Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe is a lyrical fantasy that makes creative use of the importance of baseball in the collective memory of Americans in order to explore attempts to recapture the past and to come to terms with the death of parents. The novel seems to be a curious mixture of autobiography, fiction, and historical reality: It includes several characters whose last name is the same as the author’s; real people, such as writer J. D. Salinger and the eight Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball for their participation in the so-called Black Sox Scandal of 1919; and clearly fantastic elements, such as the return of dead people to life.

Shoeless Joe is a first-person narrative told by Ray Kinsella. Ray has a loving wife and a beautiful daughter, but something is missing in his life. He still regrets that he never made peace with his father, a hardworking laborer who died shortly before Ray married Annie. John Kinsella spoke repeatedly to his son both of his love for baseball and of his belief that Shoeless Joe Jackson did not participate in the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. Like any adolescent, Ray liked to argue with his parents, but his criticism of Shoeless Joe hurt his father’s feelings. Ray wishes that he could change the past and express his appreciation and love to his late father.

A series of almost incomprehensible events enables Ray to accomplish this dream. Twice, a voice from...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

Shoeless Joe

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

ph_0111226256-Kinsella.jpg W. P. Kinsella Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 1957 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Joseph Shoeless Joe Jackson Published by Gale Cengage

Shoeless Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson was born in rural poverty in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1888. When he...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Similes and Metaphors
Kinsella's use of simile and metaphor, in which something is compared to something else...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kinsella combines both fantasy and reality and fact and fiction to create an entertaining and suspenseful narrative. Simply stated, the plot...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1920s: After the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, baseball is at a low point in its history. Baseball owners are...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Why is Karin usually the first person to see the baseball games on Ray's field?
  • Is Shoeless Joe just a harmless...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Kinsella's Shoeless ]oe belongs to the American sports-literature tradition that includes poems, essays, short stories, and novels...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The major themes in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986) are a love for baseball and the nature of dreams. The theme is evident in...

(The entire section is 630 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1984 Field of Dreams, the movie adaptation of Shoeless Joe, premiered. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson, the film received...

(The entire section is 59 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Shoeless Joe was made into the movie Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin...

(The entire section is 20 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Beach, Charles Franklyn. "Joyful vs. Joyless Religion in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe." In...

(The entire section is 323 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cheuse, Alan. “An Outsider’s Homage to Baseball Lore.” Review of Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella. Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 23, 1982. A very favorable review. Cheuse comments that the novel, despite its bizarre plot, leads the reader into “a world of compelling whimsy” and nostalgia for the great American pastime.

Christian Century. XCIX, May 26, 1982, p. 621.

Christian Science Monitor. July 9, 1982, p. 14.

Kinsella, William P. Interview by Robert Dahlin. Publishers Weekly 221 (April 16, 1982): 6-7. An interesting interview with...

(The entire section is 167 words.)