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The Great American Novel

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The Great American Novel is a novel by Philip Roth (1933-2018), one of the foremost American writers of the second half of the 20th century. It was published in 1973.

Roth, who is from New Jersey, made baseball a topic in some of his other novels, most famously in American Pastoral, published in 1997, which won the Pulitzer Prize. His Great American Novel is the most baseball-centric, telling the fictional story of baseball's neglected major league, the Patriot League. The main protagonist is Word Smith, a retired sportswriter who covered the Patriot League during the years of World War II and has made it a personal obsession to denounce the conspiracy through which it has fallen into oblivion, because it was infiltrated by communists at the time in a Soviet plot to destroy America's spirit by corrupting its national pastime. Smith's obsession with the banned league is such that it leads to his own social isolation, as he is stripped of his BBWAA membership for denouncing the myths on which the Hall of Fame has been built; the novel is written when Smith has been institutionalized because of his ramblings.

A lot of the plot concerns one of the Patriot League's teams, the Ruppert Mundys, who have been forced to become a Road team after giving up their ballpark so that it can become a training facility for the Army. The Mundys are a sad-sack bunch, who lose just about every game they play, and are made up of rejects from the mainstream of baseball, in a parody of some of the players who ended up on major league rosters because of World War II: the catcher is a one-legged man whose prosthesis is a wooden peg, another player has only one arm. The team also gathers players from the fringes of the baseball world, including a mono-linguistic French Canadian, Jean-Paul "Frenchy" Astarte, a sort of doomed baseball wanderer who only dreams of returning to his father's farm, and who has been purchased from a Japanese team in spite of the ongoing war, and Chico Mecoatl, a Mexican pitcher who cries out in pain with every pitch he makes. Slugger John Baal is a third-generation ballplayer: his grandfather "Base" Baal wandered the wild west playing baseball after the Civil War, while his father "Spit" Baal was banned for doctoring the baseball by pissing on it, thus inventing a new illegal pitch, the "acid ball". His father was banished to the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua, where he taught the locals the game with his own twist on the rules, and his metis son John plays this sort of half-illegal baseball with little success, until he is jailed and finds his true calling as the "Babe Ruth of the Big House". Yet another player is a 14-year-old 98-pound weakling who has the advantage of not yet being eligible for the draft. The manager of this bunch of misfits is Ulysses S. Fairsmith, who abandons the team for a missionary mission to teach baseball to the natives of darkest Africa, a mission that ends in abject failure and in a parody of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness ("The Horror! The Horror!"). The team's one talented player, Roland Agni, badly wants out, but is forced to stay with the misfits in order to preserve the last shreds of integrity that the team still has, in spite of its awful record. He will however be instrumental in uncovering the communist plot, that will lead to Congressional hearings similar to those that took place under Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and a decision to erase all memory of the doomed circuit from the historical record (even the various cities that make up the Patriot League all vote to change their names in order to erase the unappetizing episode from their collective memory). The Mundys are not the only team struggling to keep a baseball-like product on the field: one of its rivals, run by a Bill Veeck-like huckster, employs a dwarf, who in Eddie Gaedel style, seeks to draw a walk every time he comes to bat, while another team has brought every member of its championship team of a decade earlier out of retirement in order to field a full squad.

Roth's intentions are satirical, taking aim at the myth of the "great American novel", and also using a deformed image of baseball as a means to satirize certain aspects of American society such as the 1950s' "Red Scare". As a result some critics have argued that Roth's vision of the American pastime is simply too distorted to be taken seriously. However Roth is also informed with an intricate knowledge of baseball arcana, as his evocation of real characters such as Gaedel, Pete Gray, Tommy Brown, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, and others demonstrates.

The Great American Novel is not the best-known of Roth's novels, in part because it falls outside his two main cycles of works, the four Zuckerman novels collected in Zuckerman Bound and the trilogy that includes American Pastoral, The Human Stain and I Married a Communist, which are generally considered his master works. However, it is important in introducing some of his main themes, such as the excesses and delusions of the Cold War period, that would become more significant in his later works. And even if it is overshadowed by other great novels by Roth, the book has been reprinted numerous times since its initial publications and translated into many languages and published in a number of countries where baseball is little known.

John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, claimed in "The Armchair Book of Baseball" that it could said that The Great American Novel is a baseball book that is not about baseball, like Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Nicholas Dawidoff, editor of Baseball: A Literary Anthology, described it as "among the most eccentric baseball novels ever written." Jim Carothers, as a contributor to "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract", listed it as one of the "Best Baseball Books of the 1970s".

Further Reading[edit]

  • Michel Nareau: Double jeu: Baseball et littératures américaines, Le Quartanier, Montréal, QC, 2012, pp. 105-110, 192-202, 270-279 and 321-330. ISBN 978-2-923400-91-4
  • Philip Roth: The Great American Novel, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1995 (originally published in 1973) ISBN 978-0679749066