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Late in Chad Harbach’s novel of baseball, Melville, and life, The Art of Fielding, Pella reveals to Henry that her father, the college president who is having an affair with Henry’s male roommate, Owen Dunne, had attended Westish College in his youth: “Class of seventy-one. So be cheery, my lads and all that jazz.” Pella’s reference to the college fight song (“So, be cheery my lads/Let your hearts never fall/While the bold Harpooner/Is striking the ball”) is hardly accidental, and suggests the scope of adversity that lies beneath the optimistic veneer that permeates this august institution. Westish College is modeled on the small, private and prestigious academies with which the Harvard-educated author is very familiar, and takes place in the state of his birth, Wisconsin. As invariably occurs among even the most prestigious of institutions, however, there are skeletons in closets and secrets that haunt the college’s corridors. The Westish College fight song is, on the surface, a simple ode to the college’s most prominent inspiration, Herman Melville and the late-author’s most well-known work, Moby Dick, but it also serves as a reminder of the shadows that loom over the students’ lives. Rather than a straightforward call for advancement and an expression of school spirit, this particular fight song is less inspirational than reassuring. Pella, of course, has been estranged from her father, but moves in with him following the dissolution of her marriage. Her presence at Westish serves as a constant and visible reminder of the dysfunctional nature of human existence, even in the idyllic environment of this lakeside academic institution. The “bold Harpooner” has had a losing record, and, as Harbach’s story progresses, the gifted fielder Henry, whose arrival has been instrumental in reversing that record, develops a flaw in his otherwise routine throw to first base – a flaw the author correctly notes has actually afflicted a number of high-profile infielders in professional baseball and that has its roots in mental diversions that are not easily eliminated. The fight song is a reflection of the lowered expectations that have accompanied the college’s evolution and the fact that the next crisis lies right around the corner. It is ironic in the sense that, rather than represent “fighting spirit,” it is more of a lamentation regarding the shadows that loom overhead.
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