The Great American Novel

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel” describes the misadventures of the Ruppert Mundys, a mythical baseball team who played in the now defunct Patriot League, illustrating how the scandalous downfall of this particular team caused the downfall of the league itself. The text is heavily satirical, in that it draws frequent parallels between the condition of America’s national pastime, which in these pages takes on a quasi-religious significance, and the health of the ideals for which America was created and by which it is sustained. Word Smith, the mouth piece through which the story is told begins with a long rambling prologue, somewhat emblematic of the 1943/44 season that the novel focuses on, describing the decline of the Patriot League in a tone that alternates between fond nostalgia and a bitter resolve to preserve the true history of the league from those who would twist and manipulate the truth for their own ends. While the novel’s text focuses on one season, the author refers frequently to events from past seasons, such as the kidnap and murder of an umpire’s child and the mistreatment of one of the league’s principle stars, Gil Gamesh, with the aim of portraying his beloved patriot league as an underdog in a constant struggle for survival with its competitors.

The season gets off to a bad start when the US military seizes the Ruppert Mundy’s stadium for use as a military training camp, leaving the team homeless. They are therefore compelled to drift from city to city, state to state, a process that mocks the classic American trope of the rugged and wandering adventurer. The Mundys compete in and lose a series of matches with local teams, hampered in their efforts by a squad made up of physically and intellectually incapable players. The pathos evoked by their repeated humiliations is mitigated at times by humorous incidents, such as the match they play against the inmates at an asylum for the mentally insane. However, at other times, Roth makes reference to negative stereotypes pertaining to race, class, and political belief as existing within the league, which acts as a microcosm for American society as a whole.

The team’s best player, the only player Roth deems capable of competing in the big leagues, eventually tires of losing and decides to take action. Roland Agni formulates a scheme that involves contaminating his teammate’s breakfast cereal with steroids, causing them to go on a winning streak that catches the attention of the American public and even of the president himself. In the light of this new attention, Agni decides to abort his initial scheme, which had been to buy his way off the team using his wages. Tragedy strikes on the day that the Mundys are finally defeated when their longtime manager, Ulysses S. Fairsmith, dies of a stroke. His replacement, the once renowned pitcher Gil Gamesh, proves to be an ardent communist who indoctrinates his players with an anti-patriotic spirit that angers the American public and results in a congressional investigation of the league itself. The Mundys do not fair well in this investigation, and the scandal that falls upon them as a result of its findings proves too damaging for the Patriot League to endure. Its dissolution comes soon after in the late 1940s.

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