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Reviewed by:
Wiley Lee Umphlett, ed. The Achievement of American Sport Literature: A Critical Appraisal. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991. 215 pp. No price given.

"As readers should be aware, the past several years have seen sport literature move from the ghetto of subliterature to critical respectability." Brooke Horvath and Sharon Carson's introduction to an essay on women's sports poetry represents the defiant and celebratory tone of this whole volume. It also identifies a literature defined by a subject considered fundamentally anti-intellectual and, for a long time, unworthy of academic study. Nonetheless, in the last twenty years, many college English departments have used sports literature courses as ways of introducing fiction, poetry, and drama to uninitiated undergraduates, teaching popular cultural forms, such as film and journalistic nonfiction, and challenging the disciplinary boundaries of "Literature" with materials from the parallel, developing subdisciplines of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history of sport.

The twelve essays contained in this volume are accessible introductions to forms and concerns of sporting texts, consumer friendly in both subject matter and style. The first part of the book contains descriptive overviews of themes and genres of sports writing with nearly all the essays earnestly free from the discourses of literary theory (but not, of course, free from theory). Several of the essays depend upon explications of themes, characterization and "voice" in poetry, fiction, and even film, whereas others contribute to the categorization of sports literature into its own subgenres. It is the study of popular culture Cawelti-style, with myth being emphasized over ideology and history. Baseball has proven the richest source of these sporting myths, and this is reflected in six of the seven essays in this section. At the same time, the narrative quality of most competitive sports has contributed to the novel becoming the predominant form of fictive sports writing. Christian Messenger exemplifies these emphases with a sweeping survey of thirty baseball novels written in the 1980s.

The second section, titled "Supplemental Literature—Criticism, Philosophy, Autobiography, Biography, History, and Special Studies," is most useful for its identification of two theoretical discussions, the excellent bibliographies of sports literatures, and Michael Oriard's proposals for further research. Robert Higgs uses the play theories of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Harold Bloom, and French sociologist, Roger Caillois to understand sports literature as "a mode as well as a genre, constantly reflecting in fiction, nonfiction and poetry some aspect of the world of play." His Bloomian interpretation of sports as polysemous texts contrasts with the unities and homologies of the first section's genre studies. In an even more philosophical vain, Daniel Herman rehearses a recent debate over whether sport is art, and provocatively suggests that the aesthetics of sports has to be addressed before aesthetic judgments are made of its literature.

Even if sports literature has reached the "critical respectability" of literary suburbia (university press publications, its own journal, a special issue of MFS), Michael Oriard realizes that this is an area of cultural study which will undoubtedly benefit from the use of more interdisciplinary and theoretical approaches. He proposes that scholars of sports literature need to use methods of social history to [End Page 768] study race, gender, and class in the writing on sport. Furthermore, Oriard acknowledges that acceptance of a traditional category of "literature" has led to the neglect of sports journalism as a valuable resource for the historical examination of the language and textual representation of sports.

Ross Dawson
Purdue University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 768-769
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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