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 when baseball itself, to the cynical eye, often seems nothing more than another mass-marketed, multi-billion-dollar enterprise. In spite of all these negative factors, Kinsella suggests that for those who love baseball, the magic persists; for them, witnessing a perfectly turned double play is akin to a religious experience, a mystical vision. Kinsella’s novel turns on this conceit. For those characters in the novel who can “see” and have undergone something “akin to religious conversion,” the fantastic ball park in Ray’s cornfield is a reality. As Ray puts it, “We’re not just ordinary people, we’re a congregation. Baseball is a ceremony, a ritual, as surely as sacrificing a goat beneath a full moon is ritual. The only difference is that most of us realize that it is a game.” Kinsella, despite the hieratic posturing of his narrative, knows that baseball is only a game and strategically inserts moments of “post-fantasy depression” to prevent his story from degenerating into unmitigated schmaltz and nostalgia. Such doses of the reality principle are necessary in a book where “moonlight butters the whole Iowa night” and “clover and corn smells are thick as syrup.” Nevertheless, reading this novel is at times a cloying experience; the smell of corn would seem to be an inevitable by-product of a book whose style is often thick as syrup.
Shoeless Joe presents a dualistic scheme. Throughout the book, Ray shows “a healthy contempt for authority, big business, academia, religion—all the forces that control our lives.” In the real world that occupies the penumbra of this novel, farms are in danger of being overtaken by big business, money problems press relentlessly, academics are mundane neurotics, famous authors are embittered recluses, and unimaginative fundamentalists uncharitably wield the powers of their Fascistic faith. Against this fallen world, the redemptive force of baseball is counterpointed. The parody of religious language is pervasive. The Baseball Encyclopedia (1969) becomes a secular bible wherein all is written.“The word is baseball. . . . Can you imagine?” His voice is filled with evangelical fervor. “Can you imagine walking around with the very word of baseball enshrined inside you? Because the word of salvation is baseball. It gets inside you. Inside me. And the words that I speak are spirit, and are baseball. . . .” He shakes his head like a fundamentalist who can quote chapter and verse for every occasion.
The word of baseball, then, seeks to redeem a fallen world, to establish a post-Lapsarian Eden far from the hell of the burdened cities. “You have to be touched by the land. . . . Once you’ve been touched by the land, the wind never blows so cold again, because your love files the edges off it.” The opposites on which the novel hinges are thus rendered explicit: rural/urban, fantasy/fact, illusion/reality, heaven/earth. The mediating term is the “heaven on earth” that Ray establishes in his own backyard. Baseball functions in the way Christianity ought to, as a “heaven on earth” that eases one’s pain and counteracts the malady of the quotidian.
The fantasy begins when Ray hears a voice which says, “If you build it, he will come,” “it” being a baseball diamond and “he” being Joseph Jefferson (Shoeless Joe) Jackson, who was born in Brandon Mills, South Carolina, July 16, 1887...