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The Athletic Hero

Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner

Christian K. Messenger

From the dawn of time, the "hero" seems always to have been an athlete. Gilgamesh outwrestling Enkidu to prove who was strongest in Uruk is by no means a unique example. Perhaps the only trait d'union between the heroes of the two great Homeric epics is their common respect for sport. And Greek mythology reads like a veritable roster of champions: Herakles, Pelops, Theseus, Hippolytus, and Atalanta to name a few.

But with rare exceptions—like Euripides's Herakles, in which the hero's struggle to regain the will to live becomes a symbolic thirteenth labor—the athleticism in Greek myths is usually not invested with deeper meanings. In post-Biblical literature, by contrast. Job is constantly depicted as wrestling against Satan. As one would expect, the devil tries numerous dirty tricks, but God's champion never capitulates. One need not read John Chrysostom's version to be able to draw the moral. But with such religious exceptions (the Apostle Paul's Olympic imagery being another), European athletic mythology too tends to remain more muscular than metaphorical.

America is quite different, perhaps because it lacks an epic heritage. Britain can boast that, thanks to Brute, London was once called Troy Novant, but no ancestor of George Washington is known to have fought at Ilium. The closest new world equivalent of Greeks versus Trojans is Harvard against Yale. Indeed a whole subliterature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century celebrates worthies in football helmets like Frank Merriwell and Dink Stover. Their gridiron exploits on behalf of alma mater elevated Yale to a mythic status akin to Camelot for thousands of readers who hadn't the slightest notion where New Haven actually was.

This fact has more than mere anecdotal significance. For Dink Stover's ruminations (recorded by Owen Johnson in Stover at Yale, 1911) in the midst of a Yale-Princeton clash encapsulate the peculiar nature of sport in the American mentality:

For the first time, a little appalled, he felt the weight of the seriousness, the deadly seriousness of the American spirit, which seizes on everything that is competition and transforms it, with the savage fanaticism of its race for success.

Herein lies an essential difference with the European literary attitude. The Homeric heroes remain honored champions even in old age. Nestor pointedly reminds everyone of his sporting exploits in days gone by; Agamemnon is hailed as a man who could win any event he chose to enter. Whereas in European literature athletic achievement is a synonym for heroism, in America it is, as Dink Stover sensed, a mere prelude.

And more often than not the winner at games proves to be a loser in later life, his former glory serving as a painful reminder of how far he has fallen. Contrast the final moments of the wounded charioteer Hippolytus, or A. E. Housman's eulogy for the athlete dying young, with the paradigmatically American situation of the protagonist in Irwin Shaw's The Eighty Yard Run: a middle-aged man, Bunyanesquely named Christian Darling, stands forlornly in the college football stadium, where long ago he had performed brilliantly. But everything thereafter had gone wrong. Hence his return to the scene of his youthful triumph:

Here he was on a playing field that was fifteen years away and his wife was in another country having dinner with another and better man, speaking with him a different, new language, a language nobody had ever taught him.

This is poignantly restated in Robert Lowell's "Waking in the Blue," where the poet looks at one of his fellow inmates in the sanitarium:

I grin at 'Stanley/ now sunk in his sixties, once a Harvard all-American fullback, (if such were possible!) . . . more cut off from words than a seal.

Those who claim America is the land of success have not studied its literature closely. For while in the European quest Jason returns in triumph with the Golden Fleece, Ahab perishes in his futile attempt to capture Moby Dick. The American protagonists are the precise opposites of Housman's hero. They are "runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man."

Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? is regarded as the ultimate expression of America's adoration of the Bitch Goddess Success. But another of his novels perhaps says it even better: The Harder They Fall (1947), ostensibly about boxing, is in fact a parable of aspiring American youth ultimately bowing its head to failure. It contains an almost lyrical description of American hype, when the press-agent protagonist philosophizes about the boxing match he's promoting. It is, of course, to be the greatest ever:

Nick had the money. I had the tricks. And the American people, God bless them, had the credulity. You couldn't blame them entirely. They were a little punchy too. They had taken an awful pasting from all sides: radio, the press, billboards, throwaways, even airplanes left white streamers in the sky telling them what to buy and what to need. They could really absorb punishment, this nation of radio listeners and the shop-happy consumers, this great spectator nation. Only like the game fighter who smiles when he gets hit and keeps boring in for more, they were a little more vulnerable for every encounter.

Ironically, the narrator himself proves to be just as deluded as the public he thinks he is deceiving. It is also worth noting how frequently American authors have their characters speak of the success ethic in terms of sport. Willy Loman ("He had all the wrong dreams") tells his two sons: "Bernard can get the best marks in school y'understand, but when he gets out in the business world y'understand, you are going to be five times ahead of him. That's why I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises."

Sport and the Spirit of Play by Christian Messenger is an important book which reflects America's growing awareness of the unique role sport plays in its life and literature. It distinguishes three phases in the fictional portrayal of the American athlete. First there is the "Popular Sports Hero," frontiersmen like Davey Crockett and Mike Fink, whose legendary exploits were the stuff of the nineteenth-century almanacs, from which emerged the dime novel, and ultimately. Ring Lardner. Thereafter comes the "School Sports Hero," a curious and moving literary reaction to the traumata of the nation during the Civil War. Battlefield carnage is sublimated into noble (but not fatal) strife on the playing field. This phase begins with Stephen Crane and culminates (with a little help from Tom Brown of Oxford) in the wildly popular, serialized tales of those "parfit" New Haven knights, Frank Merriwell and Dink Stover. Messenger is especially illuminating when he discusses Scott Fitzgerald's strongly ambivalent reaction to this figure. His earliest stories, and indeed his first novel, show an intoxication with the pulp football star. The rhapsodic prose of This Side of Paradise even gives him new stature. Here is Amory Blaine fantasizing of football glory: "For those minutes courage flowed like wine out of the November dusk, and he was the eternal hero, one with the sea-rover on the prow of a Norse galley, one with Roland and Horatius. Sir Nigel and Ted Coy [a Yale All-American fullback]."

But Fitzgerald then developed a violent antipathy to this character—specifically to the New Haven species. Witness his unflattering portraits of Yale athletes Tom Buchanan in Gatsby and Dick Diver in Tender is the Night. (Though Messenger ingeniously ferrets out covert allusions in Fitzgerald's characters' names, he seems to overlook a rather significant similarity between "Dick Diver" and the cardboard superhero "Dink Stover"). In any case, it is in Fitzgerald's fiction that we first encounter the image of the young athletic star who is a failure in later life. (Buchanan is "forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.")

Hemingway's Robert Cohn and Faulkner's Labove in The Hamlet are two further examples of how the "School Sports Hero" becomes a "satiric emblem." But these two novelists are the principal creators of Messenger's third type of American sportsman, the "Ritual Sports Hero," a solitary, Adamic figure who seeks self-knowledge in the wilderness, striving only for himself, his own pride or revelation, renouncing public pressures and public rewards:

No one in Hemingway and Faulkner hunts marlins or bears, or buys (and chases) horses in any quest for records or quantified achievement but, rather they encounter the "biggest" animal or fish or the most seductive pony. Furthermore, they experience the quality of the pursuit, which cannot be measured in terms of a score or a victory. In narrative after narrative, Hemingway and Faulkner belied the statistical truths of modern sport and its streamlined face by playing the real and the sacred.

Though he occasionally overschematizes, for example, trying to make Faulkner's fiction neatly correspond to Roger Caillois's quadripartite theory of play, on the whole Messenger's argument stands, and he convincingly demonstrates that the different sports figures evolved organically from changing realities in American sport and society. For there are many qualities of the so-called Hemingway hero in the frontiersmen of James Fenimore Cooper and their "isolated, individual experience." And the natural morality of Cooper's Deerslayer finds echoes in the pithy maxims of Frank Merriwell. (Messenger might have noted the intriguing coincidence that the author of The Leather- Stocking Tales, whom one tends to imagine as a rough-hewn frontiersman like his heroes, was even more of an aristocratic Yale man than the author of Dink Stover.)

Messenger's "athletic Darwinism" is further substantiated by Harry Levin's observation that Hemingway's "ultimate protagonist is Jesus in 'Today Is Friday,' whose crucifixion is treated like an athletic feat, and whose capacity for taking punishment rouses a fellow-feeling in the Roman soldiers." Indeed, if it not be muscular Christianity per se, sport is nonetheless America's religion. Small wonder that God is often referred to by Faulkner as the "ancient immortal Umpire."

Erich Segal, the novelist, currently teaches classics at Yale.