June 15th, 2012

Whitman, Melville, and Baseball

I have been thinking about these two literary giants of late and thought I’d share with you their slim but interesting connections with baseball. Walt Whitman’s words on the hurrah game are better known, so let’s begin with him. “In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn,” he declared in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 23, 1846, “we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball…. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…. The game of ball is glorious.” This obscure editorial became famous as the opening words, recited by Garrison Keillor, to Ken Burns’s Baseball, the PBS film in which I played a part.

He followed baseball offhandedly in the following years, mentioning the game in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (“upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs, or a good game of base-ball”). He even reported on at least one contest for the Brooklyn Daily Times, when he was its editor, on June 18, 1858. “The game played yesterday afternoon between the Atlantic and Putnam Clubs,” the Good Gray Poet began rather prosaically, “on the grounds of the latter club, was one of the finest and most exciting games we ever witnessed.” He lost interest as the professional leagues formed in the 1870s. By the next decade, however, his “certain game of ball” had become for Whitman the lone institution that could assure the great American democratic experiment. In 1888 he became caught up in the baseball fervor of the impending overseas tour (whose 125th anniversary next year will also be marked by the World Baseball Classic).

In his last years, living in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman had a devoted admirer at his side, Horace Traubel, who invaluably recorded their conversations. Upon reading in the newspaper of April 7, 1889, that Spalding’s world tourists had returned home, Whitman said to Traubel:

“Did you see the baseball boys are home from their tour around the world? How I’d like to meet them—talk with them: maybe ask them some questions.”  Traubel replied,“Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” [Whitman] was hilarious: “That’s beautiful: the hurrah game! well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

For Whitman, the grand tour affirmed America’s prophetic role among the world’s nations, bringing immigrants together in a “transcendental Union” of manifest destiny’s children. “Long ere the second centennial arrives,” Whitman declared, “there will be some forty to fifty great States, among them Canada and Cuba.” This prediction was indeed borne out, not in the USA’s constituent parts, but in its professional baseball leagues.

Now to Herman Melville, heretofore unknown to have cared much for sport. I am indebted for a new (to me) literary reference to ball play to Melville scholar Jeanne C. Howes, author of a monograph entitled Poet of a Morning: Herman Melville and the “Redburn Poem” : Redburn: Or the Schoolmaster of a Morning. This poem, published pseudonymously as the work of “William M. Christy” in 1845, is in her view Melville’s first published book. (It is different from the novel Redburn: His First Voyage, Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, published by Harper in 1849.)

The ball game, with its soaking and one-out-all-out features, is described in Canto III:

And now hurrah! for the speeding ball
Is flung in viewless air,
And where it will strike in its rapid fall
The boys are hastening there–
And the parted lip and the eager eye
Are following its descent,
Whilst the baffl’d stumbler’s falling cry
With th’exulting shout is blent.
The leader now of either band
Picks cautiously his men,
And the quickest foot and the roughest hand
Are what he chooses then.
And see!the ball with swift rebound,
Flies from the swinging bat,
While the player spurns the beaten ground,
Nor heeds his wind-caught hat.
But the ball is stopp’d in its quick career,
And is sent with a well-aim’d fling,
And he dodges to feel it whistling near,
Or leaps at its sudden sting,
Whilst the shot is hail’d with a hearty shout,
As the wounded one stops short,
For his ‘side’ by the luckless blow is out–
And the others wait their sport.

The year of composition is 1844. The young Melville attended Albany Academy, but Ms. Howes speculates that the game referenced above may have been played in Pittsfield, by the schoolboys attending Sykes District School, where the 18-year-old Melville taught. Pittsfield later became Melville’s home, from 1850 to 1863. At the 1780 home preserved as Arrowhead he wrote Moby-Dick and other major works. Pittsfield, until recently unconnected with the early history of baseball, now may contemplate a linkage between its most famous resident and the game famously banned there in 1791.