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The meaning of Shoeless Joe may not be immediately clear to readers: Why should they care if Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other dead members of the 1919 White Sox get the opportunity to play baseball once again, or if Ray Kinsella succeeds in persuading J. D. Salinger that he should resume writing fiction? Readers gradually come to the realization, however, that the main themes of Shoeless Joe are not associated with baseball but rather with death and individuals’ attempts to deal with the past. Like all people, Ray Kinsella wishes that he could change his past and have a final conversation with his late father. Readers know that this is impossible; nevertheless, they wish that reality could correspond to one’s dreams.

When he first hears the voice telling him “If you build it, he will come” and “Ease his pain,” Ray Kinsella assumes that the voice is referring only to Shoeless Joe Jackson, and he builds only a left field because Shoeless Joe was a left fielder. He believes that this will “ease the pain” of Shoeless Joe, who was banned for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis from the sport that had brought him so much happiness. Although quite beautiful and green, Ray’s left field is not a complete baseball field, and, when Shoeless Joe arrives, he persuades Ray that there are other players who would like to play; Ray then builds a complete baseball field. He also discovers that only those who believe in the miraculous happenings on his baseball diamond see the ghostly players and learn anything from them. Ray’s brother-in-law, Mark, who thinks only of all the money that could be made by planting corn in this field, sees no one there and tries unsuccessfully to force Ray to sell his farm.

Then, another idea occurs to Ray: He believes that “he” may refer to J. D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) who stopped writing and became a recluse in New England. Ray recalled that there is a character named Ray Kinsella in a 1941 short story by Salinger and a minor character named Richard Kinsella in Salinger’s famous novel. He also read in a 1965 interview that Salinger’s wish as a child was to play baseball for the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds. Salinger noted that this dream had become impossible because he was too old and because the Polo Grounds were torn down in 1964.

For reasons that neither man can understand, Ray and J. D. Salinger go to a ball game in Boston’s Fenway Park, where they alone see on the scoreboard the records of an outfielder named Moonlight Graham, who played one game for the Giants in 1905, and hear a voice telling them “Go the distance.” Both characters travel to Chisholm, Minnesota, where Doc Graham practiced medicine from the 1910’s until his death in 1965. One evening, Ray speaks with the dead doctor, with the calendar in the doctor’s office telling Ray that their conversation is taking place in 1955. As Ray and Salinger leave Minnesota to drive to Iowa, yet another miracle happens. The hitchhiker whom they pick up is the nineteen-year-old Moonlight Graham.

Once they are back in Iowa, Moonlight begins playing with the other dead baseball players. After Ray’s brother, Richard, comes to Ray and Annie’s farm, the final two miracles occur. First, Ray and Richard talk with their father, a young catcher on this team of ghosts. Second, when Moonlight sees that a piece of hot dog is caught in Karin’s throat and recognizes that she is in danger of choking to death, he crosses the foul line, becomes the aged Doc Graham, and saves Karin’s life by tapping her on her back, thus dislodging the hot dog from her throat. Near the end of the novel, Shoeless Joe invites J. D. Salinger to talk with the dead players in the cornfield. Readers are left with the definite impression this conversation will inspire Salinger to resume writing.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)