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Postmodernist Baseball

When, in 1835, Abner Doubleday didn't invent the game of baseball in Cooperstown, Ohio, little did he know he was fueling the imaginations of several postmodernist writers. For not only are baseball and its accompanying traditions eminently exploitable for literary purposes, its history, including the dubious accounts of its origin and its unique status as America's pastime, is especially appealing to postmodernist writers who attack conventional perceptions of reality, who challenge accepted versions of history, and who seek to infuse vitality into an uncertain, unknowable world. In this essay I shall discuss how some innovative and imaginative writers have used the world of baseball for these and other ends.

Perhaps the most significant feature of postmodernist thought concerns the limitations on human knowledge of truth and reality, and the realm of uncertainty into which those restrictions place us. These perceived limitations are consistent with such scientific ideas as relativity theory, which insists that no point of view is intrinsically superior to or more accurate than any other, and with quantum theory, which undercuts the [End Page 135] idea of causality, places real limitations on what we can know,1 and introduces the principle of complementarity (the union in nature of what seem in traditional orientations to be mutually exclusive characteristics: matter, for instance, can now be described in terms of energy). I cite these scientific outlooks to show that the postmodernist attitudes represent more than the skewed perceptions of socially alienated writers and are, in fact, bound up with the mainstream of twentieth-century thought. Postmodernism, then, pictures a subjective, relativistic world full of contradictions and dependent upon individual observers for its definition. Little, if anything, can be known with absolute certainty. To the extent that their books embody these perceptions, postmodernists can be said to be the new "realists," who are simply describing and reflecting a radically different version of reality from that perceived by such writers as James, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, and Tolstoy during the time when belief in a mechanistic world view was at its apex.

Most, if not all, of these postmodern characteristics apply to modernism as well. Postmodernism distinguishes itself from modernism largely in terms of tone, audience, and political orientation. For writers and readers who grew up in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, the breakdown of the sense of an ordered universe was not a sudden revelation, as it largely had been for the modernists, but simply a normal circumstance of life, much as the possibility of sudden nuclear holocaust is simply a given for those born since 1945. This familiarity with an absurd universe allows postmodern writers to be less despairing, even to be humorous, and to appeal to a broader range of readers, who are more likely than their counterparts of the '20s to be open to the absurdist viewpoint. Moreover, the experience of World War Two revealed fascism to be a completely abhorrent political means of imposing order, and many postmodernists reject entirely the modernists' search for order within chaos, preferring to advocate an acceptance of uncertainty and chance. And to the extent that the rise of big business and big government after World War Two has restricted individual choices and freedoms, those systems are rejected by postmodernist writers. Thus we find an anticapitalist, though not especially a procommunist stance in much postmodernist literature, particularly in literature written during or immediately after the Vietnam War. Still, like their modernist forebears, postmodernist writers accept the challenge [End Page 136] of reorienting us in a fundamentally disorienting world.2 For some of those writers baseball has emerged as a vehicle for effecting this reorientation. The remainder of this discussion will address how Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, W. P. Kinsella, Harry Stein, and Robert Coover have turned to baseball to promote their postmodernist view of reality and to reorient us within it.

The facet of baseball that comes most readily to mind in this context is its affinity to myth. After all, the game regularly involves moments of heroism: confrontations between forces of good and evil, the individual struggles between pitcher and batter, the possibility of someone's performing a great act that can turn certain...