The Great American Novel Characters

Philip Roth

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Roth populates his novel with dozens of characters, no one of whom can be said to have a dominant role. None is drawn realistically; rather, all are exaggerations, tools of the satirist’s pen in this pointed fable about a mythical baseball league.

The character who first garners the reader’s attention is the narrator, Word Smith, a retired baseball writer who transcribes the story that forms the heart of the novel. Smitty is confined to an asylum, ostensibly because he suffers from a chronic and fatal affliction: He alliterates too much. His excessive concern with wordplay is a source of humor in the novel; moreover, it provides a forum for some of Roth’s more serious comments regarding the nature of fiction and the power of words to shape reality and convey truth.

A series of larger-than-life heroes and villains populate the playing field and the behind-the-scenes operations of the Patriot Baseball League. Many of the characters are modeled loosely on real-life figures from the game: Luke Gofannon, the legendary hitter of the post-World War I era, is a composite of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The dwarfs who are introduced into the league by Frank Mazuma have their real-life counterpart in three-foot-seven-inch Eddie Gaedel, who was brought into the real major leagues in 1951 in a short-lived experiment by entrepreneur and self-professed iconoclast Bill Veeck. (In Gaedel’s only big-league at bat, he walked.) The avid baseball fan will...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Word Smith (Smitty)

Word Smith (Smitty), the novel’s narrator, a longtime sportswriter currently residing at the Valhalla nursing home. Smitty’s prologue establishes his credentials as a writer (noting, in particular, his love of alliteration) and as a witness to the events, recounted in the main body of the book, that led to the demise of the Patriot Baseball League, the memory of which has been wiped clean from American history. Smitty appears later in the book in his role as a sportswriter and commentator, and as a defiant witness before Congress’ House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the epilogue, Smitty, having been rebuffed by American publishers, likens himself to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union and is attempting to have The Great American Novel published in the People’s Republic of China.

General Douglas O. Oakhart

General Douglas O. Oakhart, the president of the Patriot Baseball League and a stickler for rules. During the 1934 season, Oakhart assigns his best umpire, Mike Masterson, to officiate games pitched by Gil Gamesh, a temperamental rookie phenomenon. This selection accidentally sets in motion events leading to the destruction of the Patriot League. At the close of the 1934 season, Oakhart bans Gamesh from baseball for purposefully injuring Masterson. Ten years later, Oakhart reluctantly reinstates Gamesh as a means of combating an alleged communist insurgency in the Patriot League. Ironically, this campaign leads to the demise of the Patriot League. It also serves as the springboard for Oakhart’s subsequent career in politics.

Gil Gamesh

Gil Gamesh, an all-star left-handed pitcher of Babylonian descent, banished from the Patriot League in 1934, at the end of his rookie season. His only problem was a hideous temper. When a missed call by umpire Mike Masterson delays the conclusion of Gamesh’s perfect game, the tempestuous lefty hits Masterson in the throat with the next pitch, ending the umpire’s career and bringing about his own expulsion from baseball. After disappearing from the scene for a decade, Gamesh reemerges as a Soviet double agent. With the help of Angela Whitling Trust, Gamesh convinces General Oakhart that there is a communist conspiracy afoot in the Patriot League that only he (Gamesh) can expose. Gamesh is named manager of the hapless Ruppert Mundys and, after a tragic shooting, “names names,” causing a scandal that brings about the league’s downfall. Once again, Gamesh drops out of sight, reappearing at Stalin’s side in state-approved photographs before finally being executed by the Soviet secret police.

Ulysses S. Fairsmith

Ulysses S. Fairsmith, the manager of the Ruppert Mundys during their hapless (and homeless)...

(The entire section is 1148 words.)