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The Sun Field: A Novel. 1923.

Heywood Broun. The Sun Field: A Novel. 1923. Introduction by Darryl Brock. New York: Rvive Books, 2008.142 pp. Paper, $14.00.

In one of the most famous and defining remarks on modernity, French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1863, "by 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable." This duality of modernity, its being both "contingent" and "eternal," resonates beyond just definitions of modernity, and indeed Baudelaire's definition echoes throughout the multiple and varied modernisms that developed in the early decades of the twentieth century. These reverberations are felt in Heywood Broun's 1923 novel, The Sun Field, when Judith Winthrop, the narrator George Wallace's sometimes girlfriend, explains that she wept when New York Yankees slugger John "Tiny" Tyler made a game saving, one-handed catch because "I think the man who caught that ball created the most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life. No sculptor ever achieved anything like that arm and shoulder of his when he reached out for the ball. ... It's just that fugitive thing he created this afternoon." Judith is in love with the brilliant but fleeting aesthetic beauty of a single moment, with the contingency that always accompanies sports. George, however, takes the realist view, arguing that "he isn't a romantic symbol or anything like that. He's a person. A ball player and a good one. Not quite as good as he was a few seasons ago but still hanging on." Judith wants the catch to mean something, even if that something is fugitive, but George believes only in the man himself; it is a debate between aestheticism and realism, with a bare-handed catch in left field, the "sun field," as its subject.

Judith and George's argument over the modernist aesthetics of Tiny Tyler's catch is at the center of Broun's recently republished modernist novel; a fascinating, remarkably fresh, and funny story about a love triangle between a former baseball writer (George), his intellectual and strong-willed girlfriend (Judith), and a Babe Ruth-like slugger (Tiny Tyler), complete with nearly matching biography and statistics. The narrative action develops out of Judith's aesthetic obsession with Tiny, which ultimately leads, among other things, to a marriage, some fights, and a World Series. And at times disorienting metafictionality seeps through the novel, as elements of the narrative unmistakably parallel Broun's own life, even if Broun--writing as George--argues that The Sun Field "isn't really an autobiographical novel." Although Broun and George, his narrator-double, share much of their biographies (both were "born" in the late 1880s; and although Broun worked as a newspaper man and sports reporter for several different New York papers, beginning in the 1910s and continuing well into the late '20s, George only briefly pursued this career), this is nowhere more evident than in their wives. The fictional Judith Winthrop is--like Broun's wife, Ruth Hale--an ardent feminist and free-thinking wit, and shares with baseball the focus of the novel. Broun knew many of the baseball players of his day (in the introduction Darryl Brock tells of Broun playing bridge with Christy Mathewson), and a number of actual baseball stars from the era make appearances or at least get casual mention throughout the narrative, including Harry Heilmann, Ty Cobb, and Red Faber--both Tiny Tyler and his inspiration, Babe Ruth, hit walk-off home runs off of Faber.

This conflation of reality and fiction lends a strange sense of transparency to the novel, a sense that one is not so much reading a modernist text as reading through a modernist text. The novel exists so entirely in its particular historical moment that it reads at times like a twenty-first-century parody of the Jazz Age; for example, Judith writes to George to tell him that the "Sherwood Anderson piece" is not finished but "I have an excellent article ready for him on 'Tribal Rites in America' which begins with 'The Golden Bough' and ends with a discussion of the custom of standing up in the seventh inning." This passage is also characteristic of Broun's treatment of baseball throughout the text, as he has an aficionado's love and knowledge of the game that allows him to treat it with both the seriousness and humor it needs to be successful in fiction.

Published in 1923, two years prior to that great American modernist literary output of 1925 that saw the printing of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's In Our Time, and Cather's The Professor's House, Broun's novel needs to be discussed alongside these other great works of the modernist canon. Not necessarily because it deserves a place of eternal honor beside those other great novels, for it never achieves the timeless aesthetic brilliance of some other modernist works--there is no "green light," no "orgastic future that year by year recedes before us" in Broun's light-hearted novel. However, it deserves a place all the same because it succeeds in capturing the ephemerality of Baudelaire's modernity, of being the moment, its moment, for a moment; and his use of baseball as the medium through which to suggest the transience of that specific historical moment is ideal. To pretend to represent the eternal would be a farce for a sport in which all is contingent, all is fugitive; after Tiny's poor throw home costs the Yankees a World Series, a reporter tells George that Tiny must have been thinking about Judith's aestheticization of his arm, that "he was out there being a statue instead of an outfielder." If only for a moment does the eternal persist, as the beauty of the throw is that it is not eternal, and Broun's ability to seize that contingency is both the charm and the wonder of the text, as well as its failure and final impossibility.
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Author:Holmberg, David Thomas
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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