Measures of American Beauty

By Josh WilkerJune 5, 2012

Measures of American Beauty

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

I GREW UP IN VERMONT, where the highways have no billboards. The state law limiting the encroachment of advertising has probably helped the concept of "Vermont" become a tool in widespread marketing campaigns suggesting the intrinsic value of the green growing world. I grew up in Vermont, but in light of what the word Vermont has come to mean, you could also say with some accuracy that I actually grew up in the verdant cow-speckled meadows of a carton of ice cream manufactured by Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings, Inc., a division of the British-Dutch Unilever conglomerate.

Actually, I was born in New Jersey. My longhaired mom and her longhaired boyfriend, Tom, took my brother and me to Vermont in the early 1970s. They wanted to escape lives of dour professionalism and the leveling haze of corporate conglomerates. They wanted to reconnect with that part of themselves that was daring and wide-open and curious and hungry for ecstasy and light. My brother and I featured prominently in their visions of a return to the garden, two boys with curly golden hair bounding through wild green fields. As it happens, my brother and I ended up gravitating instead toward limits, uniforms, numbers, well-mown grass bounded by fences and foul lines: baseball. We loved the clear measures of the game.


Some months ago, in the minutes that followed my reading of Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding, I was convinced I would next read Moby-Dick. I had recently become a father for the first time and so read Harbach's novel slowly, in dozens of brief, rapt sessions after I'd been able to wrestle and cajole my newborn son to sleep. I finished reading The Art of Fielding in one of these interludes, and as the nap stretched beyond the reading of the final pages I had time to dart into another room to get my copy of Moby-Dick and read chapter 23, the chapter cited as the favorite of Guert Affenlight, the college president at the heart of Harbach's novel.

I didn't read this brief, dense excerpt very carefully, but I gleaned that it had something to do with living a daring life, beyond safe harbors. Yes, I vowed, I will venture once more out into the wild. I'd read Moby-Dick once before, but Harbach's novel made me vow to read it again. Even as I made this vow, I had already failed to read even the excerpt with any more deliberation or care than I read frozen pizza instructions. And yes, I vowed, I will reconnect with that part of myself that is daring and wide-open and curious and hungry for ecstasy and light.


Mom and Tom didn't have to join any battle over highway billboards in Vermont, but they did get into a dispute with a neighboring farmer. He'd made a financial arrangement with a nearby farm machinery dealership to store overstock on the land that bordered ours. The view from one side of our house remained unchanged — green grass surrounding the figurative and literal basis of our intended self-sufficient life in the country, the garden — but the other view, previously that of a rolling green pasture giving way to forested mountains, suddenly clogged up with gleaming insensate machinery-engines and wheels and blades.

The dispute served only to sour our family's relationship with the neighbor. The tractors and threshers and bailers and liquefied manure spreaders stayed, outlasting the gradual shrinking of the garden, and beyond that outlasting us; after a decade or so, we scattered. Everything on this continent is a compromise: Eden occupied, Eden abandoned, Eden for sale. I was 17 when our house was put on the market. I took my first hit of acid around then, too. It was a winter somewhere near the center of the 1980s, the white of deep snow everywhere except where machines had blackened it or pounded it to slush. The acid had been imprinted on a perforated cardboard sheet. Each individual hit had a yin-yang symbol on it. We were in a Massachusetts town advertised by a billboard on the highway, just before one of the town's two exits. The disconnection of the billboard's shrilly cheerful promise with the few glum streets of the downtown amused us. Just before we placed the hits on our tongue, we recited its message, grinning, terrified.

"Find It In Greenfield!" we said.


The baby started stirring while I was still leafing through the maps at the beginning of Moby-Dick, and then I ran into the four or five pages of quotes about whaling. Before I'd read any of them but after I'd seen what I was up against, the baby woke all the way up and was grumpy and grunting and farting and I was back on duty, realizing there was no way I was going to read five pages on whaling, never mind the rest, not with the life I'd made for myself, or fallen into. I wanted the fantasy at the core of The Art of Fielding — life on the cusp of great green beauty — to continue, but there's the baby and chores and my office job and the managing of my various fantasy league rosters and my rare quick masturbation sessions and my 30-minute jogs on a treadmill to pantomime the staving off of death and, last but not least, my own compulsive pedestrian stabs at writing. Alas, those stabs are noodling kazoo music compared to the orchestral depth and richness of Harbach's book, a book that points with measured, measuring, illuminating irony and fearless sincerity at Moby-Dick and, beyond that, at the endangered subject of all art: great beauty. So, yeah, after finishing The Art of Fielding I didn't read Moby-Dick. Great beauty and I are somewhat estranged. I can't really talk Melville with you, but if you are looking for someone with whom you can discuss They Call Me Baba Booey, I'm your guy. I am also fairly confident in my ability to participate in conversations about baseball. And the lesser grades of acid generally available for consumption in the 1980s. And compromised transitory versions of Eden.


In Greenfield, as the trip lifted off, we wandered through snow and slush to a playground and took turns on the swings. I felt, swinging, like there was some song on my tongue, not quite formed, but almost, nearly, the most beautiful song ever sung. This implacable idea was so brilliant that it had actual weight, as if the yin-yang symbol inscribed on the hit had become a tangible presence of perfection. The words to describe this beauty, this Eden, would arrive soon. I wish we had taken that first trip in a green field, in summer, but we couldn't wait. It occurred on a short, dark day with the temperature plummeting, and it went on long past the time we could stay outside without chattering our teeth to dust. We ended up in a Dunkin' Donuts, shivering and staring past one another to other idling unemployed cheapskates, everyone gripping an empty cup of coffee. I was a week or so away from starting college, finally, after several months of drifting around following my expulsion from boarding school the previous spring. I wanted to learn there was some place for me, some hope. Surely there was some warm green haven somewhere.


You make and squander your own havens. My personal version of a green, growing sanctum, my writing life, generally falls short of my expectations. Most ideas fail, deadlines come and go, notebooks fill haltingly with liquefied manure. I intended to finish a review of The Art of Fielding several months ago. Instead, I find myself whacking through these overgrown weeds, combing that intended garden for treasure. For instance, here's a list of my favorite baseball novels, sorted according to my own invented categories:

Little League:Hang Tough, Paul Mather, by Alfred Slote
College: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Negro League: The End of Baseball, by Peter Schilling
Major League: The Southpaw, by Mark Harris
Fan's-eye-view: The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe
Fantasy: The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

Adding Harbach's book to this little canon runs counter to the primary marketing plan for the novel; according to a Vanity Fair article on The Art of Fielding, "How a Book Is Born," Harbach's cover designerwas given specific instructions to avoid any reference to baseball. However, like the other books I mention, Harbach's novel is saturated with baseball, though the sport is used not as an end in itself but as a way to measure American beauty. This might explain why a couple of friends of mine expressed qualms with the baseball in the novel, namely that there are some facets of the baseball action that are off-puttingly unrealistic. For instance, the shortstop who serves as the novel's fulcrum, Henry Skrimshander, is utterly flawless. This is just impossible, my friends said. Baseball players, especially shortstops (who handle more chances than any other player), are bound to make occasional errors. For my part, I went with the notion of Henry's diamond-pure life completely. Perhaps this is because I embraced from very early on a kind of quasi-mythic golden light that bathes the proceedings. Though The Art of Fielding is a baseball novel, it's not really a baseball novel. It's a college novel. It's about a feeling, a myth we help create for ourselves, of being right on the border of a life of boundless possibilities.


If you have read any articles about Chad Harbach, you might recall the story containing an element of deliverance. These articles framed his lucrative advance for The Art of Fielding, his first novel, as a means by which he could kiss his tedious daily grind goodbye and in turn embrace the life of the artist, a life of boundless possibilities. So long, life of quiet desperation! This part of the story rankled me, as I'm a sick man, a spiteful man, and I also happen to have a job in which copyediting, Harbach's former means of staving off indigence, is my most glamorous task. I'm glad I have this job. No, let me rephrase that, as I now have a kid to feed and clothe and take to doctors: I thank all the gods in every last merciful heaven ever dreamed I have this job. I haven't always felt this way. For years I imagined myself in my proofreading/copyediting work as a kind of real-life correspondent to Bartleby, that quietly indomitable rebel who is my favorite among Melville's creations, but in truth I can't measure up to him. I don't have the balls. I would prefer not to, sure, but I'll do it anyway, half-assed, part of my mind on the task, the other part who knows where. I was supposed to be a child of the green growing world. All my days are half-assed.


A few months after my first acid trip in Greenfield, and after a semester at a college referred to by its transient students with a nickname that replaced one of the official titular words, "State," with "Skate" (because, as a slit-eyed dorm-mate explained while passing me a smoldering spliff roughly the size of a traffic cone, "dude, we're all just skating on through"), I went to a baseball game. It stands out among the many I've attended in my life, maybe because it was the first game I'd gone to since my green childhood home had been sold, lending more weight to my home away from home, the ballpark. Maybe it also stands out because that day I saw the great Seaver pitch.

Isn't that a literary way of putting it? "The great Seaver"? I think Hemingway refers to an iconic midcentury Yankee centerfielder that way in The Old Man and the Sea, a book I've never read. Doesn't everyone have to read that book? Well, my education was spotty, rife with foundational gaps. So I missed it.

In any case, Hemingway does indeed refer to "the great DiMaggio," and there's a certain grandeur about the phrasing that seems to heighten the myth of the player while at the same time suiting him perfectly, his grace and presence, the way he glided around in centerfield like he had wings on his ankles, his smooth swing, his dignified carriage, all that shit. There is still justifiable cause in this faltering world to use the word great sometimes. I never saw the great DiMaggio except as a gray-haired swell hawking coffeemakers, but I did indeed see the great Seaver. I saw greatness.

It was 1986, right near the end for the pitcher. He'd been traded by the White Sox to the Red Sox, who were good that season but looking to address a flaw on the outer edges of their pitching staff. I was 18 and on my day off from pumping gas. I had packed my one-hitter with shake weed and taken a bus in from Cape Cod to attend the game alone. I took a seat in the bleachers. Picture a rootless slouching doofus looking out on a green field he loves. Picture someone coming back to life.


Cue the anthem. Cue an idea, a heightened, fortified, sculpted myth connected arterially to the propulsive larger myth that for the last few centuries has lovingly, violently occupied this continent.

Schwartz put his hat on, blinked back a renegade drop of salt water. He'd always been a sucker for the anthem, and then there was the almost unfair beauty of a professional ballfield, the expensive riotous green of the grass, the scalloped cutouts around the bases, the whole place groomed like living art. (The Art of Fielding)


After the anthem, the great Seaver strode to the center of the green field and the game began. He was pitted that day against Mark Langston, a 25-year-old flame-throwing lefty in the midst of a stretch that saw him lead the league in strikeouts in three out of four seasons. Seaver had once been a flame-thrower himself, but those days were over. Still, the erosion of his powers somehow made his essential greatness more visible, or so it seemed to me. Of course, I was high. But even from the sizable distance between me in the bleachers and Seaver alone on the mound, I could sense and was even calmed by his own calm, the way he paused on the mound and drew in a deep breath and let it go, the way he seemed to center the whole universe, a baseball Buddha of pure being and awareness, a human extension of the numinous green. Possibly, this is nothing but my own pot-addled bullshit. And perhaps, perfect repose and inner harmony exist.


"The place of perfect repose and inner harmony is always remembered as a garden." — Bart Giamatti

Guert Affenlight, the president of the fictional college in The Art of Fielding, calls to mind the legendary commissioner of Major League Baseball Bart Giamatti, who like Guert Affenlight was handed the guardianship of a green haven of possibilities and beauty after proving himself with influential scholarship. While the fictional Affenlight carved out his estimable reputation as a Melville scholar, the real-life Giamatti, before becoming the president of Yale University, rose to academic prominence as an illuminating aficionado of pastoral imagery in literature, training his incisive mind on the Edenic gardens of Spenser and Dante. Giamatti's mastery in this field transferred seamlessly to later descriptions of life at the ballpark, writings which would, along with his stewardship of Yale, help him ascend once again and become the sport's seventh commissioner in the mid-80s. In his most famous essay, "The Green Fields of the Mind," he produces the keystone text of all baseball literature, tracing a line that runs through every American endeavor, a yearning for the pastoral ideal, a dreaming of a green oasis of grace.


The great Seaver won that day, as I watched from the bleachers. He won once or twice more before his aging body began to fail, and when the Red Sox entered the 1986 playoffs, knee problems kept the one-time ace off the roster. The flaw in the pitching staff remained, and in the end it proved the team's horrific undoing. That, and an error. I was back at college, watching the game through a haze of marijuana smoke. I can see it yet, the famous moment. The ball skids under the legs of a reliable infielder and rolls onto the green grass of the outfield.

"It breaks your heart," Bart Giamatti wrote of baseball in "The Green Fields of the Mind" when describing the end of another, earlier season. All seasons end. Flaws, heartbreak, autumn. "It is designed to break your heart."


My favorite baseball moments in The Art of Fielding are those given over to an affliction that descends on Henry Skrimshander, the previously flawless shortstop who, on the verge of a professional career, suddenly becomes unable to complete routine throws to first base. The problem connects him to several actual major leaguers who developed similar problems. When Guert Affenlight (who, unlike his real-life counterpart Bart Giamatti, is a newcomer to the game) learns about this malady, about those players like Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch and Mackey Sasser who found themselves suddenly unable to complete even the simplest throws, he wonders why it seemed to first become a recurring problem in 1973. For that was the year in which this affliction claimed its first well-known victim, Steve Blass.

Nineteen seventy-three. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name. Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam. . . . Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream — the year it entered baseball? (The Art of Fielding)

The factors that Guert Affenlight saw as the catalysts of a seismic doubt strong enough to shake the unshakeable were also the factors that drove my family to move to the country. The entire national experiment seemed in doubt, so it was time to start a new one, time to find a new green haven. Yet doubt followed our every step. Machines clogged the view. I clung to baseball. Beside a garden that briefly expanded before it gradually began to withdraw, my brother and I threw a ball back and forth. The years went by. Once in a while I find myself back in Vermont and return to that house for a look. Our real national pastime: compulsive nostalgia, a chronic halting, a hitch in forward motion. I pull over to the side of the road and imagine a garden where there are now weeds. I imagine beside the garden two boys connected by a baseball zinging back and forth. I don't imagine errors. I never imagine endings.

But sometimes there would be a bad throw, a moment when one of us measured our motion too consciously, and the ball would elude my grasp and sail beyond our yard to the neighboring farmer's pasture. We'd wade out into the shin-high grass, aware that we were encroaching on land that belonged to someone who hated us. The sky was darkening above the mountains. Sometimes we wouldn't be able to pull the ball back out of the wilder green and would have to return home with that feeling on our hands, like the feeling on my tongue sometimes, the undiscovered word for the whole wide world, the weight of something not there.
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Josh Wilker is the author of Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale. He tweets @cardboardgods.


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