Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 by Michael Oriard, and: Laurel and Thorn: The Athlete in American Literature by Robert J. Higgs, and: Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner by Christian K. Messenger (review)
- Studies in American Fiction
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 11, Number 2, Autumn 1983
- pp. 263-264
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Studies in American Fiction263 Oriard, Michael. Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 18681980 . Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1982. 382 pp. Cloth: $24.95. Higgs, Robert J. Laurel and Thorn: The Athlete in American Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981. 196 pp. Cloth: $15.00. Messenger, Christian K. Sport and the Spirit ofPlay in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981. 369 pp. Cloth: $25.00. If the case still needs to be made that sports are an important theme in the work of major American writers, the evidence—three monographs in two years—is now available. What makes the evidence particularly impressive is that the three authors have little in common other than their well-founded conviction that sport and the spirit of play have had at least an intermittent fascination for an extraordinary number of writers whose work cannot be shrugged off as mediocre or meant for juvenile readers. Oriard is the most encyclopedic and least selective of the three; his check list of 1845 titles does not discriminate between children's literature and books meant for adults. Approaching American sports fiction primarily as an aspect of popular culture, drawing upon specialists like John G. Cawelti and Richard M. Dorson for inspiration and methodological help, he is an energetic categorizer, and his categories are large ones: equality and inequality, country and city, space and time, youth and age, male and female, history and myth. The generalizations are bold; "Boxing is the most constricted of all sports" (p. 98). Basketball is "playful," but "it has no connection to the mythic frontier or to any part of America's past" (pp. 112-13). Since basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, one might agree that the game did not embody the frontier spirit, but James Naismith methodically invented basketball and tinkered with Ins invention to fabricate a game suitable to the New England winter. Does one need to insist that Franklin's Philadelphia and Edison's Menlo Park are as much a part of America's past as Natty Buinppo's woods? There is insightful commentary in Dreaming of Heroes, on Coover's Universal Baseball Association and Roth's The Great American Novel and on a number of still more recent works, but Oriard spends most of his time among the juveniles, discussing the stereotypical patterns of Gilbert Patten (who, under the name of Burt L. Standish, wrote the Frank Merriwell books), Ralph Henry Barbour, Owen Johnson, and John R. Tunis. "Boys envision themselves as athletic heroes," writes Oriard, "men do not" (p. 57). This judgment, which implicitly makes Papa Hemingway one of the boys and sends the girls back to their dolls, is obviously not shared by Higgs. While Oriard sees American sports heroes as representatives of American society, Higgs imagines them as reincarnations of Apollo, Dionysus, and Adonis. Instead of Horatio Alger and the myth of social mobility, we have the Greek conception of aidos, the noble sense of duty. Within his three basic categories, Higgs has an array of others which allow him to discriminate among the versions of the Apollonian: the busher, the sporting gentleman, the apotheosized WASP, the booster alumnus, the muscular Christian, the brave new man. Since the Dionysian appears as babe, bum, or beast and the Adonis-type as folk-hero, fisher-king, scapegoat, absurd athlete, or secret Christian, the taxonomy has a tendency to bewilder the reader who has not prepared for Higgs with a good dose ofOvid's Metamorphoses. There are many shrewd remarks about specific works and there is an excellent appreciation of Joiner, James Whitehead's neglected novel about football and metanoia. But Laurel and Thorn is heady stuff, a contribution to moral philosophy rather than a commentary on popular culture. Of the three monographs, Christian Messenger's study, which I read in manuscript and recommended for publication, is the longest, the most detailed, and—in my possibly 264Reviews partisan judgment—the most faithful to sports on the one hand and to literature on the other. It is the only one of the three books which attempts more than superficially to define sport and the spirit of play. It is the only one of the three which...