of men. The moment that, as a nation, we lose brute force, or an admiration for brute force, from that moment poetry and art are forever dead among us, and we will have nothing but grammar and mathematics left.”

Examples of great literature about sport fill the gallery at the Ransom Center. But these works are no mere play-by-play accounts of a ballgame or tennis match or prizefight. One can see John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game,” one of the best books on tennis ever written, which chronicles Arthur Ashe’s win over Clark Graebner in their 1968 U.S. Open semi¬final match. McPhee interweaves his reporting with in-depth profiles of the two competitors, exploring their disparate upbringings and the racial and sociopolitical undercurrents surrounding their match. Nearby are displayed manuscripts, letters, and notes from another remarkable tennis writer: David Foster Wallace. The opening pages of Ernest Hemingway’s typescript of his treatise on bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” is shown covered with his handwritten corrections. Norman Mailer’s ticket to the legendary 1974 championship fight — “the rumble in the jungle” — between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali is shown alongside his handwritten manuscript describing the bout. A tattered and comic letter by Radclyffe Hall considering the marriage prospects of female golfers is displayed near Arthur Conan Doyle’s personal golf clubs.

One of the most notable works featured is the prologue of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel “Underworld,” which is widely regarded to be one of the greatest pieces of baseball fiction ever written. The text centers on the Oct. 3, 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers that ended with the “shot heard ‘round the world,” Bobby Thomson’s home run that clinched the National League pennant for the Giants. DeLillo pairs his telling of this historic baseball game with another major event of the day: the U.S. government’s announcement that the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. In an interview, DeLillo noted, “The two events seemed oddly matched, at least to me, two kinds of conflict, local and global rivalries.”

So much of the richness of DeLillo’s story is the way it captures the cultural significance of this moment, of a nation about to launch into decades of the Cold War. In the well-worn, spiral-bound notebook DeLillo kept while researching for the novel, he wrote: “When Thomson hit the homer, people went outside. They left their houses and went into the streets. Together. … Why was the game so memorable, so powerful? It was the end of something. (The last time people went out).”

DeLillo understood something else about the game — something that reveals the magic of sport itself — its ability to unite and bring together very different people. In fact, DeLillo saw spectators and fans as extensions of the game, as “the game’s remoter soul.” In an early typescript of the novel, he captured why we care so much about sport. He noted: “The game doesn’t change the way you vote or comb your hair or raise your children. It changes nothing but your life.”