Novels and Baseball Fans, Fixated on Time


Evan Longoria

The baseball playoffs are underway but many of us still have not recovered from the last day of the regular season.  In what some people are calling “the best day of baseball ever,” eight teams were involved in four games that would determine which of four teams made the two wild card spots. I won’t recapitulate all that went on—you can read about it here—but after the dust had cleared, I found myself thinking (being the literature nerd that I am) that the English novel was invented to do justice to reality when it gets this dramatic and  complex.

Two National League teams and two American League teams went into the final day tied for the wild card spots in their respective conferences. None were playing each other. If all four of them won, then there would be two one-game playoffs the following day. If one won and the other lost in each conference, then that settled it. And that’s what happened.

Only one of the games was a blowout while the other three games went into extra innings.  All three of those games saw teams come from behind to win.  After the Braves gave up the lead to the Phillies to forfeit a spot in the playoffs, attention swung to the American League.  There the Boston Red Sox were trying to hold on to the lead against the bottom-dwelling Baltimore Orioles while the Yankees, who were already in the playoffs as conference champions, were in extra innings after giving up a seven-run lead in the 8th inning.

Both games ended after midnight within minutes of each other, a rain delay having slowed down the Boston game.  Minutes after Boston lost, Evan Longoria hit his second homerun to win his game for the Rays. Fans all over the country were switching channels back and forth in an attempt to stay current with all that was going on. No one wanted to miss a second of the drama as it unfolded.

Novels of the 18th century were also fixated on time. Some of this has been attributed to a Puritan obsession with making every minute count—otherwise one was not doing full justice to the time on earth God had given us—and the so-called Puritan work ethic was born. One sees it in a novel like Robinson Crusoe where the shipwrecked mariner feels that any minute not spent colonizing the island is an invitation to the devil to get inside his head.

My dissertation advisor Paul Hunter has argued that the novel grew out of Puritan spiritual autobiographies, which people wrote to prove to themselves they were making the best use of their time.  If they weren’t, then it might be prove that they were amongst the predestined damned rather than the predestined elect, a possibility too horrible to contemplate.

If Defoe systematically logged days and even hours in his novels, Samuel Richardson wanted to capture the exact moment in his.  In his epistolary novels like Pamela and Clarissa he tried to capture the immediacy of experience, bringing the act of writing and the act of experiencing as close together as he possibly could. At times this could mean a character writing a letter about something he or she had done only moments after doing so.

Henry Fielding, whose Tom Jones I begin teaching tomorrow, was confused about this new role of the novelist. Is the writer supposed to be time’s amanuensis (or secretary), he asked, jotting down every tiny little detail? Was he like a stagecoach that has to stop at every station? If he leaped whole years in a single bound, did that mean he was being untrue to reality?

Of course, one thing that novelists perfected fairly early was jumping between different planes of action.  Lawrence Sterne in Tristram Shandy talked about how, while he was talking about one subject, the reader was free to imagine other time continuing on in another story.  Moving on to the next century, Charles Dickens is amazing for the number of stories he can juggle all at the same time. D. W. Griffith revolutionized the film genre by taking Dickens’ technique and figuring out how to incorporate it in the movies. And now we have become used to disjointed narratives, channel surfing, split screens, and being taken deep into dramas as they unfold.

So one can, if one wishes, draw a direct line of descent from the 18th century novelists to the games as they were brought to us last Wednesday.  To be sure, Sterne was already unhappy in 1759 with the way that mechanization was messing with the organic unity of life.  None of us were complaining, however, when we jabbed at the remote to capture every moment of excitement of baseball’s last regular season day.

 

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