America at Play
Scholar, author, and teacher,JACQUES BARZUN was born and schooled in France, came to this country in 1919, was naturalized in 1933, and has been teaching history at Columbia University for more than two decades. A writer since the age of seventeen, he has published a dozen volumes of scholarship and social comment, of which Teacher in America was the most provocative and widely read. His new book. God’s Country and Mine, will appear under the Atlantic—Little, Brown imprint in March: the author terms it “a declaration of love spiced with a few harsh words; and from it, as an appetizer, we have selected the paper which follows.
by JACQUES BARZUN
RECREATION, refreshment, reverberation I find I have used these words to try to say what it is we want when we knock off work. Reverberation is the opposite of flatness, of something that just is, and then is gone. Too much of what we do for fun passes into oblivion the minute after. We make the mistake of supposing that if something calls for effort it can’t be enjoyment, and so we fall back on the ready-made. Yet there is no pleasure without effort, or at least attention; none, that is, which we can capitalize, carry away, and find working some good upon us. From what we hear of our grandparents’ time, the theater, the lyeeum lecture, the county fair, just, because they were rare events long-awaited, yielded a great return in satisfaction. Quality hardly mattered — the appetite, the talk before and after, made the experience full and memorable, made it an experience instead of a time-killer. With us it isn’t surfeit alone but inexpectancy which makes entertainment so feeble. It’s available in familiar capsules and we swallow it without tasting. We’re overdosed and underentertained.
I understand (because I feel it too) that in the twentieth century people want to let go, be on the loose (“relax” is the word) and not sit husking corn to a serious discussion of Joseph Jefferson, who came last December in Our American Cousin. Some have taken to square dancing again, or to playing chamber music with other amateurs. In doing those things we do not have to like the people we are with, or talk to them intelligently. Fun that lets us daydream in company and not care much about any result that is what we seem to want. We are all so tired after the last century’s orgy of work and since the release from certain Victorian taboos, that there is a violent drive toward irresponsibility. The stiffer the discipline of practical life, the more we need repeated whiffs of nonsense to the nostrils, like smelling salts in a close room. It is no accident that industrial Britain in the last century produced Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and that we have made them into great men.
And yet our bad habits trip us up. We wreck our intentions by turning games into drills and sciences. The vogue of quiz programs is a horrifying example of mass pedantry and a perfect instance of what does not reverberate. Nothing flatter than a fact, a lonely, unbefriended fact, rising out of a warehouse mind. The transformation of British whist and good old “five hundred ” into bridge is another case in point. Sailing, too, we have spoiled. Once a modest and refreshing sport—on a windy day you can be refreshed to the skin — it calls for the right kind of effort and it reverberates from all the facets of Nature. And it used to be relatively inexpensive. But solemnity in the form of racing got into it, hull designs became more and more “efficient,” and now it is impossible to find a good, cheap, seaworthy, one-man sloop or cat. If, on the other hand, you own a boat capable of racing and do not race it, you are a slacker, a scab, a perishing amateur.
Fortunately, thanks to our national cult of the pioneer life and our intelligent uses of state reservations, the woods, the streams, and the mountains are still at our command, free or nearly free, wherever we may live. The paraphernalia for getting the most out of them is also at hand in almost ludicrous profusion — a different rod for every individual fish, sleeping bags in which Rip van Winkle would never wake. But here again we skirt danger by developing the professional touch. The literature on field sports is a mass of expert technicalities held together with a sticky kind of natureloving. There is a book club devoted exclusively to publications on the manifold branches of this science, and some of its connoisseurs have learned from it how to be and not to be at the same time: they can apparently revel in the emotions of tropical fishing by simply taking out the right subscriptions. At that point, I admit I am no longer sure what true reverberation is. The barracuda certainly reverberates in my ears when I go and visit a particular stay-at-home friend.
Then let us get out of the city. But suppose I have no country house or farm, and I do not want to visit friends. Such is the lot of thousands. Well, there is the summer hotel located, precisely, in those mountains, on that lake, by those streams that we have access to. Here surely is America at play, vacationing, seeing the world. It is inspiring and sad, worthy of respect for its friendliness and decorum, but somehow not quite restful enough.
There is the scenery, grandiose or consoling, young as the first day. The expression “as old as the hills” is absurd here — what date has our landscape if people are not there to date it with their clothes? Why, the hotel is visibly much older than the hills — a long three-story wooden structure painted a dirty gray, with rocking chairs on the side porch, and the mail desk almost as you enter. The rooms are clean and spacious and there is a coil of rope under the window by way of fire escape. A sprinkler system was installed ten years ago, but in drought summers it has to be disconnected. The food is plain, solid, and edible, though it doesn’t make you kiss your finger lips. The residents are very much like the food, very proper and solid and fundamentally good. They come for two - three weeks or two — three months and most of them come year after year. That is how the routine got clamped down on the place and why it begins molding the newcomer as soon as he has unpacked.
The middle-aged men go off after breakfast and lunch to the golf club ten miles away or to the fishing pools all over. The women are left to knit, gossip, or write letters in the morning and play bridge in the afternoon. Men and women together play bridge in the evening. That is the woof. The warp consists in the “attractions” of the place, the expeditions. There are five climbs and six walks, but it is virtually impossible (that is, antisocial) to go on them alone. Arranging the party is obviously the main source of everybody’s pleasure. There is a protocol of Chinese intricacy about it. Seniority and specialization decide who chooses the route, the sandwiches, and the order of march. Inevitably somebody makes a faux pas and feelings are hurt. At which point, a short stout woman with scant hair the color of shrimps makes it her business to keep the incident alive for the rest of the summer. She is the same who, in the interests of all, communicates in confidence her doubts as to the real occupation of Mr. A and the real age of Mrs. B.
Yet it would be wrong to suppose anyone guilty of intentional meanness. In the face of an accident you would see all these people touchingly affectionate and tactful—as happened the summer a young couple lost their four-year-old boy by drowning. It is plain living, not social graces, that these people have an instinct for; their love of nature bears witness to it. The bird watchers, who are unionized and sternly led, avoid all human broils. They get up at dawn and tread secret paths. (One keeps overhearing the name “Wildwood.”) And at some point in the season come “The Alpine Pedestrians,” a famous group who travel by car and rail to certain chosen spots which they proceed to conquer, for the record.
To betray a mild indifference to any of these energetic aims is of course to court open reproof. What! No bridge, no golf, no fish, no binocular birding? The feeling for community action is very strong. As you walk into the parlor you will heatone earnest white-haired woman challenge another to take up Canasta — and soon — “or what will you do, dear, when your husband slips away from you?” A taste for solitary strolling seems odd. Perhaps you’re unhappy and ought to be “taken out of yourself.” Out of sheer sense of duty some good soul will make a point of drawing you in. and then you must respond — coöperate.
The only group entitled to their separate pursuits are the young. Hotel society leaves them alone, confident that they are swimming, playing tennis, or courting. In fact there aren’t very many young people at hotels, except on the kitchen staff — college boys and girls earning money by waiting on table. They feel and act as your equals if not your superiors, and if they like you, they will rope you into their undertakings, middle-aged though you are. By the end of the first dance of the season, they’ll call you by your first name and at Christmas send you a greeting card. It is all very sweet, but as you thread your way through the mixture of codes and cultures, you may be pardoned for wondering where the refreshing influences came in, except through the eyes.
PEOPLE who care less for gentility manage things better. They don’t bother to leave the arid city but spend their surplus there on pastimes they can enjoy without feeling cramped. They follow boxing and wrestling, burlesque and vaudeville (when available), professional football and hockey. Above all, they thrill in unison with their fellow men the country over by watching baseball. The gods decree a heavyweight match only once in a while and a national election only every four years, but there is a World Series with every revolution of the earth around the sun. And in between, what varied pleasure long drawn out!
Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game — and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. The big league games are too fast for the beginner and the newspapers don’t help. To read them with profit you have to know a language that comes easy only after philosophy has taught you to judge practice. Here is scholarship that lakes effort on the part of the outsider, but it is so bred into the native that it never becomes a dreary round of technicalities. The wonderful purging of the passions that we all experienced in the fall of ‘51, the despair groaned out over the fate of the Dodgers, from whom the league pennant was snatched at the last minute, give us some idea of what Greek tragedy was like. Baseball is Greek in being national, heroic, and broken up in the rivalries of city-states.
And that it fitly expresses the powers of the nations mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate, and brainy of all group games. It is of and for our century. Tennis belongs to the individualistic past —a hero, or at most a pair of friends or lovers, against the world. The idea of baseball is a team, an outfit, a section, a gang, a union, a cell, a commando — in short, a twentiethcentury setup of opposite numbers.
Baseball takes its mystic nine and scatters them wide. A kind of individualism thereby returns, but it is limited - eternal vigilance is the price of victory. Just because they’re far apart, the outfield can’t dream or play she-loves-me-not with daisies. The infield is like a steel net held in the hands of the catcher. He is the psychologist and historian for the staff — or else his signals will give the opposition hits. The value of his headpiece is shown by the ironmongery worn to protect it. The pitcher, on the other hand, is the wayward man of genius, whom others will direct. They will expect nothing from him but virtuosity. He is surrounded no doubt by mere talent, unless one excepts that transplanted acrobat, the shortstop. What a brilliant invention is his role despite its exposure to ludicrous lapses! One man to each base, and then the free lance, the trouble-shooter, the movable feast tor the eyes, whose motion animates the whole foreground.
The rules keep pace with this imaginative creation so rich in allusions to real life. How excellent, for instance, that a foul tip muffed by the catcher gives the batter another chance. It is the recognition of Chance that knows no argument. But on the other hand, how just that the third strike must not be dropped. This points to the fact that near the end of any struggle, life asks for more than is needful in order to clinch success. A victory has to be won, not snatched. We find also our American innocence in calling “World Series” the annual games between the winners in each big league. The world doesn’t know or care and couldn’t compete if it wanted to, but since its us children having fun, why, the world is our stage. I said baseball was Greek, Is there not a poetic symbol in the new meaning — our meaning — of “ Ruth hits Homer”?
Once the crack of the bat has sent the ball shimmering toward second, between the infielder’s legs, six men converge or distend their defense to keep the runner from advancing along the prescribed path. The ball is not the center of interest as in those vulgar predatory games like football, basket ball, or polo. Man running is the force to be contained. His getting to first or second base starts a capitalization dreadful to think of: every hit pushes him on. Bases full and a homer make four runs, while the defenders, helpless without the magic power of the ball lying over the fence, cry out their anguish and dig up the sod with their spikes.
But fate is controlled by the rules. Opportunity swings from one side to the oilier because innings alternate quickly, keep up spirit in the players, interest in the beholders. So does the profusion of different acts to be performed—pitching, throwing, catching, batting, running, stealing, sliding, signaling. Hits are similarly varied. Flies, Texas Leaguers, grounders, baseline fouls — praise God the human neck is a universal joint! And there is no sot pace. Under the hot sun, the minutes creep as a deliberate pitcher tries his drops and curves for three strikes called, or conversely walks a threatening batter. But the batter is not invariably a tailor’s dummy. In a hundredth of a second there may be a hissing rocket down right field, a cloud of dust over first base — the bleachers all a-yell — a double play, and the other side up to bat.
Accuracy and speed, the practiced eye and hefty arm, the mind to take in and readjust to the unexpected, the possession of more than one talent and the willingness to work in harness without special orders — these are the American virtues that shine in baseball. There has never been a good player who was dumb. Beef and bulk and mere endurance count for little, judgment and daring fur much. Baseball is among group games played with a ball what fencing is to games of combat. But being spread out, baseball has something sociable and friendly about it that I especially love. It is graphic and choreographic. The ball is not shuttling in a confined space, as in tennis. Nor does baseball go to the other extreme of solitary whanging and counting stopped on the brink of pointlessness, like golf. Baseball is a kind of collective chess with arms and legs in full play under sunlight.
The team is elegance itself in its striped knee breeches and loose shirts, colored stockings and peaked caps. Except for brief moments of sliding, you can see them all in one eyeful, unlike the muddy hecatombs of football. To watch a football game is to be in prolonged neurotic doubt as to what you’re seeing. It’s more like an emergency happening at a distance than a game. I don’t wonder the spectators take to drink. Who has ever seen a baseball fan drinking within the meaning of the act? He wants all his senses sharp and clear, his eyesight above all. He gulps down soda pop, which is a harmless way of replenishing his energy by the ingestion of sugar diluted in water and colored pink.
Happy the man in the bleachers. He is enjoying the spectacle that the gods on Olympus contrived only with difficulty when they sent Helen to Troy and picked their teams. And the gods missed the fun of doing this by catching a bat near the narrow end and measuring hand over hand for first pick. In Troy, New York, the game scheduled for 2 P.M. will break no bones, yet it will be a real fight between Southpaw Dick and Red Larsen. For those whom civilized play doesn’t fully satisfy, there will be provided a scapegoat in a blue suit —the umpire, yell-proof and even-handed as justice, which he demonstrates with outstretched arms when calling “Safe!”
And the next day in the paper: learned comment, statistical summaries, and the verbal imagery of meta-euphoric experts. In the face of so much joy, one can only ask. Were you there when Dogface Joe parked the pellet beyond the pale?
IF I like the speed of baseball, I should also like the circus. Am I not an American, whose early memories of the oncoming of summer include the arrival of Ringling Brothers to town? The trouble is — and this differs from ordinary likes and dislikes — I have never become reconciled to the circus. It spells to me the dark side of life. Whereas baseball shows me man moving freely and adroitly, the circus shows me man enslaved — like the other animals. I see freaks, real or contrived. I gape at the clown’s contortions; I laugh hysterically at his perpetual catastrophes. But I don’t really know why I must laugh at his disfigurement. Isn’t it also my own? Am I to be put on good terms with myself by pretending that his antics have sopped up all the misfortune, clumsiness, and disproportion there is? No: on all this I agree completely with Huckleberry Finn who said: “It warn’t funny to me, though.”
Besides, the smell of bread earned under duress clings to every element of the circus. I love trapeze work and feats of horsemanship, but under the tent they fill me with despair. I want to cry when I hear “Alley oop!” and see the tinselly tights and the challenging smiles. The master of ceremonies seems to enjoy himself, but I have a nervous feeling he’s going to be arrested as a bogus duke. And isn’t it here, in the barker’s lies, that advertising fraud and false promises have their ancestral source? The pickpockets inside merely carry out the theme.
I also feel it in my bones that the animals come straight from the Coliseum at Rome—who would have thought of them as a show except by the old association of wild beasts with Christians? But now the poor brutes haven’t the consolation of eating us. I am no great lover of animals, but I don’t want elephants to travel in boxcars on torrid days, and I cheer for the one who broke away the other summer and lay down for twenty minutes in a busy square. Nothing could budge him, and I wish his name had been Gulliver, to re-enact the proof of his contempt for us Lilliputians. So don’t take me to the circus; I’m liable to do myself in with an overdose of Crackerjack. . . .
So much for the eyes. The pleasure of car and mind, with us, is sought in that old favorite pastime of Americans — the lecture. Since true platform magnetism is rare — even politicians are not the spellbinders they used to be — we have to accept, here too, the conventional substitutes: the man who was there when it happened, the housewife who swam the Channel, the visiting fireman or acquitted murderess. We are the greatest lecturegobblers in the world, and this without harm, because we have intuitively found out that a large dose is better than a small one. Always attend a series of lectures. One neutralizes the other and all are eliminated together. The only care to be observed is to alternate between acid and alkaline subjects — world affairs (very acid), art and literature (practically pure bicarb).
But the supply always threatens to run short. How can it keep pace when nearly every organized group regardless of purpose, every school board and museum and club, decides that in addition to publishing a bulletin it must hold lectures? The reason is, there must be something to show for the $6.50 annual dues. I have before me a solicitation to join which says: “Magazine and lectures for fife — One hundred dollars.”For life, mind you—a sentence I for one would want commuted to capital punishment.
If Americans get thoroughly lectured, it is because so many of us write books. This is no paradox. The physician who from a sense of public duty writes The Doctor Looks You Over, and sees it turn into a best seller, finds that he is swamped with invitations to lecture. People want to see what he looks like, how he talks, and whether his opinions are the same as those of the author of the book. Drama critics, novelists, political writers, and latterly poets are in great demand to feed a curiosity that is by no means contemptible and far from uninformed. It is encouraging, for behind it, surely, is the laudable desire to persuade ourselves that the books being talked of, the ideas in the air, have come out of human heads, preferably distinct and attractive ones, and not some machine made up of sad lads with a technique.