"Straighten up and fly right": A contrafactual reading of Percival Everett's Suder and Bernard Malamud's the natural

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Author: Emily R. Rutter
Date: Fall 2014
Publisher: Sports Literature Association
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,921 words

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In his essay "Why Baseball Was the Black National Pastime" (2000), Gerald Early argues, "African Americans organizing themselves to play this game has both a tragic and a lyrical quality. Baseball for African Americans was about demanding their place as Americans while defying the practice of a racist America. It has cost blacks a great deal to play this game" (40). Indeed, baseball has played a particularly paradoxical role in African American cultural history. During the late nineteenth century, major league baseball committed its original sin by instituting an unwritten color barrier to bar Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet") Walker, John "Bud" Fowler, and other players of color from major league play. (1) In the twentieth century, the Negro Leagues then became a proud example of black communal uplift and achievement, as well as a reminder of the indefatigability of white supremacist attitudes. Perhaps most famously, Jackie Robinson broke the color line on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but despite the progress that this watershed moment portended, "every black player who followed Robinson during the next 12 years experienced some form of racial discrimination" (Moffi and Kronstadt 3). Thematizing this paradoxical relationship to the "national pastime," African American writers have used the imaginative realm to challenge major league baseball's historical valorization of whiteness. Specifically, this essay considers Percival Everett's understudied novel Suder (1983) as a poignant counternarrative to the idealized notion of baseball as "a 'field of dreams' for every American" (Riley 11).

As with black baseball, jazz history is replete with examples of disenfranchisement as well as perseverance and innovation in the face of it--a parallel that Everett himself draws in Suder's many references to Charlie Parker ("Bird"). Many of the most lauded jazz musicians--Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, to name only a few--were routinely denied the right to eat, sleep, and play their instruments in the venues of their choice. Nonetheless, they forged what is now heralded as America's classical music, one of its most prized cultural achievements. An apt sonic exemplar of jazz musicians' willful defiance and ingenuity is the contrafact: "an expropriated piece of another tune, brought in as the basis for the composition/performance at hand" (Bartlett 648). Parker, Gillespie, and other bebop musicians were particularly well-known for these revampings of often saccharine show tunes into musically provocative jazz compositions. (2) In fact, a centerpiece of Everett's Suder is Parker's oft-cited contrafact "Ornithology," a masterful reimagining of the song "How High the Moon" from the musical Two for the Show (1940). Utilizing a similar contrafactual framework that Everett invites with his references to Parker, this essay argues that Suder, to use the language of jazz, lays new and distinctively African American melodies over perhaps the most iconic of all baseball novels: Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952).

While Everett does not cite Malamud as his interlocutor, his riffs on the formal and thematic tropes that characterize The Natural make it a particularly salient contrafactual reference point....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A490275567