Times reviewer’s disdain for baseball is ‘unnatural’

April 2, 2014

Last month I received a copy of Chasing Dreams, the companion volume to the baseball exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Thumbing through it, I found this  portrait of Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural, one of the highest regarded baseball novels of all time.

A few days afterwards, the cover story of the NY Times Sunday Book Review carried the same photo. Small world; I had never seen that particular shot before, and here we have it twice in a week.

The occasion was a review by Cynthia Ozick of the new Library of America’s multi-volume collection of Malamud’s work, including his signature (to baseball fans) opus.

Here’s the passage in question:

“A New Life” may be the most overlooked of Malamud’s long fictions, perhaps because it has been mistaken as yet another academic novel. But the sheath is not the sword, and “A New Life” is as exquisite in its evocation of American transformation as Gatsby himself. Reversing the classic theme of the-young-man-from-the-provinces, S. Levin, incipient wife-stealer, “formerly a drunkard,” is a refugee from the New York tenements who leaves behind the grit of urban roil to be absorbed by village ways. Cascadia, the unprepossessing Northwestern college he joins as a low-ranking teacher, turns out to be precisely that: a provincial village of the kind we might read of in an English novel of rural life, with its petty hierarchies and spites and rivalries. Yet the local terrain — trees, flowers, green hills, pristine vistas — is intoxicating to the city dweller, and here Malamud, whose impoverished outer-borough warrens are uniformly grim, writes peerlessly, as nowhere else, of proliferating natural beauty. And in the vein of Huck Finn, who chooses damnation over the lies of conventional morality, he casts a redemptive radiance on the fraught flight of an adulterous woman and her fornicating lover. In its tormented, satirical and startling underminings, “A New Life” — which, like “The Natural,”* stands tonally apart from Malamud’s other work — is one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny.

The asterisk leads to the following footnote:

*The reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read “The Natural,” a baseball novel said to incorporate a mythical theme. Myth may be myth, but baseball is still baseball, so never mind.

If Ozick is not a baseball fan, that’s fine. There’s plenty more of his work to enjoy. But the asterisk is kind of a red flag, a slap in the face to those of us who do love The Natural specifically as a baseball book. Yes, if you parse enough no baseball novel is actually about baseball. But Ozick’s snark has ruffled a few feathers. In a subsequent issue of the Review, Dan Okrent, author of several fine titles about baseball — and other topics — and former public editor for the Times, wrote

If, as Cynthia Ozick writes in her review of two Library of America collections of Bernard Malamud’s work (March 16), “the reviewer has not read and is not likely ever to read ‘The Natural’ ” because it has a baseball setting, then perhaps she oughtn’t be reviewing a volume that includes it. She might as well review the collected F. Scott Fitzgerald and leave out “Tender Is the Night” because she doesn’t like France.

Floyd Abrams, another letter-writer, said

Cynthia Ozick offers an incisive assessment of Bernard Malamud’s fiction, but her treatment of “The Natural” is bizarre. Having told us in the body of her review that the book, like “A New Life,” “stands tonally apart from Malamud’s other work,” she then advises in a footnote that since “The Natural” is about baseball, she has never read it. It is one thing to resist the poetry of baseball, but it seems to me another failing altogether for a reviewer to comment on a book that she has deliberately left unread.

In addition, Ozick’s review has incurred the wrath of the blogosphere. This piece by Lowell Cohn, for example. And this by Mitch Levenberg.

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