W. P. Kinsella
Canadian writer W. P. Kinsella's first novel, Shoeless Joe, published in Boston in 1982, is an ingenious baseball story that smoothly weaves together fact and fantasy. The narrator, Ray Kinsella, is a baseball fanatic and dreamer who owns a farm in Iowa. One day he hears a mysterious voice saying, "If you build it, he will come." Ray believes this is an instruction to build a baseball field at his farm and that the "he" is his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Jackson was banned from baseball for life following the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which he and seven other players accepted bribes to throw the World Series. From this premise, Kinsella spins his tale full of magic and nostalgia. Shoeless Joe shows up, and Ray continues to pursue his dream, even traveling cross-country to kidnap the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger, who joins Ray in his quest to restore the broken dreams of the past.
Set in idyllic rural Iowa and told in lyrical, poetic, sometimes sentimental prose, Shoeless Joe is a story of the power of the imagination and the triumph of love. It is about dreams and hope and trust and the fulfillment of long-buried desires. The dominant note throughout is the characters' consuming love of baseball, which is presented almost as a religion, and is contrasted, favorably, with the spiritual dryness of conventional Christianity.
Shoeless Joe was made into the popular movie Field of Dreams in 1989, and for a while the words "If you build it, he will come" became almost as well-known in American popular culture as the famous phrase "Say it ain't so, Joe," allegedly spoken by a young fan to Shoeless Joe during the Black Sox Scandal.
William Patrick Kinsella was born on May 25, 1935, on a farm in Edmonton, in northern Alberta, Canada, the son of John Matthew and Olive Mary (Elliott) Kinsella. Kinsella did not attend school until fifth grade, but he caught up quickly and graduated from high school in 1953. After graduation, he worked at a variety of jobs in Edmonton. He was a government clerk, an insurance investigator, and then owner of a restaurant. He did not attend college until he was in his late thirties, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, in 1974. He then received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1978 and taught English for five years at the University of Calgary, Alberta, from 1978 to 1983.
Kinsella always thought of himself as a writer and published his first story when he was seventeen. His first story collection was Dance Me Outside (1977), about the Native North Americans of the Ermineskin Reservation in Alberta, Canada. Born Indian (1981) and Mocassin Telegraph (1983) were similar collections. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe (1982) was his first popular success, and it was made into the movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.
Since 1983, Kinsella has been a full-time writer and has carved a niche for himself as a writer of baseball fiction. In addition to Shoeless Joe, he has written several more novels, including The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), Box Socials (1991), and The Winter Helen Dropped By (1995). Story collections focusing on baseball include Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), the title story that formed the basis of the novel Shoeless Joe, and The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (1988), which was reissued as Go the Distance (1995). Kinsella's most recent publications are Magic Time (1998), a novel about a college all-star who revives his baseball career by moving to Iowa, and Japanese Baseball (2000), a new collection of baseball stories.
Kinsella was awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in 1982; he has also received a fiction award from the Canadian Authors Association (1982), a Vancouver writing award (1987), and the Stephen Leacock medal (1987). He was decorated with the Order of Canada in 1994, and in 1987 he was named Author of the Year by the Canadian Library Association.
Kinsella married Mildred Irene Clay in 1965, and they had three children before divorcing in 1978. In 1978, Kinsella married Ann Ilene Knight. They were divorced in 1997. Kinsella married for the third time, in 1999, to Barbara L. Turner.
Chapter 1: Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa
Shoeless Joe begins with the narrator, Ray Kinsella, a young farmer in Iowa, describing how one day when sitting on the verandah of his home, he heard the voice of a ballpark announcer saying, "If you build it, he will come." Ray, who is a highly imaginative man and great lover of baseball, takes this as an instruction to build a baseball field in one of the cornfields at his farm. At first, he builds only a left field. Ray believes that the "he" that the voice refers to is Shoeless Joe Jackson, who gained no-toriety for his part in a bribery scandal that marred the 1919 World Series.
One night, baseball players appear on the field, including Shoeless Joe in left field, and Ray settles down to watch him play. In Ray's eyes, the scene is as complete as at any major-league park he has visited. But he notices that Shoeless Joe is the only player who appears to have any substance; the others are shadowy, ghost-like. Ray talks to Shoeless Joe, who tells him about his love of baseball, and Ray promises that he will finish the whole field.
Chapter 2: They Tore Down the Polo Grounds in 1964
Ray finishes building the entire field; it takes him three baseball seasons. One by one, the socalled Unlucky Eight, the Black Sox baseball players who were banned for life in 1920, appear. Now only the right fielder and the catcher are still shadowy. Ray's daughter Karin also has the ability to see the games that take place. Next, Ray hears the baseball announcer say, mysteriously, "Ease his pain." Ray intuitively understands this to be a message about the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger. On the basis of a newspaper article he once read, Ray believes that Salinger is a baseball fan but that he has not seen a game live for over twenty-five years. Ray decides to visit Salinger in New Hampshire and take him to a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston. Another link that connects Ray to Salinger is the fact that in one of his short stories, Salinger created a character named Ray Kinsella. There is also a character named Richard Kinsella in Salinger's book, The Catcher in the Rye, and Ray has a twin brother by that name.
On his long drive, Ray stops to attend ball games in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Yankee Stadium in New York. When he reaches New Hampshire, he waylays Salinger outside his home and, in a mock-kidnapping, persuades the surprised writer to accompany him to Fenway Park. Ray tells his story, and they talk about writing. At the Boston Red Sox game, Ray tries to get Salinger to talk about his pain, but Salinger says he has none. During the game, Ray receives yet another mysterious message, this time from the scoreboard. It concerns a baseball player named Moonlight Graham who played once for the New York Giants in 1905. Ray knows that he has another assignment to fulfill, and he receives a message telling him to "Go the distance." Salinger also hears this, and he and Ray agree to travel to the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota, to discover what they can about Archie "Moonlight" Graham.
Chapter 3: The Life and Times of Moonlight Graham
As they make the long drive to Minnesota, where Graham died in 1965, Salinger tells Ray that he also received a message saying, "Fulfill the dream." They visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and get information about Graham's one and only major-league game. When they arrive in Chisholm, they discover from a newspaper obituary that Graham had been the town's doctor for many years and was deeply loved in his community.
At night Ray goes walking, and through some magical transformation, he encounters Doc Graham as a seventy-five-year-old man. The year is 1955. They go to Graham's office at the school, where Graham explains how he got the nickname Moonlight. As they talk about his career, he says that if he had one wish, it would be to hold a bat in a major-league game, something that he never did in his career.
Next morning, Salinger and Ray decide to go back to Iowa so that Salinger can see the baseball field. On their way out of Chisholm, they pick up a young man in a baseball uniform who is looking for a place to play. The young man says his name is Archie Graham.
Chapter 4: The Oldest Living Chicago Cub
The three of them head for Iowa, stopping off in Minneapolis to explore a baseball field at night. Going on to Iowa City, Ray stops at the Bishop Cridge Friendship Center, where his friend, ninety-one-year-old Eddie Scissons, the oldest living Chicago Cub, lives. Ray invites Eddie to his farm because he wants to show him the baseball field. Ray has also received another obscure message about sharing and betrayal that he assumes is about Eddie.
When they reach the farm, Ray finds his twin brother Richard there, whom he has not seen for over twenty years. Richard works with a carnival that has stopped in Iowa City. Ray takes his other friends for a tour of the baseball field and knows he will only be able to answer their questions when the magic unfolds once more. In the meantime, his financial situation is increasingly desperate. His brother-in-law, Mark, is trying to buy the farm, and Mark announces that he has the legal right to foreclose on the farm if Ray does not get up to date on the mortgage payments. Mark and his business partner, Bluestein, are buying up farms in the area and using computer farming to modernize them, a concept that Ray dislikes.
When the magic happens again, there is a new player on the field—the catcher for the White Sox. His name is Johnny Kinsella, Ray's father, but Ray cannot bring himself to face him. On the field, Moonlight Graham gets his wish.
An exasperated Mark tells Ray that Eddie has been lying about his past, that he'd never played for the Chicago Cubs. But Ray has known this for a long time anyway. Not long after this, Eddie gets his wish when, as Kid Scissons, he pitches for the Chicago Cubs on Ray's magical field. But Eddie does not perform well. He urges Ray to speak to his father. Shortly after, Eddie dies. He is buried at the baseball field in his Chicago Cubs uniform.
Mark and Bluestein arrive and claim they have legal temporary custody of the farm. Ray orders them off the property at gunpoint, but the confrontation ends when Karin, Ray's young daughter, takes a fall. She is unconscious and has difficulty breathing, until young Moonlight Graham magically metamorphoses into the older Doc Graham and saves her life.
Salinger envisions a way that Ray can pay off his debts and keep the farm: the baseball field will become a magnet for tourists. Just as he says this, the first cars full of visitors begin to arrive. And that night, Ray plucks up courage to speak to his father. Richard, who up to this point has been unable to see what the others see, speaks to him as well.
Chapter 5: The Rapture of J. D. Salinger
When Ray learns that the players have invited Salinger out after the game, he is jealous until he realizes that, as a result of this, Salinger may well get his deepest wish, which is to play baseball at the Polo Grounds, the home ballpark of the New York Giants that was torn down in 1964.
Abner Bluestein is the hard-nosed business partner of Mark, Ray Kinsella's brother-in-law, who wants to evict Ray from his farm.
Archie Graham, also known as Moonlight Graham, is based on a real person who played once for the New York Giants in 1905. He appears in the novel in two forms. First, he is an old man, Doc Graham, a doctor in the small Minnesota town of Chisholm. Ray meets him in a magical episode of time travel that takes him back to the year 1955 when Graham is seventy-five years old. Doc Graham has some eccentric habits, such as chewing paper and spitting it out, but he is a good-hearted man who is loved and respected in his community, where he takes care of all who seek his assistance. He tells Ray that he got his nickname one night when, after a minor league game, he went outside the motel for a walk, dressed in his baseball uniform. A teammate spotted him, and he was Moonlight Graham ever after. Graham also appears in the novel as a young man dressed in a baseball uniform who travels from Minnesota to Iowa with Salinger and Ray in search of a game to play. He ends up playing on Ray's fantasy field and thus gets the chance to bat in the major leagues.
Gypsy is the girlfriend of Richard Kinsella. She works in the change booth at the carnival. She is tough but also kind and wise, and she has an open heart that enables her to perceive all the baseball games taking place in Ray's magic field.
- Shoeless Joe was made into the movie Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. His career with the Chicago White Sox ended in 1920 when he admitted to being involved in a plot to throw the 1919 World Series. He was banned from the game for life. In the novel, Ray believes that although Shoeless Joe may have accepted money from gamblers, he did not deliberately throw the series but was the victim of greedy baseball owners. Shoeless Joe is one of Ray's heroes, and he is the first baseball player to appear on Ray's baseball field. Shoeless Joe is presented not only as a legendary baseball player but also as a man who loved the game and who would have played just for food money. He tells Ray that being banned for life was the equivalent of having part of himself amputated.
Annie Kinsella is Ray Kinsella's red-haired, twenty-four-year-old wife. She is pretty, full of life and good humor, and very loving. She always supports her husband and encourages him to fulfill his dreams, never once reproaching him for being impractical, even as their debts mount.
Johnny Kinsella is Ray's father. He served in World War I and was gassed at Passchendaele, after which he settled in Chicago and became a White Sox fan. He also played semi-pro baseball in Florida and California before marrying and settling in Montana. At the time of the story, he has been dead for twenty years. He and his son Ray appear to have been close, and he instilled his love of baseball into Ray. Shoeless Joe was his hero. Johnny Kinsella appears in the novel as a young man, playing catcher in games at Ray's baseball park. At first, Ray does not know how to approach him, but later he does so, and he realizes that he can talk with his father about many things.
Karin Kinsella is Ray's five-year-old daughter. Like her father, she is gifted with imagination and has no trouble seeing the baseball games that take place in the cornfield at the farm.
Ray Kinsella is the narrator of the story. He was raised in Montana, and his father passed on to him a love of baseball. Ray later moved to Iowa to study, and he fell in love with the state and decided to stay. He married Annie, the daughter of his landlady. Unable to find congenial work, Ray took a job as a life insurance salesman, which he hated. Then, Annie suggested that they rent and later buy a farm. Although he has little expertise in farming and machinery of any kind baffles him, Ray takes great pride in the farm. However, times are such that it is very hard for a small farmer to flourish, and he falls badly into debt. Impractical in matters of money, he makes almost no effort to right his finances. His wife's family dislikes him, and he has equally negative feelings about them. Ray also disikes organized religion, big business, and people in authority who do not use their authority well.
Whatever his shortcomings in practical life, Ray is gifted with imagination, an open heart, and the ability to conceive a great dream and work at it until it comes true. When he hears the mysterious voice saying, "If you build it, he will come," he immediately understands what it means and sets about building the baseball field. He is also motivated by a desire to rekindle the enthusiasm for baseball of his favorite writer, J. D. Salinger, and to heal Salinger's pain. Ray drives a thousand miles cross-country to make this happen. In the end, Ray is vindicated. His dreams come true because of the depths of his own belief in them. He also becomes the agent whereby the dreams of others can be fulfilled, but in this he realizes that he is only playing his part in some larger plan, the origins of which he does not speculate about. Ultimately, what is most important to Ray is not baseball but love of family and friends.
Richard Kinsella is Ray's twin brother. He and Ray have not seen each other since the morning of their sixteenth birthday. On that day, Richard quarreled with their father and walked out of the house. No one in the family has seen or heard of him since, until one day he shows up at Ray's farm. It transpires that he works with a traveling carnival that has stopped in Iowa City. Richard is at first unable to see what happens in the baseball cornfield, but he asks Ray to teach him how to do it. Eventually, Richard is able to perceive and speak to their father.
Mark is a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and Ray's brother-in-law. His area of expertise is the corn weevil. He is also a businessman and, with his partner, Bluestein, owns apartment blocks and several thousand acres of farmland. Practical and with an interest in the latest technology, Mark is the opposite of Ray, the dreamer. Mark wants to buy Ray's farm so he can modernize it, and he pursues his goal ruthlessly, only to be foiled at the end by Salinger's creative ideas for how Ray can pay off his debts.
J. D. Salinger
J. D. Salinger is the real-life reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye. In the novel, Salinger is presented as a kind man with a sense of humor, although since he no longer writes and publishes, he is also denying himself his greatest talent. When he is waylaid by Ray at his home, he agrees to accompany him to the Red Sox game in Boston. Then he joins Ray in his research into Moonlight Graham's life in Minnesota and also goes to Iowa to see for himself the baseball field where Shoeless Joe and the other famous players perform. As a writer with a developed imagination, Salinger is well able to perceive everything that takes place on Ray's baseball park. When he receives an invitation to accompany the players beyond the baseball park into a world beyond ordinary reality, Salinger promises Ray that he will resume his writing career.
Eddie Scissons is a very old man whom Ray befriends several years before the story begins. Ray rents and later buys Eddie's farm. Eddie lives at the Bishop Cridge Friendship Center in Iowa City and claims to be the oldest living Chicago Cub. He has many stories to tell about baseball and claims to have followed the Cubs for eighty years. They have been his whole life, and he wants to be buried in his Chicago Cubs uniform. It transpires, however, that Eddie has been lying. He never played for the Cubs. The best he could manage was to play part-time, for one year, for a Class D team in Montana. Eddie eventually gets his wish when, as Kid Scissons, he pitches for the Chicago Cubs on Ray's baseball park. But he performs poorly and is devastated by the experience. Although he gets what he wants, it does not make him happy. However, when Eddie dies, his wish to be buried in his Cubs uniform is honored.
Shoeless Joe has countless references and allusions to religious beliefs and practices. Kinsella presents a strong contrast between traditional Christianity and what he regards as a truer, more life-promoting form of religion, mediated by the game of baseball. Traditional religion is presented in an entirely negative light. It is epitomized in Ray's perceptions of his wife's family. Annie's mother is self-righteous and judgmental, and she makes a point of bringing her religion into any conversation. Mark, Ray's ruthless brother-in-law, is also a fundamentalist Christian, who dislikes atheists and Catholics. Mark has three brothers, named Matthew, Luke, and John. Together with Mark, these are the names of the evangelists who wrote the four gospels, which underlines Ray's quarrel with Christianity. Other examples of people who adhere to traditional Christianity are Eddie Scissons's three daughters, who are presented as dour, unimaginative, and joyless.
In contrast, baseball is presented as a kind of quasi-religion. "We're not just ordinary people, we're a congregation," says Ray of the baseball fans. A ballpark at night "is more like a church than a church." Ray imagines fans waiting for a game to start, sitting "in silence, in awe, in wonder, in anticipation, in joy"—rather like worshipers in a cathedral. The element of joy is what is conspicuously lacking in Ray's perceptions of the way Christianity is normally lived.
Baseball provides the experience of calmness and stability for which people often look to religion. Baseball is soothing because "it is stable and permanent." As he looks around Boston's Fenway Park, Ray remarks that "the year might be 1900 or 1920 or 1979, for all the field itself has changed. Here the sense of urgency that governs most lives is pushed to one side." Baseball also offers the possibility, like religion, of miraculous events that can transcend or reverse time. In a baseball game, Ray says, anything can happen: "Tides can reverse; oceans can open." And of course, this is exactly what happens in Ray's magical baseball park. Through Ray's dedicated love of baseball, the dead can live again—another promise that traditional Christianity makes to its followers.
Imagination, Dreams, and Reality
Shoeless Joe is a wish-fulfillment, fantasy novel in which the dead come back to life, dreams come true, and old wounds are healed. It asserts the primacy of imagination over the demands of practical life. For example, Ray makes no attempt to get out of his mounting pile of debt. To all outside observers (except for his loyal wife, Annie), he is heading for disaster and his only practical option is to sell the farm. But Ray is one of the least practical characters imaginable. He insists on following his dreams and making them into reality. To accomplish this, he must be alert to the prompting of his intuition and his heart. He must do apparently crazy things, like driving cross-country to take a reclusive writer to a baseball game. He must never lose sight of his goal, he must ignore advice by well-meaning people, and he must trust in his vision. He must also work hard at the physical task of turning his cornfield into a baseball park. He seeds, waters, sands, and rakes the field. This is clearly a metaphor for watering his own imagination, allowing the hidden desires and hopes to push up to the surface. In digging deep into his own consciousness, Ray accesses the things that need healing, both in himself and in others. He taps into the universal level of life, where everything is connected. From there he can become the instrument by which the "cosmic jigsaw puzzle," in which everything has its proper time and place, can move to completion. As long as Ray sticks to his task, providence will take care of the rest. It is significant that, in the end, there proves to be no dichotomy between the imaginative and the practical life. By following his imagination, Ray also creates the means to pay off his debts—through the throng of tourists that come to see the magical ballpark—and to continue to live at the farm.
Father and Son
The relationship between father and son is at the heart of the novel. Ray's father passed on his love of baseball to his son, and his hero was Shoeless Joe, whom he believed to have been innocent of the charges that led to his lifetime ban from baseball. This is why Shoeless Joe is the first player to appear on Ray's baseball field. It is not only a chance for him to right the wrong that was done to him, but it also makes it possible for Ray to appease the spirit of his father, who has been dead for twenty years. When Ray first sees and talks to Shoeless Joe, his thoughts quickly turn to his father, and he wants him to play catcher with the resurrected White Sox. When this dream comes true and he sees his father as a twenty-five-year-old man, he does not know how to approach him, but, after making the first move and speaking to his father as a friend, he thinks of all the things he will want to talk about: "I'll guide the conversation … and we'll hardly realize that we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing." What Kinsella suggests here is simple: those to whom we are closest can remain so, even after death, if our hearts and minds remain open; the barriers between the living and the dead are not as insurmountable as they might seem. Ray's twin brother, Richard, is the immediate beneficiary of Ray's discovery. Unlike Ray, Richard quarreled with their father. Richard had not reconciled with his father by the time of his father's death—but Ray teaches the initially uncomprehending Richard to see his father on the ballpark, so Richard can also be a part of the restored wholeness of the family.
Topics for Further Study
- Why is Karin usually the first person to see the baseball games on Ray's field?
- Is Shoeless Joe just a harmless fantasy, or does it have relevance for day-to-day life? What guidance for how life should be lived does Ray provide?
- Research the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. What is the evidence for and against the guilt of Shoeless Joe? Were the owners really to blame because they underpaid their players?
- Should Shoeless Joe be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, even if he was guilty? What might be the arguments for and against this proposition?
- Kinsella has commented that today's major league baseball players and owners are greedy and have no regard for the baseball fan. He thinks that admission prices are too high and many fans may prefer to watch minor league games in which players still play for the love of the game. Do you agree with Kinsella's opinion? What arguments could be made for or against his views?
- Watch the movie Field of Dreams, and write an essay explaining how the movie differs from the novel. Do you think the film is an effective adaptation? What does the movie lose or gain by substituting the fictional black writer Terrence Mann for J. D. Salinger?
Similes and Metaphors
Kinsella's use of simile and metaphor, in which something is compared to something else generally unlike it in a way that brings out the resemblance between the two, is the most noticeable aspect of his style. The similes and metaphors come thick and fast. The first seven pages alone include the following examples: the wind "is as soft as a dayold chick"; speakers at baseball stadiums are "like ancient sailors' hats"; small items accumulate at one end of the sloping verandah "like a herd of cattle clustered with their backs to a storm"; Annie falls into Ray's arms "like a cat that you suddenly find sound asleep in your lap"; black clouds lumber off "like ghosts of buffalo." Later examples include extended metaphors, such as this one describing the rumors that circulate about J. D. Salinger. They are "like mosquitoes from a swamp and buzz angrily and irritatingly in the air." Kinsella cannot resist immediately following this with yet another simile, in which Ray, whose favorite author is Salinger, says he collected those rumors "as a child might collect matchbooks and stash them in an unruly clamor in a dresser drawer already full of pens, tape, marbles, paper clips, and old playing cards."
Kinsella writes in a lyrical, poetic style. This is particularly noticeable when he evokes the landscape of Iowa when the magic of the baseball field is in the air. Just before Shoeless Joe appears for the first time, for example, Ray senses that the magic is approaching, "hovering somewhere out in the night like a zeppelin, silky and silent, floating like the moon until the time is right." After Ray's first talk with Shoeless Joe, "A breath of clover travels on the summer wind. Behind me, just yards away, brook water plashes softly in the darkness, a frog shrills, fireflies dazzle the night like red pepper. A petal falls."
These and other descriptions of the Iowa landscape add to the feeling of enchantment that Kinsella wishes to create. He appeals directly to the senses, exactly as Ray instructs Salinger to do: "Open up your senses, smell the life all around you, touch it, taste it, hear it." This is the key to seeing the way Ray sees, and Kinsella gives his reader all the help he can. Consider for example the appeal to sight and smell in the following description: "Moonlight butters the whole Iowa night. Clover and corn smells are as thick as syrup." The image of moonlight buttering the night is particularly striking and effective.
The evocative lyricism extends to the descriptions of the baseball players and their games. This, for example, is the young Archie Graham in action:
He cranks up his arm, rears back, and throws, and the ball … travels in a white arc, seeming to leave behind a line like a streak of forgotten rainbow as it drops over the fence, silent as a star falling into a distant ocean.
When Eddie tells Ray that his uncle had a gift for "describing the beauty and mystery of baseball," his words could equally be applied to Kinsella the author.
The descriptions of Ray's wife Annie and his relationship with her have a similar kind of sensual radiance. It is as if everything within the scope of Ray's deep imaginative response to life appears in the light of this soft, romantic glow.
When Ray visits the carnival in Iowa City to meet Gypsy, she shows him part of the show. In a trailer, there are about a dozen glass containers. Each contains a faded black and white photograph of a deformed fetus. Kinsella attaches some importance to this, since just before the incident, Ray's daughter Karin repeats several times the sales patter she has heard from Richard: "the world's strangest babies are here." The reader is meant to take notice.
The grim image of twelve dead fetuses symbolizes the stifled, aborted dreams that Ray has brought back to life in his enchanted baseball park. The twelve are the eight banned White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, as well as Moonlight Graham, Eddie Scissons, Johnny Kinsella (Ray's father) and J. D. Salinger.
The image recalls an incident in Ray's childhood when he shot a sparrow. To discourage him from such activities, his mother told him to bring the bird to life again. Obviously, he was unable to do that, but Ray has since learned that there are some things that can be brought back to life—forgotten hopes and frustrated desires. The sparrow incident is linked to the image of the dead fetuses when Ray calls his mother, reminds her of the dead sparrow, and tells her she must come and see "what I've brought to life." He means the baseball field, but the following day he visits the carnival and sees the glass cases. Kinsella leaves the reader to make the symbolic connection.
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson was born in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1888. When he was only six, he worked seventy-hour weeks at the local cotton mill with his father. There was no opportunity for formal educational, and Jackson grew up illiterate. He joined the mill's baseball team at the age of fifteen and within five years was playing in the local minor league team, where he earned his nickname by playing in stocking feet.
In 1908, Jackson joined the major league Philadelphia Athletics, and, in 1910, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians. Five years later, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: After the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, baseball is at a low point in its history. Baseball owners are worried that spectators will stay away, thinking the game is corrupt. To punish the players and reassure the public, eight players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, are banned from baseball for life in 1920.
1980s: Baseball player Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, is banned for life in 1989 by baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti for betting on baseball. Also, Giamatti refuses to consider a request to reopen the Jackson case.
Today: Controversy still exists over whether Shoeless Joe Jackson should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1999, Republican representative Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduces a resolution calling for Jackson to be "appropriately honored" for his achievements.
- 1920s: Baseball players earn low salaries. The average annual salary in the major leagues is about $5,000 to $6,000. There is no players' union, and players do not have agents, so they are in a weak bargaining position.
1980s: Salaries for major league baseball players rise steadily. In 1981, the average salary is $185,651. By 1989, this has risen to $512,084. In November 1989, Kirby Puckett becomes the first $3-million-a-year player. Within a month, three other players, Rickey Henderson, Mark Langston, and Mark Davis, all top the $3-million mark.
Today: In 2001, nineteen major league baseball players have contracts with average annual values of $12.5 million or more. Many baseball fans believe salaries are too high and are not in the best interests of the game. A Gallup poll in April 2001 reports that 79 percent of fans think that major league baseball owners should be allowed to put a cap on the total amount of money available for players' salaries.
- 1920s: Although African Americans are not allowed to play major league baseball, there are many black professional teams. The Negro National League is founded in 1920.
1940s: Baseball takes the first steps to racial integration. In 1945, the Dodgers sign Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 becomes the first African American to play in the major leagues.
1980s: Los Angeles Dodger vice president Al Campanis is fired after saying on ABC's Nightline that African Americans do not have the abilities to succeed in baseball management. The statement brings attention to the lack of African Americans in leadership positions in baseball and other professional sports. A drive to increase minority hiring begins, and, within two years, an African American, Bill White, is appointed National League president.
Today: Although heavily represented in sports such as professional baseball, football, and basketball, African Americans remain underrepresented in leadership positions.
The White Sox were owned by the miserly Charles Comiskey, who refused even to pay for the team's laundry, which earned them the nickname, Black Sox. The players were inadequately paid. The highest annual salary Jackson ever earned with the Black Sox was $6,000. Comiskey also favored contracts that placed all power in the hands of the owner rather than the player. In the novel, Ray laments the Ten Day Clause, "which voided contracts, could end any player's career without compensation, pension, or even a ticket home."
Although all the details are still not known, the conspiracy was initiated by first baseman Chick Gandil, who recruited the other players. Gamblers offered each of the eight players $20,000 to lose the 1919 World Series. At the time, the White Sox were a formidable team and were expected to beat the Cincinnati Reds—but they lost the series. Jackson received $5,000 but later tried to give it back. It is by no means certain that he helped to throw the series. He did, however, bat .375 to lead all players; he collected twelve hits and made no errors in the field. These statistics have led many fans to argue (including Ray's father in the novel) that he did not participate in the conspiracy.
A year later, after an investigation initiated by sportswriters, Jackson and two of the other players confessed to a grand jury. A famous story is told of a young boy pleading with his idol as he left a Chicago courthouse, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Jackson reportedly replied, "I'm afraid it is, kid."
Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight players from baseball for life. In 1921, a jury acquitted all eight players, but this was because evidence, including the player's signed confessions, had been stolen and was unavailable.
Jackson returned to Greenville, where he and his wife ran a successful dry-cleaning business. Jackson played semi-pro baseball in the South Georgia League until the age of forty-five. There are legends, disputed by some baseball historians, that he sometimes played elsewhere under a false name. The novel begins with Ray recalling how his father had claimed to have seen Shoeless Joe, "playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name."
Jackson remains to this day one of the great baseball players of all time. His lifetime batting average (.356) is the third best in major league history. Ty Cobb called him the "best natural hitter he ever saw."
Jackson died of a heart attack in 1951 at the age of sixty-three.
Shoeless Joe was well received by reviewers. Barry Schweld, in Library Journal, called it a "triumph of imagination … the tone is gentle and sweet." Schweld compared the novel to the work of Bernard Malamud, Robert Coover and others, concluding that like those writers, Kinsella had spun a "wonderful myth out of the ritual of baseball." Publisher's Weekly declared it to be "the most imaginative and original baseball novel since 'The Natural,'" and concluded, "fanciful, if somewhat lightweight, the novel attests to the timeless game and the power of love." Maggie Lewis in Christian Science Monitor joined the chorus of praise, commenting that "Kinsella does wonders in this book: The visual fantasies are so rich that whether you believe them or not, you can't help imagining them."
William Plummer in Newsweek was a little more tough-minded. He called Shoeless Joe a "wonderfully hokey first novel," adding that the subplots "are a hasty pudding" and the Salinger of the novel was not "smart or quirky enough" to have created the character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. However, Plummer concluded that "such complaints seem mean-spirited, tineared, in the face of the novel's lovely minor music."
Shoeless Joe has gained lasting popularity with the reading public, owing in part to the success of the movie Field of Dreams (1989). Literary critics have given it less attention, although several scholarly articles have explored such topics as Kinsella's baseball metaphors, his presentation of different attitudes to religion, and his social conservatism. There is a general consensus that the book is Kinsella's finest achievement in the realm of baseball fiction, a subgenre to which he has devoted much of his writing career.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the parallels between Ray Kinsella's vision in Kinsella's novel and some elements of traditional Christianity. He also points out the social and political implications of Ray's nostalgic dream.
"Is this heaven?" asks Shoeless Joe early on in the novel. "No, it's Iowa," replies Ray. In reality, however, Ray's magical baseball field has many of the characteristics of the Christian heaven, and Ray himself resembles an apostle of Christ, proclaiming the "good news" of salvation to all who believe. Seen in this light, Shoeless Joe appears to resemble an extended religious parable that creates, out of the rituals and artifacts of baseball, the trappings of a new religion, with much of its creed borrowed from the traditional elements of Christianity. While it is tempting to see the novel in this way, Kinsella is careful to repudiate the idea that baseball can be worshiped as a religion. He does this by contrasting Eddie Scissons and Moonlight Graham, highlighting the different role that baseball plays in each of their lives. Also, close analysis of Ray's heavenly Iowan field suggests that its saving values of love and hope rest on political and social underpinnings that may bring their universality into question.
The parallels between Ray's enterprise and that of an evangelist inspired by Old and New Testaments are unmistakable. Ray is a Moses bringing his people to the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. The promised land happens to be Iowa, lyrical descriptions of which occur on and off throughout the story. And in Ray's magical, blessed baseball field, he offers healing sanctuary first for Shoeless Joe, an outcast and a sinner, just as Jesus made a point of eating with tax collectors (the outcasts of his day) and sinners. Ray also brings to enlightenment his long-lost brother, Richard, who resembles the prodigal son in the story told in Luke's gospel (Luke 15: 11-32). And like any good evangelist, Ray goes out in search of the lost sheep, as in the story told in Matthew, chapter 15, about the man who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to search for the one sheep that is lost, and rejoices greatly when he finds it. The lost sheep in Shoeless Joe takes the form of J. D. Salinger. When Ray finds him, Salinger epitomizes the error made by the third servant in the parable of the talents related in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 25. This is the servant who was given one talent (a unit of currency) by his master and buried it in the ground rather than doing as the other servants did—using what they had been given and so multiplying it. Kinsella's Salinger is a brilliant writer, blessed with the ability to touch people deeply with his words, but he has chosen not to share his gift with others. In the language of the New Testament, he is hiding his light under a bushel instead of letting it shine out. Ray, the baseball evangelist, must try to awaken him from his spiritual torpor.
Ray succeeds even better than he must have expected, for not only does Salinger, at the end of the novel, promise to let his light shine (that is, to write again), he is also the one who is permitted to experience the rapture. This is a reference to the Christian belief, based on a passage in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians (4:17), that when Christ returns, believers will be caught up in the air to meet him. The equivalent in the novel is the invitation the baseball players extend to Salinger to join them after the game. They permit him to enter whatever spiritual world they inhabit when they are not hitting and fielding baseballs. This is a world the nature of which Ray can only guess at, but there are strong hints that Salinger will there have all his buried hopes and desires met.
In short, then, Ray's baseball field is the medium through which the ideal, transfigured, paradise state emerges and is made known. It is a condition, a state of consciousness, in which instead of being recalcitrant to human desire, life takes on the very shape of the fulfilled wish. It is similar to the description given in the Book of Revelations about the new Jerusalem that is made manifest after the return of Christ: "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (21:4). As Annie says in the novel, "It's so perfect here."
Should we, then, worship baseball, the most perfect of games, embodiment of beauty and granter of our desires, a stable point of reference in a changing world? The perhaps surprising answer Kinsella gives is no. He is careful to point out that this quasi-religious world, just like its Christian counterpart, has its devil. And that this devil is ready to tempt the baseball lover, promising everything but leading him astray. The devil comes in the unlikely form of Eddie Scissons. When the reader first meets Eddie, he carries a white cane, on the top of which is a brass serpent's head. This is obviously meant to be a symbol. The serpent is, of course, the Biblical symbol of the devil. It was the devil in the form of the serpent that first tempted Eve, and in the New Testament, the devil is described as a liar and the father of all lies. In the novel, it transpires that Eddie has been lying for over forty years about his life, claiming to have played for the Chicago Cubs when he did not. The lie has become so pervasive it has taken over his entire life. He lives in a fantasy, a make-believe world that has no relation to real life. He has made a false god out of baseball, and this becomes abundantly clear when he stands on the bleachers and gives his long, high-flown sermon on baseball as the word of salvation. His speech is accompanied by Ray's impressions that are clearly meant to be negative: Eddie's voice "is filled with evangelical fervor"; a moment later he "shakes his head like a fundamentalist who can quote chapter and verse for every occasion." Eddie is a man who has taken his enthusiasm too far, and his life becomes a lie.
It might appear, of course, that Ray himself is sometimes in danger of doing the same. But although he is a baseball fanatic, he is aware of the dangers of not keeping his feet on the ground. When Salinger muses about whether there is a baseball devil, because Ray seems so possessed by the game, Ray replies with impeccable common sense, "Anything taken too seriously becomes a devil."
The more apt contrast with Eddie, however, is not Ray but Moonlight Graham, the man who made one brief appearance with the New York Giants in 1905 and then spent most of the rest of his life as a doctor in the small town of Chisholm, Montana. Although he loved baseball, he always kept a sense of what was really important in life. He tells Ray:
If I'd got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy. You have to keep things in perspective. I mean, I love the game, but it's only that, a game.
Far more important for Doc Graham was finding a place in a community where he belonged, where he could express love and show his caring nature. For over forty years, Doc Graham was the good doctor who always had time for his patients. The baseball wish he expresses to Ray—to hold a bat in a major league game—is very much a secondary consideration for him. This is shown, as Charles Beach points out in his article, "Joyful vs. Joyless Religion in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe," in the incident where Karin almost chokes to death. Moonlight Graham leaves the baseball field where he is playing and magically metamorphoses into Doc Graham, in which guise he can save the little girl's life. Ray believes that Doc can never go back to being Moonlight Graham again. But it does not matter because the doctor has his priorities right.
But does Ray have his priorities right in all respects? What are the social and political implications of the kind of "heaven" he envisions in the Iowa heartland? Bryan K. Garman, in his essay, "Myth Building and Cultural Politics in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe," argues that the social environment out of which Ray's paradisiacal world springs is a very conservative one. It reflects an America not transfigured but frozen at a particular point in time.
The conservatism of Ray's worldview is clear from the nostalgia that pervades the novel. Shoeless Joe can be seen as one long hymn to the past. Ray is always looking back to a golden time. He hates the changes that he observes in Iowa City, for example, where the proliferation of fast-food franchises, motel chains, and muffler shops destroy bit by bit the city's traditional ambience. Ray also dislikes technology and the changes it brings to farming, including his own farm:
Now a new breed of land baron is buying out the farmers one by one, and I suppose corn farms like mine soon will be operated by computer. Instead of a farmhouse and family, there will be a small metallic box studded with red, green, and blue lights, which will tell a foreman which quadrant needs water and in which area the cutworms are hatching.
Perhaps most important, as Garman points out, Ray's persistent nostalgia showers adulation on the game of baseball during a period when African Americans were not allowed to play in the major leagues. (They were not admitted until 1947.) This is also a period in history when a woman's place was firmly in the home. In the novel, this preference for a conservative attitude regarding gender roles shows up in the treatment of Annie. She occupies a subordinate place in Ray's world, offering him constant support, allowing him to do whatever he wants while her main task is taking care of domestic chores. She has no thought of a career of her own. Similarly, when Salinger climbs aboard the same backward-looking train, he also envisions the future of Ray's baseball field in nostalgic terms that idealize a particular period of history. Salinger's vision includes not only the quaint "squarish cars parked around a frame schoolhouse" but also domestic arrangements in which women labor hard and long at food-preparing chores: "women shelling peas in linoleum-floored kitchens, cradling the unshelled pods in brindled aprons, tearing open corn husks and waiting for the thrill of the cool sweet scent."
Many people today, feminists and others, might feel that such times were less than ideal, hardly deserving of the sentimental, rosy glow with which Kinsella imbues them. Although reading the novel for its political and social implications may upset the finely developed and charming fantasy—after all, who cannot love a story in which wishes come true and life is one long baseball game?—it also brings to light some underlying assumptions that must play a part in any critical evaluation. What is heaven for some may not be so heavenly for others.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Shoeless Joe, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Bryan K. Garman
In the following essay, Garman looks at the mythic structure of Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.
The mythic vision of America and its national pastime which W. P. Kinsella constructed in Shoeless Joe ( 1991) has extended into millions of American imaginations, both in the form of the novel and its film adaptation, Field of Dreams (1989). Kinsella built the myth, and people came to live it. Perhaps literary critic Neil Randall best articulates the popular response to Shoeless Joe when he calls it a "moral book" which "makes us come away in the end feeling 'pretty damn good about being alive for the rest of the day.'" But when we read beyond what Randall calls "fantasy and the humor of fellow-feeling," and explore the context of the novel's morality, an unsettling portrait of America emerges. In this essay, I will argue that Kinsella engenders a culturally conservative world, which reflects the historical circumstances of the 1980s and reproduces the ideology of Ronald Reagan's presidency. By discussing the text within the framework of Reagan's America and the social history of baseball, this paper shows that Kinsella's nostalgic world is characterized by a mythic history of consensus, a fraternal and patriarchal order, and discrimination based on race and gender.
The most insightful and important scholarly articles written about Kinsella's vision of America have addressed the film, Field of Dreams, rather than the novel. Like Shoeless Joe, the film absolves the legendary Chicago White Sox leftfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson of his involvement in the so-called Black Sox scandal of 1919. Reviewer Harlan Jacobson astutely observes that the film "wishes aloud that America could return to the innocent days of white baseball. When there were no stains on the American honour, no scandals, no dirty tricks, no surprises. When everything was pure and clean and simple, and, well, white. When the Sox stayed white." The critic is so appalled by this longing for the past that he claims the film "takes on shades of the Weimer Republic … Field of Dreams weeps for what is not now and never was. It remembers America before it lost control." As a corollary to Jacobson's argument, Pauline Kael suggests that the film reconciles the counterculture of the 1960s with the conformists of the 1980s, and argues that the movie is "close to saying: Don't challenge your parents' values, because if you do you'll be sorry. It's saying: 'Play Ball' with the American political system.["] Finally, Frank Ardolino, who discusses the theme of innocence in Field of Dreams and in two other baseball movies (Bull Durham and Eight Men Out) which were released in the late 1980s, concludes, "The wide-shouldered 1950s figure of Ronald Reagan dominates these films for better or worse."
Reagan's shoulders carried the complacency and stability of the Eisenhower era to the White House, where conservative pundits used it to shore up the mythic consensus of history which undergirded his presidency. Warren Susman argues that history "comes into existence" when "the social order itself must be rationalized." The act of writing history, he tells us, "brings order out of the disarray" of circumstances and is "often used as the basis for a political philosophy that while explaining the past offers also a way to change the future. History thus operates ideologically." Perhaps no one understood this concept as well as those who choreographed the Reagan presidency. The master of the image and communication, Reagan narrated a history that projected American tradition and myth into the present and future. His mythic vision sought to redeem a powerful American patriarchy, which had been emasculated by recent events: the embarrassment of Vietnam, the challenge of the counterculture and the civil rights movement, the shame of Watergate, the frustration of the Iranian hostage crisis, and the failed attempt to end it. While Jimmy Carter asked Americans to sacrifice and settle for second best, Reagan vowed to put America first. To overcome what he perceived as aberrations in the country's history, Reagan rearmed and remasculinized America, reintroduced a fervent patriotism, and, perhaps most importantly, recaptured a mythic American past. Biographer Garry Wills assesses the Reagan mystique:
We want to 'retain' what we never had—a mythical frontier life, an America where merit and hard work were the only paths to success, where the government did not interfere with the workings of the market's invisible hand: the past, that is, as Reagan thinks he lived it, where performing and earning merged, and the part to be performed was always that of the meritocrat…. For others, Reagan offers not only a path of entry into such an America, a relic of its reality, but a guarantee of its continued existence into our time. In several senses, he gives us the past as present….
With the world as he knew it threatened by feminism, the Soviet Union, and the rapid development of technology, Reagan invoked and evoked America's Golden Age and became a stalwart for the status quo.
The television advertising campaign which the Reagan-Bush ticket unleashed during the 1984 presidential election brilliantly illustrates the Reagan administration's reliance on a mythic past. In the advertisement entitled "America is Back," an orchestra's euphony and images of domestic tranquility appeal to our sentiments, while we hear the narrator's serene and confident voice-over:
In a town not too far from where you live, a young family has just moved into a new home. Three years ago even the smallest house seemed completely out of reach.
Right down the street one of the neighbor's just bought himself a new truck—with all the options.
The factory down by the river is working again—not long ago people were saying it would probably be closed forever.
Just about every place you look, things are looking up.
Life is better. America is back. And people have a sense of pride they never thought they'd feel again. So it's not surprising just about everyone in town is thinking the same thing.
Now that our country is turning around, why would we ever turn back?
While this narration evokes the nostalgic neighbourhood of 1950s Main Street America, the video provides the appropriate images: an elderly man with a straw hat sits on his porch and peers over his newspaper to watch the new family move in next door; a little girl excitedly runs to her father's new truck; the night watchman greets his coworkers as they return to the factory; a barber sweeps the sidewalk in front of his shop; an elderly couple walks down the street eating ice cream; and, finally, there is a parade which features the high school band, a teen queen waving to the crowd, a shining red fire engine, and well-groomed children brandishing American flags.
Through these nostalgic images, the Reagan camp attempted to establish a tranquil consensus which was devoid of internal conflict. In this made-for-television community, black and white Americans live and work together and women work in the home. Reagan was able to convince America that we were part of an idealistic, conflict-free past which, although it never existed, was being relived in the present. Wills writes of Reagan, "He renews our past by resuming it. His approach is not discursive, setting up sequences of time or thought, but associative; not a tracking shot, but montage. We make the connections. It is our movie." The montage presented in "America is Back" was so intoxicating that many of us who suspected that Reagan's performance was merely the extension of his acting career still felt compelled to embrace his popular ideology. In short, we saw Reagan rehearse the myth so often that we began to believe it. Similarly, Shoeless Joe's Eddie Scissons convinced himself that he played for the Chicago Cubs. After Ray's brother-in-law, Mark, reveals that the "oldest living Chicago Cub" never played in the big leagues, the aging Eddie admits, "If I can't have what I want most in life, then I'll pretend I had it in the past, and talk about it and live it and relive it until it is real and solid and I can hold it to my heart like a precious child. Once I've experienced it so completely, no one can ever take it away from me." Throughout his presidency, Reagan and many of his constituents seemed to operate under the same principle.
Kinsella explains that Shoeless Joe is "about a perfect world. It's about a man who has a perfect wife, a perfect daughter and wants to keep it that way" (Knight 1989 …). We might see pictures of Carter and Mondale hanging in the office of the Free Press when Ray and J. D. Salinger visit Doc Graham's hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota, but Kinsella's definition of perfect is more in line with Carter's successor's. To create his perfect world, Ray must, like Reagan, travel into the American past and revive its myths. As he returns to Iowa City with the "kidnapped" Salinger and the young Archie "Doc" Graham (whose dream to bat in the major leagues will be fulfilled on Ray's field), Ray laments the commodification of the Iowa landscape and the loss of the nostalgic small town. The "shady streets, very old white frame houses, porch swings, lilacs, one-pump gas stations, and good neighbors" have been replaced by "fast-food franchises that spring up everywhere like evil mushrooms, by concrete-and-glass buildings, muffler shops, and Howard Johnson motels. Each of these destroys a little more history. Iowa City is a town of grandfathers fighting a losing battle against time."
Longing for the retention of a world which is lifted "right out of a Norman Rockwell painting," Ray joins the good fight and tries to preserve it. He and Annie are cultural throwbacks, "meat and potato people" who both come from humble backgrounds and try to make their living from the land. In effect, they are archaeologists who actually live the type of life which they are trying to resurrect. In recovering antique glassware and crockery which is buried in their backyard, they rediscover and preserve the artifacts of the halcyon days when milk was delivered to houses in glass bottles. While their farmhouse becomes the museum for these antiques of material culture, Ray's baseball field preserves the mythic values of the period in which his house was built.
In much the same way that Reagan's masculinity and appeal to nostalgia absolved the sins of America's recent past, Ray's field wipes away the transgressions of baseball's history and returns the game to its fabled innocence. This purification ceremony occurs when Ray resurrects Shoeless Joe Jackson, the leftfielder of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who was one of eight White Sox players implicated in the Black Sox scandal. Labouring under stingy owner Charles Comiskey, the eight Black Sox accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series, and were subsequently banned from baseball for life by the game's first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. That Jackson, the most capable player in the group, took the money is certain; that he threw the series is not. As Ray explains, his impressive statistics suggest that there was no compromise in his play. Still, the Black Sox placed an indelible blemish on baseball's character and represented a nadir in American sports culture. "Say it ain't so, Joe," the apocryphal words uttered by a young fan who waited for his heroes outside of the court proceedings, recorded the disappointment and disillusion of an entire generation. America's national pastime, often thought to be the purest of its sports, had lost its innocence.
The ball park announcer's voice in Shoeless Joe implicitly charges Ray, as Jacobson suggests, to make the Black Sox white again, a task he accomplishes, in part, through his sympathetic representation of Jackson. Speaking as if he were trying to convince himself of the truth of his words, Ray calls the ballplayer a "symbol of tyranny of the powerful over the powerless" who fell victim to "the circumstances": "The players were paid peasant salaries while the owners became rich." An illiterate South Carolina farm boy, Jackson, who was duped by more experienced men, epitomizes the innocence of the past. Baseball, not money, was his concern. "I loved the game," he tells Ray. "I'd have played for food money. I'd have played free and worked for food. It was the game, the parks, the smells, the sounds…. It makes me tingle all over like a kid on his way to his first doubleheader." If, as Eddie Scissons preaches in his baseball revival meeting, the word "baseball" has the ability "to raise the dead," it also has the capacity to forgive the sins of the past. Upon his second coming into Kinsella's nostalgic world, Jackson "dip[s] [himself] in magic waters" and is forgiven by the "great god baseball." When the fallen hero implicitly confesses his sin, the magic waters baptize him in the name of baseball, wash away the wrongdoings of the Black Sox, and return them to the innocence of childhood. Ray's idyllic field suspends the Black Sox's life sentence and exonerates them from their crime.
While the "magic waters" of baseball allow Shoeless Joe to begin his career anew, the sport's regenerative properties also have a soothing effect on Salinger and Richard, Ray's twin brother. When Salinger disappears with the players into the mysterious corn field, there is hope that he will regain the creativity and passion that he had as a younger writer. Apparently, Ray has eased the author's personal pain, but because he identifies Salinger so closely with Holden Caulfield, he feels compelled to heal the general adolescent rage that the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye embodies. Calling Salinger's book "the definitive novel of a young man's growing pains," Ray says, "Growing up is a ritual…. Everything is experienced for the first time. But baseball can soothe even those pains, for it is stable and permanent, steady as a grandfather dozing in a wicker chair on a verandah." Like the grandfather figure Reagan, who at age sixty-nine was the oldest man elected to his first term of the presidency, Ray wants a stable world that will erase the anger and rebellion of the 1960s counterculture, and stall America in the perpetual innocence and consensus of the Eisenhower era. Ray accomplishes this feat by reuniting his family. Twenty years after Richard left home in a fit of adolescent rage, he unexpectedly appears at Ray's farm. His return enables him to resume his relationship with his father, whom Ray has resurrected as a catcher on the field of dreams. In the process, we see the family, a stan-dard icon in Reagan's mythology, reconstituted, and patriarchy restored. Richard's regrettable adolescent tantrum has ended, and he returns to the innocence and simplicity of childhood where patriarchal authority will remain unquestioned.
It is appropriate that Kinsella organizes his ceremony of forgiveness around baseball, for the sport has long been associated with the themes of regeneration and innocence. In mid-nineteenth century America, when baseball became popular, it furnished a pastoral retreat for urban middle-class men. Afternoons in the park removed these respectable merchants, proprietors, and clerks from the filth and unpleasantries of the city, and delivered them to the landscape of the American farm. The combination of vigorous exercise and the calmer environs of the park provided these men a powerful form of recreation, a pastime which was readily transferred to the modern professional game. Even today the most aesthetically pleasing of the major league ball parks, particularly those that have maintained natural grass playing fields, serve as respites from the homogeneous urban concrete and the city's morally complex and hectic pace. But the cyclical structure of the professional baseball season also offers both players and fans the annual opportunity for re-creation. While for many the end of winter is signalled by the arrival of the first spring flowers, baseball fans mark the changing seasons with the annual convocation of Florida's Grapefruit League. Wizened veterans rehabilitate from nagging injuries and stage comebacks, while hopeful young rookies nervously struggle to fill a void that a recently retired superstar has left behind him. Each team approaches the upcoming season with optimism, hoping to atone for the sins and failures of the previous campaign. The fans are all too willing to forgive, and they too internalize the promise of the new year. They watch their favourite teams and players stagger through the young season of April and May, see the pennant races take shape by the mid-summer All-Star break, and watch them race to their conclusion just after the dog days of August. October brings a cool conclusion to the season's nine-month gestation and crowns a new World Series champion. Three long months later, fans are again willing to forgive the failures of their heroes, and the cycle begins anew when they enthusiastically embrace the hope of yet another baseball season. Because these cyclical traditions are reinforced by their ties to the natural growing season, they constitute a powerful regenerative ritual which is not present in any other major sport.
What Do I Read Next?
- Like Shoeless Joe, Kinsella's second novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986) has mystical overtones of magic and religion as revealed in the rituals of baseball. A man who tries to prove there was a minor league in Iowa in the early 1900s is whisked back in time to witness and participate in it.
- Say It Ain't So, Joe!: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson (2nd ed., 1999), by Donald Gropman, is a readable, well-researched biography of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The author argues that Jackson had no involvement in the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
- The Boys of Summer (1972), by Roger Kahn, is a classic piece of baseball writing. Kahn grew up as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and, as a young journalist, he traveled with the team in 1952 and 1953. His memoir includes poignant accounts of the lives of the players after their playing days were over.
- Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (1962), by Eliot Asinof, is the most comprehensive investigation of the famous scandal. It makes for a vivid and exciting read.
- The Legend of Bagger Vance, by Steven Press-field, does for golf what Shoeless Joe did for baseball. It's a novel about golf that also presents golf as a metaphor for life, for which it draws on the religious philosophy of the classic Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita.
- Some critics regard The Natural, by Bernard Malamud (1952), as the greatest baseball novel ever written. The main character, Roy Hobbs, is a composite of Joe Jackson, Babe Ruth, and Eddie Waitkus; his bat, Wonderboy, is a refashioning of Jackson's famous bat, called Black Betsy.
While Kinsella is aware that baseball subjects its faithful to a cyclical rebirth pattern, he also understands that each trip to the ball park revives even the cynic "who gave up the sports page for the Dow Jones Average when he was twenty-one." In his monologue near the end of the novel, Salinger indicates that baseball has a purifying and rejuvenating effect on all who watch it. He explains that Ray's magical baseball field is so powerful that pilgrims will come to it as "innocent as children" and "find they have reserved seats somewhere in the grandstand or along one of the baselines—wherever they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes." Kinsella carefully reconstructs the childhood of the white middle-aged man who, as a young boy, chose his heroes from American war generals, Saturday afternoon Westerns, and baseball players whose daily progress he followed on the radio or in the morning newspaper's box scores. Most young baseball fans share their earliest experience of the sport with their fathers, and attendance at any game during adulthood invariably summons associations which cause the fan to remember the simplicity and dependence of his or her childhood. The older fans who come to Ray's field of dreams will immerse themselves in nostalgia and remember afternoon games, radio broadcasts, Ted Williams, and perhaps even such attitudes as anticommunism and an unquestioned American patriotism. For nine innings, the fans are reborn as innocent as children and the memories they recall of their childhood enable them to rehearse a mythic consensus.
The structure of the game itself ensures that this rebirth occurs within a specific conservative cultural framework. In the more than 125-year-old history of professional baseball, the rules of the game have changed very little: the pitcher's mound has been moved a bit further away from home plate; owners insist that games be played at night; the American League employs the designated hitter rule; and salaries, of course, have increased exponentially. These alterations have had little effect on how the game is played, however. The hit-and-run play, for example, looks and works the same whether the manager who called it was the venerable Philadelphia Athletics' Connie Mack or the new Colorado Rockies' Don Baylor. Major League Baseball executives have developed the concepts of stability and permanency by marketing their products with nostalgic references to the game's past. Most professional teams hold annual old-timer's games and many have abandoned modern-style uniforms for more nostalgic ones. Moreover, professional baseball employs vital statistical categories which ensure that the old timers will not be forgotten. Certain numbers and names are held out as virtually unattainable standards against which all men who play the game are judged. When a player establishes himself as the all-time leader in a particular statistical category, many years typically pass before he is displaced. Babe Ruth (who played from 1914 to 1935) held the mark for career home runs at 715 until Hank Aaron (1954―76) eclipsed the total nearly forty years after Ruth retired. Ty Cobb's (1905–28) 4,191 hits eventually gave way to Pete Rose's 4,204 (1963–85), and Walter "Big Train" Johnson's (1907–27) 416 career pitching victories will probably never be challenged. Such statistics provide the game with a stronger sense of stability than other professional sports.
Throughout the history of professional baseball, playoff formats have been altered, teams have moved from city to city, stadiums have become more standardized, and the management in the front offices has changed dramatically. But, while the business of baseball is different than it was when it first began, and the America which exists outside of the ball park has undergone tremendous transformations in the past 125 years, the game that is played between the foul lines has remained relatively stable. Drawing on baseball's regeneration myth and stable, self-contained history, Kinsella uses the voice of J. D. Salinger to associate many of the same values with baseball that Reagan associated with America:
I don't have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked the time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of our history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.
Kinsella erases the sins of the past by imbuing the game with the innocence of childhood and evoking memories of a younger and simpler America. In short, baseball stabilizes Kinsella's world in the same way Reagan stabilized America. Depressions, wars, and civil unrest have altered the American landscape, but in Kinsella's narrative baseball provides a version of Reagan's orthodox past. In a dynamic world of Star Wars, Middle East terrorists, and American feminists, it satisfies the "certain compulsion … for orderliness" which Ray and so many Americans have. Watching the Red Sox in Fenway Park, Ray concludes that baseball "is the most perfect of games, solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds. If only life were so simple. I have often thought, "If only there was a framework to life, rules to live by." Shoeless Joe touches our emotions because it celebrates the traditional values of an irrecoverable age that Ronald Reagan seemed to make tangible. As James Earl Jones says, as Terrence Mann, in Field of Dreams, baseball offers the promise that "what once was good can be again." There is more to Kinsella's myopic vision, however, than goodness.
While baseball re-creates itself in the image of its old heroes to function as a living part of American history, Reagan's nostalgia refashioned America in the same manner. Although his renowned advertising strategists claimed that it was morning again in America, we were not awakening to a new morning. Rather, Reagan's day dawned in a mythic society which, like Kinsella's, espoused a conservative morality. As Garry Wills writes, Reagan "not only represents the past, but resurrects it as a promise of the future." The president appealed to "traditional" small-town values and religious mores and presented them as a way to rejuvenate America, a political philosophy that won considerable praise from Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and other fundamentalist groups. In Kinsella's novel, Ray tells us that he detests Christian fundamentalism in all forms, but his actions suggest that he too follows fundamentalist doctrines. "The kind of people I absolutely cannot tolerate," he tells us, "are those, like Annie's mother, who never let you forget they are religious. It seems to me that a truly religious person would let his life be example enough …" But if Ray condemns dogmatic Christianity, his fanatical adherence to the mythic history of baseball ensures that he will hold an ideological position which resembles the fundamentalist's. In Shoeless Joe, baseball functions as old-time religion, and Ray is the preacher who seeks to convert the infidels. The great god baseball welcomes the troubled (Salinger), the sinner (Shoeless Joe), the outcast (Eddie Scissons), the forsaken (Moonlight Graham) and the prodigal son (Richard) back into the fold, and restores or reconfirms the conservative values which they held before they strayed from the flock. These values—which place emphasis on order, the male-dominated family, and moral and racial purity—have their origins in the Victorian culture in which baseball was founded.
When Salinger articulates the vision that will save Ray's farm, he tells Ray that when the people come to his field, "It will be almost a fraternity, like one of those tiny, exclusive French restaurants that have no sign." Baseball's mythic history has traditionally claimed that the sport is the most innocent and democratic of games, but Salinger's statement is informed by the historical context in which the game was born. Historian Warren Goldstein notes that as early as 1860, the democratic myth was expressed in the Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player:
Employers willingly and cheerfully gave their employees time to play base ball…. All classes of society, the mechanic, the merchant, the professional classes, the school children, the collegiates, the aged and the young … the affluent member of society, all joined in the sport…. Everything seemed to indicate that an American national out door pastime, fraught with influences the most beneficial and desirable, had been established, and so indeed it had.
This myth, which is perpetuated by Kinsella, holds, in part, that baseball was an egalitarian sport until owners such as Comiskey corrupted it. Goldstein points out, however, that capitalists have had financial interests in the game since at least 1867, when the Cincinnati Red Legs were incorporated. Moreover, because baseball clubs were originally founded as social fraternities, their function was always more than purely athletic. These organizations, which usually maintained a clubhouse, held annual galas, and oftentimes conducted elaborate picnics and dinners after games, provided a homosocial space for aspiring men of the "respectable" classes. Goldstein estimates that between the years 1855 and 1870, baseball fraternities had the following demographic composition: twenty percent were "high white collar" workers, a third were skilled craftsmen, with the remaining forty-four to forty-eight percent described as "low white collar or proprietors." Sufficient funds were always required to maintain these organizations, and certainly many business and professional contacts were made within the circles of the baseball fraternity. It would seem, then, that the "good old days"—the days in which baseball was not a business—did not exist for long.
Kinsella's misrepresentations, however, do not stop here. Indeed, as Goldstein explains, baseball germinated in a specific social-historical milieu, and consequently contained class, race, and gender biases which Kinsella fails to acknowledge. Specifically, when baseball fraternities became popular in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing party manifested itself as a sign of anti-immigration sentiment which was permeating the country. Carl Degler explains that the party's primary goal "was the elimination of the foreigner as a political force." To that end, the Know-Nothings sought to prohibit immigrants from holding public office and to increase "the waiting period for naturalization from five to twenty-one years." Although the Know-Nothings failed to implement their platform, they had considerable representation in American political offices from 1855 to 1861. Degler points out that even Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the headstrong reformer, associated himself with the party.
The existence of the Know-Nothings expressed the profound desire of many middle-class, native-born Americans to create a purely self-contained and homogeneous nation that was free of the cacophony and pluralism of immigrant cultures. In many respects, the brotherhood of baseball was an extension of this nativist impulse, for it took steps that would distinguish itself from the vast new immigrant populations which entered America between 1830 and 1860. Goldstein suggests that after mid-century the game was "straddling a cultural boundary" between the middle and working classes, but avers that those who did identify with the game sought to differentiate themselves from the rough culture of the "poor and unskilled and 'unrespectable'" population which was increasingly comprised of immigrants. Baseball fraternities consequently presented their sport as the "manly" game and contrasted it to such "boyish" working-class pursuits as boxing. Baseball players were expected to act like gentlemen on the field rather than unrefined pugilists. Within the framework of the language that the baseball fraternities used to establish their manhood, there existed the connotations of class distinctions. Goldstein writes:
The fact that the same rancor was directed at the lower classes suggests that the question of 'maturity' or 'manly' behavior had a class content as well. It further suggests that the language of age and class could be used (at least from the top down) interchangeably, perhaps especially when the scorn originated with a combination of middle-class professionals and 'respectable' skilled craftsmen, and was aimed downward at the unskilled workers, laborers, and street arabs who did not belong to their clubs and did not aspire to the self-controlled respectability of their betters.
While such classism differs significantly from nineteenth-century racism, these class prejudices inform the history of racial discrimination which has plagued organized baseball. If white immigrants had little of the "self-controlled respectability of their betters," the African-American slave was thought to have even less. Nativists and the baseball fraternity strived to attain white middle-class purity, and if the slave economy alone did not prohibit blacks from participating in the baseball fraternity, theories of racial purity and miscegenation did.
Don Murray argues that readers "are drawn toward Kinsella's world because of its goodness and gentleness" and suggests that "despite the racial context of his work, only a minority of his readers (perhaps they are the perceptive ones?) see him as a racist." In reading Shoeless Joe, we are compelled to ask what Kinsella's treatment of race suggests about race relations in American culture and organized baseball. What does it mean for the author to assert that Shoeless Joe is about a "perfect world" and then situate this utopia in a region which has a very small minority population? Moreover, why does Kinsella locate his perfect world in a time when African Americans were not permitted to play major-league baseball?
The history of African Americans and other minorities in baseball does not penetrate Kinsella's narrative. In fact, his text does much to perpetuate the fraternity of racial purity by not only making the Black Sox white again, but by deracinating baseball and America. To be sure, Kinsella's representations of race are unflattering at best, and Ray has little respect for people of colour. One of the first items he notices on Joe Jackson's uniform is "an American flag with forty-eight stars," a signi-fier of a self-contained America which had not yet admitted the Asian populations of Alaska and Hawaii to its citizenship. Like Ronald Reagan and the nativists, Ray wants to put America first and keep it pure. As he tells Mark, "You owe the land something…. It's not just a product. Not plastic and foam and bright paint imported from Taiwan or Korea, meant to be used once and discarded." While Ray describes the products of Asian labour as disposable, he sees the occupation of the American farmer and the cultural product of baseball as permanent symbols of a far superior national culture. Asian cultures may have appropriated baseball, but Ray would never concede American ownership of it. In his narrowly defined view, baseball is America, and because the World Series is played solely by North American teams, America is the world. Indeed, few players of Asian descent have broken the professional ranks, and until the recent purchase of the Seattle Mariners by a group of Japanese investors in June of 1992, the organizations resisted the presence of foreign owners altogether.
Perhaps Kinsella commits his most insidious (mis)reading of the past by failing to mention baseball's most reprehensible sin: until 1947, African Americans were not permitted to play in the major leagues. While Ray's fantasy recalls many of the great players of baseball history, the only black players he mentions are Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, and a few Minnesota Twins players from the late 1970s. The introduction of Reggie Jackson into text occurs under notable circumstances, for, in Annie's view, Joe Jackson supplants the New York Yankees' outfielder from his position. When Ray informs his wife that Shoeless Joe has arrived on the Kinsella farm, she asks, "Is he the Jackson on TV? The one you yell, 'Drop it, Jackson' at?" Reggie Jackson typically played rightfield for the Yankees, but in Annie's mind the unassuming, hardworking, and white Joe Jackson replaces the always flamboyant Reggie, and thereby restores white integrity, manhood, and self-control to the game. In Kinsella's world, it is this latter characteristic that is particularly lacking in the African-American community. As Ray walks through a Chicago ghetto near Old Comiskey Park, he feels so threatened by the African Americans he sees in this deprived environment that he "picture[s] young black men in felt fedoras going on a lavish spending spree with [his] very white Iowa credit cards." This passage is indicative of two points. First, the representation of African Americans as thieves who have little self-restraint and wear felt fedoras confirms the most virulent racial stereotypes, and thereby objectifies the black population. Ray is so blinded by the mythic history of baseball, however, that he fails to recognize his thoughts as being racist. Second, the passage illustrates the systematic discrimination in which baseball clubs have engaged against poor African Americans. Professional teams frequently erect their stadiums in black, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, and, in the process, deprive local inhabitants of housing and inconvenience them with the large crowds that attend the games. Many major-league clubs have placed their stadiums in such areas, actions which indicate that they look upon these neighbourhoods as expendable.
Although economic statistics from the 1980s would prove otherwise, Reagan's selective reading of America and its history of race relations promotes a myth of consensus where blacks and whites live together in equality. Kinsella's representations of blacks and his desire to return baseball to an era which existed before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, however, suggest that he prefers to isolate his "perfect world" from African Americans altogether. As an individual, W. P. Kinsella may or may not be a racist; we simply cannot draw any conclusions from reading one of his works of fiction. We can, however, clearly conclude that the world he envisions, the culture in which it is embedded, and the baseball fraternity all have racist underpinnings.
While Kinsella's representations of race subjugate blacks to whites, his representations of women place them under the control of men. Salinger explains that when crowds of people come to Ray's farm to see Shoeless Joe play again, the experience will conjure memories of "women shelling peas in linoleum floored kitchens, cradling the unshelled pods in brindled aprons, tearing open corn husks and waiting for the thrill of the cool sweet scent." These unmistakably domestic images recall the drudgery of preparing all food by hand (there are no frozen vegetables, instant cake mixes, or microwaves in this kitchen), and relegate the woman to monotonous and often unrewarding household chores. Moreover, the images associate the woman with the role of reproduction: she carries the pea pods to term in her apron and gives birth to the vegetables by removing their shells. In Kinsella's world, the ideal woman keeps bare feet on the linoleum floor, happily bears the labour of motherhood, and performs the domestic obligations that will sustain the man in his pursuits. Goldstein suggests that women played a similar supportive domestic role in the establishment of the baseball fraternity. He writes, "Baseball clubs and promoters wanted women at games as evidence of the game's popularity. Many spectators would be drawn by the legitimacy that only women could confer to the game. Most important, however, women were supposed to help men control themselves on the ball field … women personified the standards of behavior that could, theoretically, keep men's behavior within certain boundaries." In short, these Victorian women "were to domesticate" the ball field, and without their supporting and submissive role, the fraternity of baseball, and middle-class patriarchal life as a whole, would not have developed as we know it.
Like her Victorian counterpart, Annie assumes a submissive role in the novel and embodies the middle-class domestic ideal. While Ray travels across the country to fulfil his outlandish dreams, Annie, a woman who is much younger than her husband, never questions him, remains at home to care for their daughter, and contends with their financial difficulties. She is the team player who executes countless sacrifices for the well-being of her family. While her other friends "were going to be nurses, teachers, pilots, or movie stars," Annie chose Ray "for her occupation," a task which requires her to support, comfort, and believe in him at all costs. Regardless of what Ray does, "she will be waiting for [him]" when he returns; as she says, "Whatever happens, I'm with you, Champ."
Annie's faith does not go unappreciated, however. After making love with his wife, Ray thinks, "I wish I had some kind of fame to dedicate to her … I see myself making my acceptance speech, thanking party faithful, then calling Annie forward to share the applause, the adoration." He implies that behind every man there is a good woman who can not earn her own applause, but who must bask in the glory and honour of her husband's fame. In Kinsella's perfect world, good women remain confined to the home where both their domestic and child-bearing labour can be concealed, devalued, and controlled. Such an arrangement prevents and discourages them from participating in the fraternity of baseball. If, when watching the game, Annie is "bored or too hot or too cold she can go back to the house" and resume her domestic duties. Fortunately for Ray, her "sense of baseball history is not highly developed"; she "is a spectator, not a fan. Like a reader who reads a whole book without caring who wrote it, she watches, enjoys, forgets, and doesn't read the box scores and standings in the morning paper." If Annie belonged to the fraternity, Ray's world would not be possible. In the home, she stays away from his fraternal business and allows men to labour in the world outside to produce a masculine definition of perfection. Because she dutifully encourages her husband to follow his dream, she is appropriately rewarded when thousands of fans visit the field and help alleviate the family's financial worries. The "separate spheres" ideology which characterized Victorian America, and was reclaimed as one of the chief components of Reagan's America, is alive and well in Kinsella's narrative.
When Ray and Salinger "go the distance" to investigate Doc Graham's idyllic life in Chisholm, they excavate the doctor's obituary, which states that the era of the paternalistic country doctor "was historic. There will never be another quite like it." But when Doc Graham finally gets a chance to bat in the major leagues, Ray's ball field brings the era of this 1950s small town back to life. This resurrection simultaneously fills the reader with hope for the future and nostalgia for the past. Salinger might write again. Shoeless Joe might play left field again. With hard work the family farmer, always the true meritocrat, can stand up to the "new breed of land baron" who proposes to operate farms by computer. Dreams can come true. And people will come.
In the emotionally touching scene where Ray walks across the outfield lawn with his brother and father, he tells us, "I'll guide the conversations, like taking a car around a long, gentle curve in the road, and we'll hardly realize we're talking of love, and family, and life, and beauty, and friendship, and sharing …" Reagan's popularity and the success of his advertising campaign suggest that many Americans wanted someone to lead them through this familiar sentimental landscape. His television commercial entitled "Spring '84" did just that. Accompanied by similar music and the same voice that we hear on the "America is Back" commercial, this advertisement opens with an old pick-up truck pulling away from a white farmhouse. The shot of the house is beautifully framed, highlighting the buttercup covered fields which surround it. "This is America, spring of '84," says the voice which then introduces various representations of Reagan's America to us: two young girls in Easter bonnets, an elderly couple watching young children play, a clown standing in front of a busy carousel, an interracial basketball game, an astronaut drifting in space. As we watch these images flash before us, we hear the following text:
Just four years ago people were saying its [America's] problems were too big and too difficult to be handled by any one president. Yet what do we see now? Jobs are coming back. Housing is coming back. And for the first time in a long time, hope for the future is coming back.
As the commercial ends, the final frame shows the old pick-up truck carrying the farmer home at sundown after a hard day's work in his fields. Similarly, Shoeless Joe, Ronald Reagan, and baseball bring us home to America's Golden Age. They take us back to a mythic time when things were less complex, when leaders seemed to be in control, and a powerful patriarchy seemed a bit more certain about where America was headed and what dreams needed to be fulfilled. If you build the myth, people will indeed come. On reading Kinsella's novel, watching a Reagan political commercial, or attending a baseball game, many Americans have declared, "This must be heaven." These mundane pastimes make us feel good, whether we want them to or not. And good feelings sell books, win elections, and call millions each year to the field of dreams.
Source: Bryan K. Garman, "Myth Building and Cultural Politics in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe," in Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 41-59.
In the following essay, Randall explores the 'fellow-feeling' of Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.
In his essay on Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, Thomas Carlyle writes of a humor that manifests itself in smile rather than laughter. "Richter is a man of mirth," says Carlyle, whose humor is "capricious … quaint … [and] heartfelt." The three adjectives represent for Carlyle the essence of what he terms "true humor" because they suggest Richter's enormous respect for humanity. "True humor," he goes on to say, "springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love; it issues not in laughter, but in still smiles, which lie far deeper." These smiles are not Hobbesian smirks of superiority but genuine signs of compassion for, sympathy toward, and empathy with the object of the humor. Carlyle further provides a direct link between humor and both pathos and nobility; the link is the smile of the caring man. For Carlyle, this smile is one of "fellow-feeling":
It has sometimes been made a wonder that things so discordant should go together; that men of humour are often likewise men of sensibility. But the wonder should rather be to see them divided; to find true genial humour dwelling in a mind that was coarse or callous. The essence of humour is sensibility; warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence.
The humor of fellow-feeling denies humor that negates or denies life. Black humor, of course, with its laughter at the fallen, is anti-Carlylean, but in some senses so is Mikhail Bakhtin's carnival humor, not because it is life-denying (it expressly is not) but because its dependence on the "lower body stratum" and indecent language renders it, in Car-lyle's terms, "coarse or callous." True humor, for Carlyle, is affirmative without being coarse, a celebration of life without the outrageousness of Bakhtinian festivity. The problem with such humor, of course, is that it is apt to become, well, mushy. Out of context, the phrase "warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence" gives an image of a flower-child communing with nature on a soft-focus day in 1967, hardly the stuff of an inspiring novel. But the humor of fellow-feeling in fiction, I think, despite its inherent nostalgic dangers, is more complex than this. It demands that we grow to love the characters, and it forces us to examine why we do so. If done well, and this is the hard part, Carlylean humor asks of us a willing suspension of distrust and cynicism.
One of the twentieth century's most renowned practitioners of Carlylean fellow-feeling is J. R. R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings demands that we suspend cynicism, asks us to smile benignly on its hob-bits, and insists that we love its characters. If we do so, we are rewarded with beauty and terror, joy and sorrow, and a true sense of the sublime. If we do not, the book is meaningless. Edmund Wilson, among others, found Tolkien's demands impossible, even as W. H. Auden accepted and praised them. But Tolkien knew precisely what he was asking. His famous essay "On Fairy Stories" presents his theories of fantasy, one of them being the insistence on the "consolation of the happy ending." Among the important elements of this consolation is the experience, in the reader, of the fantastic "turn":
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its elements, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the "turn" comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any literary art…. In such stories when the "turn" comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.
The "piercing glimpse of joy," Tolkien goes on to say, is "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth." The Tolkienesque turn, to be sure, takes us beyond Carlyle's "warm, tender fellow-feeling," but the two ideas are clearly related. The goals for both men, one through humor and the other through fantasy, are truth, goodness, and, we can presume, beauty.
Toward the end of W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, Moonlight Graham walks off the playing field of Ray Kinsella's magical ballpark to treat Ray's daughter, Karin. Ray describes the scene as follows:
Then I feel compelled to look at the baseball field. In order to do that, I stand up and walk a few steps up the bleacher. What I see is Moonlight Graham loping in from right field, lithe, dark, athletic: the same handsome young man who played that one inning of baseball in 1905. But as he moves closer, his features begin to change, his step slows. He seems to become smaller. His baseball uniform fades away and is replaced by a black overcoat. His baseball cap is gone, supplanted by a thatch of white hair. As I watch, his glove miraculously turns into a black bag. The man who without a backward glance walks around the corner of the fence—a place where none of the other players will venture—is not Moonlight Graham, the baseball player of long ago, but the Doc Graham I spoke with on the moonlit night in Chisholm, Minnesota, when I flew softly across the dimensions of time….
I wonder how much he has sacrificed to save Karin's life. It seems to me that he will never be able to walk back onto the ballfield as Moonlight Graham. He has violated some cosmic rule that I vaguely know exists, and do not even attempt to understand.
To understand how such an incident triggers a humor of fellow-feeling, and I argue that it does, it will help to examine the stylistics, the "turns," and the necessity for belief in Tolkienesque fantasy. Shoeless Joe merges Carlyle's humor with Tolkien's fantastic, and the resulting demands on the reader are many.
In fantasy, Tolkien writes in "On Fairy Stories," "new form is made … Man becomes a sub-creator." Furthermore, for the subcreation, the Secondary World, to be successful, requires the reader's belief. Tolkien distinguishes between the need for "belief" and the more commonly used Co-leridgean "willing suspension of disbelief," suggesting that the latter is necessary only if the former fails:
"willing suspension of disbelief"… does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator." He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games of make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of art that has for us failed.
We do not suspend disbelief, then, until belief itself has been lost, and then we never recapture the initial belief. For enchantment to work, for the Secondary World to be accepted, we must believe in it in a primary way.
The demands placed on the reader of Shoeless Joe, then, are great. The book asks of us the highest degree of belief: we must accept a magical ballpark within the Primary World of modern Iowa. Tolkien himself, in his creative works, never makes such enormous demands; he never brings the Primary World into his texts. Even fantasies that do contain both Primary and Secondary Worlds—Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant—rarely have both worlds operating at the same time. Shoeless Joe's Secondary World seems to be confined to the magical ballpark (a technique similar to the closed-off world of Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place), but in fact it is not. J. D. Salinger, another of Ray's creations, hears the Voice while watching a baseball game in Fenway Park, and Moonlight Graham appears during Ray's visit to Chisholm. The Secondary World, in fact, seems to follow Ray around, another feature that tests our belief.
Shoeless Joe's success at drawing our belief (and most of the reviews suggest that it has been successful) is the result, I think, of the book's use of Carlylean fellow-feeling. Ray must appear to us as a character with whom we can sympathize, with whom we can share the bizarre journey he makes across the continent to kidnap Salinger and the unreal circumstances under which Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to life. If we are to be drawn into the world without the willing suspension of disbelief, we must never lose sympathy with Ray's quest. To retain that sympathy, Ray must prove himself worthy; he must invoke our fellow-feeling. He must, in short, enchant us.
Linguistically, says Tolkien, the adjective has, in its ability to transform nouns, the power of enchantment:
The human mind, endowed with powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things … but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent…. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power.
One short passage from the first part of Shoeless Joe will suffice to demonstrate the Tolkienesque stylistics in Kinsella's descriptions. This kind of passage can be found almost by opening the book at random:
I carried out a hose, and, making the spray so fine it was scarcely more than fog, I sprayed the soft, shaggy spring grass all that chilled night. My hands ached and my face became wet and cold, but, as I watched, the spray froze on the grass, enclosing each blade in a gossamer-crystal coating of ice. A covering that served like a coat of armor to dispel the real frost that was set like a weasel upon killing in the night. I seemed to stand taller than ever before as the sun rose, turning the ice to eye-dazzling droplets, each a prism, making the field an orgy of rainbows.
The adjectives "soft," "shaggy," and "spring," which precede "grass," alter the meaning of "grass," making us see not only that it is grass, but also that it is spring, shaggy, and soft. "Spring" imbues the grass with youth and hope, "shaggy" with both the domesticity of a living-room carpet and the playful innocence of the family sheep-dog, and "soft" with a pleasurable tactility and a dreamlike quality. The spray does not simply cover the grass with ice; it works magic by "enclosing each blade in a gossamer-crystal coating of ice." All elements of this non-finite clause are important to the creation of magical effect: "enclosing" suggests a loving, godlike attention to "each blade," and the metaphoric noun-modifier "gossamer-crystal" emphasizes both the fineness of the strand and the glasslike beauty of the coating. These modifiers, in turn, render the harsh monosyllable "ice" beautiful rather than deadly, a notion confirmed by the subsequent simile of the armor. Finally, the ice is magically transformed through metaphor not once but twice, into "eye-dazzling droplets" (itself an adjectivally oriented phrase) and then into a prism. As a prism, the ice further transforms, making the field "an orgy of rainbows," and rainbows themselves are signs of magical legend. The act of watering the grass is now an act of enchantment.
Baseball itself, Ray tells us, enchants. It is both timeless, with largely unchanging rules and a wholly unhurried atmosphere, and perfect, "solid, true, pure and precious as diamonds." Furthermore, like all enchantments, it can transform:
Within the baselines anything can happen. Tides can reverse; oceans can open. That's why they say, "The game is never over until the last man is out." Colors can change, lives can alter, anything is possible in this gentle, flawless, loving game.
With its transformative abilities and its qualities of gentleness, flawlessness, and lovingness, baseball brings together Tolkienesque fantasy and Carlylean humor. Baseball becomes, of course, a metaphor for what Ray espouses as important writing, the gentle, flawless, loving kind practiced by Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, a metaphor realized only at the novel's end when Salinger accompanies the ghostly players through the fence, promising Ray that he will fulfill his duty as writer. With that promise, baseball and writing become one.
"The consolation of fairy-stories," writes Tolkien, is "the joy of the happy ending":
this joy … is not essentially "escapist" or "fugitive." In its fairy-tale—or other-world—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace; never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Perhaps the most notable quality of Shoeless Joe is its continual attempt at joyfulness. Ray Kinsella, the narrator and main character, is above all a happy man, one who understands the possibility of joy as it comes through the magic of creation and the fulfillment of dreams. To Salinger he says, "I'm one of the few happy men in the United States," and the novel certainly bears this out. But for Tolkien joy does not imply only happiness; in fact, he states that the "joy of deliverance" is possible only through "dyscatastrophe," through sorrow and failure. What separates the joy of true fantasy from the sentimentality of simple nostalgia is precisely this dyscatastrophe. What dyscatastro-phe means is that true joy is achieved only with the recognition of immense loss.
The moments of joy mixed with loss Tolkien calls "turns." For Tolkien, the turn gives us—along with "a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart," and "a piercing glimpse of joy"—not only "a 'consolation' for the sorrow of this world but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, 'Is it true?'." There are at least four major turns in Shoeless Joe: Kid Scisson's failure on the diamond; Ray's questioning of the phantom ballplayers; Salinger's departure at the novel's end; and Moonlight Graham's sacrifice. Each provides a moment that is true in Ray's world as he has defined it, and each brings the emotional reactions and the glimpse of joy that Tolkien demands.
Eddie Scissons, the fraudulent "oldest living Chicago Cub," receives, through the magic of Ray's ballpark, a chance to fulfill his desire to pitch for the Cubs. Ray's magic has already granted Moonlight Graham his dearest wish—to play in the majors—and we expect that Scissons will be similarly successful. But, unlike Graham, Scissons simply is not good enough for the majors; his chance on the mound fails, and he is humiliated. "[W]hen most people reach out for their heart's desire," Ray tells us, "it appears not as a horse but as a tiger, and they are rewarded with snarls, frustration, and disillusionment." Scissons' failure is a turn precisely because it is a failure, and we have not seen Ray's magic fail before. That failure confirms the "truth" of Ray's Secondary World because in its allowance for failure it ceases to be a Never-Never Land and becomes a valid Secondary World.
The novel's second turn similarly destroys the seemingly pure felicity of Ray's magic. When Ray asks of the ballplayers, "What do you become when you walk through that door in center field?," he is asking the question that has, throughout the novel, concerned us as well. But in asking it he is attempting what seems an impossible task: to bridge the gap that must exist between the subcreator and his creation. Of all the characters in the book, Ray alone is unable to discover precisely what his magic does. This gap seems confirmed by the placement of the question: immediately after the players have asked Ray if they can help work the farm to make it profitable, a similar attempt to cross the gap between Primary and Secondary Worlds. Like Ray, we have feared throughout that attempting such a crossing will destroy the magic completely, and now our fears are confirmed:
"But can you do that," I say. "I've never seen any of you anywhere except on the field. What do you become when you walk through that door in center field?"
The silence that follows is long and ominous. I feel like I have just stomped across an innocent children's game, or broken a doll.
"We sleep," says Chick Gandil finally.
"And wait," says Happy Felsch.
"And dream," says Joe Jackson. "Oh, how we dream…." He stops, the look of awe and rapture on his face enough of an explanation.
The magic has been broken.
As in the Eddie Scissons case, the magic cannot process an impossible wish, one at odds with the truth of Ray's Secondary World. The turn here is first that the question has been asked and second that the answer has broken the magic. We fear it has been irretrievably lost.
J. D. Salinger, at the end of the novel, provides another turn by leaving with the players through the gate in center field. He thus becomes the only character to leave the Primary World and enter the Secondary. We are initially startled at this crossing, especially after the destruction of magic at Ray's attempt to bridge the worlds, but Salinger's "rapture," as the title of the last section calls it, becomes possible when we realize that he is as much Ray's creation as are the players and is thus not subject to the same law as Ray. Salinger's explanation of why the players chose him, and not Ray, further clarifies the incident and establishes the turn:
"I thought of turning them down," says Salinger. "I really did. Telling them it was you who created them—you who deserves to be first. But then I thought, they must know; there must be a reason for them to choose me, just as there was a reason for them to choose you, and Iowa, and this farm….
"If you can package up your jealousy for a few minutes, you'll see that I'm right. I'm unattached. My family is grown up. And," he says, smiling sardonically at me, "if I have the courage to do this, then you'll have to stop badgering me about the other business [publishing new fiction]. I mean, publishing is such a pale horse compared to this. But what a story it will make"—and his voice rises—"a man being able to touch the perfect dream. I'll write of it. I promise."
Salinger can enter the Secondary World because he has understood his moral duty as a writer. This is, of course, the end of Ray's quest—to find Salinger and "ease his pain." We catch our breath at the mere possibility of Salinger's entering the Secondary World, and we feel the joy of the quest's fulfillment. But it is a joy mixed with loss: like Ray, we have come to know Salinger, and with his passing something of happiness also passes.
The final turn I shall discuss is Moonlight Graham's sacrifice (quoted above). As a Tolkienesque turn it is perhaps the most climactic scene in the book: Graham is the only character to make the transition from the Secondary to the Primary World, and the nobility of his action is wondrous. Of all the scenes in the novel, this is, I think, the most likely to elicit the tears that accompany a turn, first for Graham's nobility and second for his subsequent show of humility. "Well, now," he says immediately after making the transformation from Moonlight Graham to Doc Graham, "it's lucky I happened on the scene, Ray Kinsella. That little girl wouldn't have lasted much longer." Graham here is no longer the Moonlight Graham we have come to know but is rather the Doc Graham we met on Ray's journey through time in Chisholm, Minnesota, and this consistency furthers the internal truth of Ray's Secondary World. Once again the turn mixes a "piercing glimpse of joy" (at Graham's nobility) with a profound sense of loss (at what Graham has given up).
Graham's sacrifice reflects as well the novel's theme of moral duty. Moonlight Graham must face his duty as a doctor to save a life, thereby sacrificing his dream of baseball. J. D. Salinger must realize his duty as a writer, thereby sacrificing his solitude. And Ray Kinsella must affirm his duties as husband/father and as enchanter, thereby sacrificing his desire to enter his own Secondary World and keep it for himself. In essence, each of these duties demands the sharing of one's gifts: Graham his medical skill, Salinger his writing, Ray his magic, and all their ability to impart joy.
On seeing the magical baseball game for the first time, Salinger insists that Ray share it:
"This is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. You have to share."
"With whom?" [Ray asks.] "How many? How do we select? And first, how do we make people believe?"…
"You're difficult to convince."
"The pot calling the kettle names. But don't you see, we have little to do with this. We aren't the ones who decide who can see and who can't. Wouldn't I let my own twin brother see my miracle if I could? But more important than that, the way you feel now is the way people feel who react to your work. If I share, then so must you."
Moral fiction is one of Shoeless Joe's primary concerns, going so far as to speak internally of it. Ray frequently attempts to convince Salinger to publish, but Salinger refuses on the grounds that readers will not allow it. "It's a sad time when the world won't listen to stories about good men," he says. "It's one of the reasons I don't publish anymore."
Source: Neil Randall, "Shoeless Joe: Fantasy and the Humor of Fellow-Feeling," in Modern Fiction Studies Special Issue: Modern Sports Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 1987, pp. 173-80.
Beach, Charles Franklyn, "Joyful vs. Joyless Religion in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe," in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall 1998, pp. 85-94.
Garman, Bryan K., "Myth Building and Cultural Politics in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe," in Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Americaines, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 41-62.
Lewis, Maggie, Review, in Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 1982, p. 14.
Merlock, Ray, "Shoeless Joe: From Pickens County to the Field of Dreams," in South Carolina Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1990, pp. 68-76.
Plummer, William, "In Another League," in Newsweek, August 23, 1982, p. 64.
Review, in Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1982, p. 141.
Schweld, Barry, Review, in Library Journal, April 1, 1982, p. 745.
Joffe, Linda S., "Praise Baseball. Amen: Religious Metaphors in Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams," in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring 1992, pp. 153-63.
Joffe discusses some of the allusions to Christianity in the novel and also the differences between the novel and the movie.
Kirtz, Mary K., "Canadian Book, American Film: Shoeless Joe Transfigured on a Field of Dreams," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1995, pp. 26-31.
Kirtz argues that the film Field of Dreams eliminates the feminine "moral presence" in the novel and presents the story as a "man's story" with a patriarchal political message.
Lord, Timothy C., "Hegel, Marx, and Shoeless Joe: Religious Ideology in Kinsella's Baseball Fantasy," in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 43-51.
Lord shows how baseball serves as a metaphor for religion. He also demonstrates that the way in which Ray handles the threat to his farm shows his philosophical assumptions about spiritual and material reality.
Pellow, C. Kenneth, "Shoeless Joe in Film and Fiction," in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1991, pp. 17-23.
Pellow argues that the film Field of Dreams is not a satisfactory version of the novel. It strips the novel of its poetry and distorts its political and social themes.