literature and sport

Reviewed by Tim Morris, University of Texas at Arlington

18 june 2013       archive

"Literature and Sport," as the desk guard explained to me while apologizing for its lack of a formal catalogue, is a "small summer exhibit" at the Harry Ransom Center, the universe-class special-collections library at the University of Texas at Austin. Small perhaps, but it takes up half of the Ransom Center's ample ground-floor exhibit space, and covers the literature of six sports in considerable detail.

"Literature and Sport" displays items from the Ransom Center's enormous and eclectic holdings. Letters by Bernard Malamud, manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway and Don DeLillo, galley proofs corrected by David Foster Wallace: if there's anything the Ransom Center doesn't have, it's not worth showing anyway. One has the impression that they could mount a not-so-small exhibit on Literature and Just About Anything.

A hand-corrected typescript of Death in the Afternoon shows what pains it cost Hemingway to achieve his distinctive economy of language. By contrast, DeLillo's notes for End Zone and "Pafko at the Wall" show his overplus of invention; the Ransom Center opens the ms. of End Zone at an early page where DeLillo jotted down scores of names for phony but evocative football plays (most of which, as I remember, made it into the novel). In the case of Foster Wallace, the proofs of Infinite Jest also confirm the impressions that the published version leaves: tremendous invention, as well, but under ultra-precise control, down to the en- and em-space level. And with Malamud - well, one gets the impression that he didn't always quite live in the world inhabited by the rest of us. A key item in the exhibit is a letter from Malamud to his agent, regretting (after Damn Yankees was announced) that said agent hadn't tried to sell The Natural as a Broadway musical. Say it ain't so, Bernie.

The rare books that surround this manuscript material are bagatelles by comparison. Of course the Ransom Center can rummage around for five minutes and find the first book publication of "Casey at the Bat," the first book edition of You Know Me, Al, or the first edition of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. (Heck, I can find a first edition of Freedom at home; I bought it for 99 cents at a thrift store. No matter.)

Most interesting of all are the many random objects that surround both books and manuscripts. Some of them seem to have been stuffed around the literary artifacts in order to pad out the exhibit, but as so often happens with padding, they become the most intriguing items in the hall. A baseball autographed by Ferlinghetti. Conan Doyle's golf clubs. J. M. Coetzee's childhood cricket scrapbook. (Which leads to the inevitable question: doesn't Coetzee miss his scrapbook? How sad that your awesome childhood stuff becomes museum pieces while you're still around to no longer enjoy it.)

A cricket-bat-shaped letter opener of Tom Stoppard's accompanies a letter from Harold Pinter, encouraging Stoppard to join his cricket team. There's a presentation copy of Raging Bull, inscribed by Jake LaMotta to Robert DeNiro. In fact, there's a boatload of Robert DeNiro material in the exhibit. The bag and gloves he used to train for Raging Bull; the catcher's helmet he wore in Bang the Drum Slowly; his shooting scripts of both films, his notes, his prop lists. Here, I do see the logic of selling or giving such items to a museum; nobody's got a basement big enough to store junk from all these films, and anyway, if he'd kept it all, where would DeNiro put his Little Fockers memorabilia?

A work of sport literature actually set at UT-Austin, Lars Gustafsson's novel Tennisspelarna (The Tennis Players), is not represented in the exhibit, possibly because the Ransom Center doesn't have any related archival material. But that's the only thing I missed in the exhibit, which is likely the tip of the iceberg of the Ransom's resources for students of sport literature.

Literature and Sport. Exhibit, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. 11 June - 4 August 2013.

Copyright © 2013 by Tim Morris

to the top of this page