Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe is a lyrical fantasy that makes creative use of the importance of baseball in the collective memory of Americans in order to explore attempts to recapture the past and to come to terms with the death of parents. The novel seems to be a curious mixture of autobiography, fiction, and historical reality: It includes several characters whose last name is the same as the author’s; real people, such as writer J. D. Salinger and the eight Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball for their participation in the so-called Black Sox Scandal of 1919; and clearly fantastic elements, such as the return of dead people to life.
Shoeless Joe is a first-person narrative told by Ray Kinsella. Ray has a loving wife and a beautiful daughter, but something is missing in his life. He still regrets that he never made peace with his father, a hardworking laborer who died shortly before Ray married Annie. John Kinsella spoke repeatedly to his son both of his love for baseball and of his belief that Shoeless Joe Jackson did not participate in the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. Like any adolescent, Ray liked to argue with his parents, but his criticism of Shoeless Joe hurt his father’s feelings. Ray wishes that he could change the past and express his appreciation and love to his late father.
A series of almost incomprehensible events enables Ray to accomplish this dream. Twice, a voice from...
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Shoeless Joe (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
In Opus Posthumous (1957), Wallace Stevens affirms that “after one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.” For W. P. Kinsella, baseball—and, by extension, the fiction in which it achieves its apotheosis—constitutes that essence. Like Stevens, Kinsella is acutely aware that “the final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Shoeless Joe is a “supreme fiction,” a magical admixture of fact and fantasy, reality and illusion, heaven and earth. By the end of the novel, the narrator, Ray Kinsella (hereafter Ray, to distinguish him from Kinsella the author), realizes his vision of “heaven on earth” and is “able to touch the perfect dream.” His beatitude is a baseball stadium in the midst of his Iowa cornfield, a religious shrine where the “chosen few” can celebrate baseball as life’s redemption.
Kinsella’s novel is an inspired attempt to recapture the pastoral spirit of the nation’s game. His attempt is especially poignant in an age wherein the forces of urbanization and technology prevail, when stadiums are often nothing more than incongruous icons standing resplendently in the heart of blighted ghettoes, and...
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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 education, 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.
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....
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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 day-old 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...
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Kinsella combines both fantasy and reality and fact and fiction to create an entertaining and suspenseful narrative. Simply stated, the plot centers upon Ray's magical baseball diamond where dreams do come true, and once the fantasy begins, the details are so vivid that the reader is swirled along by the characters and the narrative events. Moreover, by alternating his scenes between the fantasy baseball games and the reality in the characters' lives, Kinsella captures the transient nature of dreams while emphasizing the grace and essence of baseball, a sport that is peculiarly an American constant, or as Salinger says: "It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews waiting at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what it once was, like an Indianhead penny in a handful of new coins."
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Compare and 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,...
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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?
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Kinsella's Shoeless ]oe belongs to the American sports-literature tradition that includes poems, essays, short stories, and novels about all forms of Shoeless foe sports. Among the sport novels are, to suggest a few, Lawrence Shainberg's One On One (basketball); Leonard Gardner's Fat City (boxing); Peter Gent's North Dallas Forty (1973, football); Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952) and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association (1968, baseball). These novels expose some of the unsavory aspects of their various sports; for example, the doom inherent in Fat City for boxers, the excessive violence for the sake of corporate enterprise in professional football, Roy Hobbs's personal failure in baseball. Generally, these works and others of their ilk emphasize how the particular sport is a metaphor for the world and even life itself. In juxtaposition to these starker renderings of the sporting world, Kinsella's novel is devoid of any violence or hardened villains and simply recaptures the beauty, grace, and essence of baseball as a sport. In this sense, the novel entertains the reader while permitting him to escape temporarily and to experience the mythic baseball world, still the oldest sport in the American heritage.
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The major themes in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986) are a love for baseball and the nature of dreams. The theme is evident in Gideon Clarke's quest to prove that in 1908 the Chicago Cubs played a game with the All Stars of the amateur Iowa Baseball Confederacy in Big Inning, Iowa. Stan Rogalski, Gideon's friend and aging triple A ballplayer, has loved the game and hopes someday to play in the major leagues. Similar to the dream motifs in Shoeless Joe, both Gideon and Stan fulfill their dreams when they slip through the "cracks in time" to the "gauzy dreamland that separates the past from the present."
Gideon and Stan are the novel's protagonists and both of them are baseball fanatics. Within the plot, Gideon is indoctrinated into baseball lore by Matthew, his father, whose lifetime quest has been to prove that the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Iowa Baseball Confederacy took place, knowledge that is mysteriously seared into his imagination when he is making love to a carnival dancer under a tree and is struck by lightning. Despite scoffers and disbelievers, Matthew pursues his quest and even writes a doctoral dissertation about the history of the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a dissertation rejected by his dissertation committee who recommend that Matthew major in creative writing. When Matthew is ironically killed by a line-drive at a Milwaukee baseball game, his knowledge and desires are transferred to Gideon, who assumes his...
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In 1984 Field of Dreams, the movie adaptation of Shoeless Joe, premiered. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the film received mostly favorable reviews and starred Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella, Amy Madigan as Annie Kinsella, Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham, and James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann, a character that was substituted for J. D. Salinger's role in the novel.
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Shoeless Joe was made into the movie Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.
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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 Pressfield, 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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Cheuse, Alan. “An Outsider’s Homage to Baseball Lore.” Review of Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella. Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1982. A very favorable review. Cheuse comments that the novel, despite its bizarre plot, leads the reader into “a world of compelling whimsy” and nostalgia for the great American pastime.
Christian Century. XCIX, May 26, 1982, p. 621.
Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 1982, p. 14.
Kinsella, William P. Interview by Robert Dahlin. Publishers Weekly 221 (April 16, 1982): 6-7. An interesting interview with biographical information about the author, William P. Kinsella. With reference to Shoeless Joe, he said that he wanted to write “a book for imaginative readers, an affirmative statement about life.”
Kinsella, William P. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. This novel is a fantasy on a much bigger scale than Shoeless Joe, featuring time travel, magic, and a ballgame that lasts more than two thousand innings.
Library Journal. CVII, April 1, 1982, p. 745.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, July 25, 1982, p. 10.
Newsweek. C, August 23, 1982, p. 64.
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