Eight Hot Trollopes

Does the now rather tame eroticism of Victorian novels restrict their readership mostly to English majors, culture warriors invested in traditional moralities, and Masterpiece fans? Here’s an experiment for more jaded 21st-century readers: let’s take a quick tour of the love scenes of a famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, who is more celebrated for his lengthy chronicles of Victorian society and politics than romance, to see if his writings still intrigue or even enflame. Such a tour might help readers decide whether they want to read through all of Trollope’s 47 novels or, say, to work through the 800-ish pages of Can You Forgive Her? to find the one embrace, where, exemplifying both her passion and her shame in that passion, Alice Vavasor still shrinks guiltily from her lover as she accepts him.

Erotic encounters in Trollope can now seem both anachronistic and unintentionally funny not only because the author was a rather standard-model Victorian moralist but also because his novels often are more invested in the social or the political than the romantic. As Trollope admitted in An Autobiography, he shrewdly wrote romance into his novels to attract readers to whom he could teach moral lessons: “dealing with love is advantageous” since “the passion is one which interests or has interested all.” Briefly assessing the lurching forms of hugging and kissing in Trollope, however, will show that his works aren’t just period pieces. Instead, our survey will reveal an intriguing clash between the author’s conventional social views and his impish literary impulses—and, more fascinatingly, between those same views and the quiet stirrings of a few proto-modern ideas. For concision, we’ll restrict ourselves to his two major novelistic series, the six Barchester novels and the six Palliser novels, starting with Trollope at his most literary and moving from there.

1. The Embarrassments of Attraction
In Phineas Finn, the eponymous hero, after unsuccessfully romancing three ladies above his station, conforms to garden-variety Victorian values by marrying his hometown sweetheart, Mary Flood Jones, who has pined for him from afar the whole novel. “’Mary,’ he said, ‘will you be my wife,—my own wife?’…When half an hour had passed, they were still together, and now she had found the use of her tongue. ‘Do whatever you like best,’ she said. . . . Then he took her in his arms and kissed her. ‘Oh, Phineas!’ she said, ‘I do love you so entirely!’” Presumably, Mary isn’t using that tongue to kiss him back; she is instead a morally suitable example of Victorian female subservience and restraint. Like many 19th-century writers, Trollope often associates physical attraction with danger and self-control with virtue: his heroines Lily Dale, Glencora Palliser (for a while), and Emily Wharton are all betrayed by their attachments to handsome men who appear to act like gentleman but instead jilt, drink and gamble, and ruinously speculate, respectively. But Trollope knew he was employing a literary cliché here in Phineas Finn. And Mary’s long silent treatment reads like an absurdist expansion of famous scenes like the moment when even 19th-century British literature’s most verbose pixie, Elizabeth Bennett, is briefly silenced and cannot even look at Mr. Darcy right after he proposes. By contrast, Mary is revealed here as a characterological bore, and, presumably admitting defeat, Trollope conveniently killed her off before the sequel Phineas Redux. He often had trouble fully committing to conventional romantic narratives.

2. Love by Proxy
Consider the following love passage from Framley Parsonage: ‘“Lucy, dearest Lucy, you must be very dear to me now.’ And then they were in each other’s arms, kissing each other.” And also one from The Last Chronicle of Barset: “No man in England knew better than the archdeacon the difference between beauty of one kind and beauty of another kind in a woman’s face,–the one beauty, which comes from health and youth and animal spirits, and which belongs to the miller’s daughter, and the other beauty, which shows itself in fine lines and a noble spirit,–the beauty which comes from breeding…Then he stooped over her and kissed her.” At first, these scenes seem generic—the latter with an extra helping of class snobbery—but they actually feature the parents of the prospective grooms and their sons’ lady loves. Being further down the social scale from the men they adore and fearing social opprobrium, Lucy Robarts and Grace Crawley have nobly refused to marry unless their lovers’ parents (Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly, respectively) agree to it. In fact, the previously skeptical Lady Lufton eventually makes the proposal that really counts: “He is the best of sons, and the best of men, and I am sure that he will be the best of husbands…And now I have come here, Lucy, to ask you to be his wife.” Then the kissing noted above starts in earnest. Because the parent/principled young thing scenes are so intense, wooing scenes featuring the actual lovers are superfluous. As Trollope acidly observes later on in Last Chronicle when eliding an actual proposal, “What little attempt Henry Grantly then made, thinking that he could not do better than follow closely the example of so excellent a father, need not be explained with minuteness.” So much for the passions of youthful romance: the real issue here is the ecstatic breaking of the class differences temporarily thwarting the lovers. These eroticized intergenerational conversations, however, also winkingly foreground the inherent creepiness of the ways in which the period’s novels framed romance as a form of class accommodation (and vice-versa).

3. Love as Comedy
The distance between the mock epic diction in some of Trollope’s copious authorial commentary and the bathetic reality also implies the author’s intermittent disinvestment in his own romantic narratives. From The Warden: “And so at last, all her defences demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.” To translate: John Bold now knows Eleanor Harding loves him, although she hasn’t said so explicitly. But a romantic scene in Doctor Thorne has a stranger, even more riveting, comic tone. The operative joke here is that Frank Gresham hasn’t been able to see his lover Mary Thorne alone—a common 19th-century problem Trollope often mines for comedy—and he must make the best of less-than-ideal circumstances:
‘Mary!’ said he, and as he spoke he put his hand on the donkey’s neck and looked tenderly into her face . . . . ‘Mary, Mary!’ said Frank, throwing his arms round her knees as she sat upon her steed, and pressing his face against her body. ‘Mary, you were always honest; be honest now. I love you with all my heart. Will you be my wife?’ . . . . She could only sit there shaking and crying and wishing she was on the ground. Frank, on the whole, rather liked the donkey. It enabled him to approach somewhat nearer to an embrace than he might have found practicable had they both been on their feet. The donkey himself was quite at his ease . . . .
Trollope was also presumably at his ease while writing this last sentence, and given his love of horses, fox hunting, and the many hunting scenes in his novels, it’s not surprising that large domestic animals play an occasional role in lovemaking scenes (e.g., Lord Lufton’s expressing his affection for Lucy Robarts by offering her a horse). That said, Frank’s actions here also presented Victorian readers with the illicit thrill of seeing a man touching a woman’s legs before marriage. And Mary’s confusion and shaking embody that now perplexing Victorian notion of female romantic fulfillment via humiliation. An author so willing to subvert the stereotypical conventions of the love scene—and implicitly acknowledge that his hero, and presumably some of his readers, are leg men—is catering to a large range of erotic feelings. It’s a peculiar, almost avant-garde, cornball love threesome.

4. Love as Coercion
Overall, however, Trollope is much more literarily than culturally subversive. The war of the sexes in The Warden and Doctor Thorne may be comedic literary fodder, but elsewhere in Trollope it is deadly serious—and illuminates the profound sexism undergirding mainstream Victorian social values. In Phineas Finn, the socially inept Lord Chiltern woos violently: “‘Violet, speak to me honestly. Will you be my wife?’ She did not answer him, and he stood for a moment looking at her. Then he rushed at her, and, seizing her in his arms, kissed her all over,–her forehead, her lips, her cheeks, then both her hands, and then her lips again. ‘By G___, she is my own!’ he said.” The narrator’s uneasy summary is telling. Violet indeed loves Chiltern and quietly accedes to his self-proclaimed ownership (“She had no negative to produce now in answer to the violent assertion which he had pronounced”), but she doesn’t know if she can trust him. They eventually forge a respectable alliance based on Violet’s ability to manage her husband socially and on the avocation that allows him to quench his troubling animal impulses: being the Master of the Hounds for the local fox hunt. Despite the caveats, Trollope’s semi-rehabilitation of the volatile Chiltern throughout the rest of the Palliser series implicitly licences the latter’s violence (including the unnecessary duel he fights with Phineas over Violet) and endorses the social regime that tolerated such violence.

Can You Forgive Her? features the coercive rhetoric of an otherwise more laudable hero. Alice Vavasor, a very Victorian combination of womanly depression and self-loathing, spurns her first lover, John Gray, and instead attaches herself and her inheritance to her unscrupulous cousin George Vavasor and his political ambitions. But Gray, patient and thoughtful with Alice throughout the novel after she abandons him, enacts his mid-Victorian male privilege to win her back:
‘If you love me, after what has passed, I have a right to demand your hand. My happiness requires it, and I have a right to expect your compliance. I do demand it. If you love me, Alice, I tell you that you dare not refuse me. If you do so, you will fail hereafter to reconcile it to your conscience before God.’…Then he stopped his speech, and waited for a reply; but Alice sat silent beneath his gaze, with her eyes turned upon the tombstones beneath her feet. Of course she had no choice but to yield. He, possessed of power and force infinitely greater than hers, had left her no alternative but to be happy.
Although he often chronicled the sad waste of women’s talents in his novels, Trollope was no supporter of contemporary women’s rights movements. The narrative here implicitly cheers on Gray’s all-too-Victorian moralization of gender roles, and his speech doubles as verbal punishment for Alice’s previous attempts to bend them. But after making such points, the passage quickly shifts to Alice’s point of view and her limited options: presumably, it’s marriage or death. She is eventually rewarded for conforming to the standard moral path for Victorian heroines, but throughout The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset Lily Dale is punished for what would otherwise seem to be a laudable characterological trait: her inability to stop loving the man whom she promised to marry. The problem is that Adolphus Crosbie has jilted her for a richer woman, and afterward Lily is unable to accept her only other suitor, John Eames. Her unhappy ending—involving her subsequent loneliness, despair, and disappearance from the narrative—has haunted readers ever since. So although Lily’s steadfast virtue officially generates a cautionary tale about feminine intransigence, both her and Alice’s stories quietly underscore the contradictions of—and collateral damages associated with—the social values Trollope’s novels overtly promote.

5. Equality and the Collective Unconscious
Notwithstanding Trollope’s personal views, his writings also portray some rather surprising forms of equality between the sexes. For instance, both Trollope’s men and women are often confronted with the challenge of marrying money—the author mercilessly catalogues in a variety of works how the Victorian classics-based educational system did not teach gentlemen marketable business skills—and his heroes are often at least as shy and virginal as the heroines. Even one of Trollope’s more mature heroes, Dr. Arabin from Barchester Towers, is teased for his many celibate years in academia: “he, bowing his face down over hers, pressed his lips upon her brow; his virgin lips, which since a beard first grew upon his chin, had never yet tasted the luxury of a woman’s cheek.” Despite having just declared himself, Arabin still at first can’t kiss Eleanor on the lips.

When Trollope’s desperate men and their anxious women finally acknowledge their love, however, the resulting wave of passion equally enfolds them both: “’Eleanor!’ [Arabin] again exclaimed; and in a moment he had her clasped to his bosom. How this was done, whether the doing was with him or her, whether she had flown thither conquered by the tenderness of his voice, or he with a violence not likely to give offence had drawn her to his breast, neither of them knew; nor can I declare.” (Barchester Towers). There’s lots of pressing together and bosom clasping in Trollopian love scenes, which indicates both the partners’ urgent mutual desires and their limited training in the erotic arts. But it’s not just the men who feel intensely: “But in a moment, before she could remember that she was in the room, he had seized her in his arms, and was showering kisses upon her forehead, her eyes, and her lips. When she thought of it afterwards, she could not call to mind a single word that he had spoken before he held her in his embrace” (The Eustace Diamonds). In other words, Lucy Morris is as transported here as Frank Greystock. These scenes are paradoxical, featuring out-of-body (and mind) experiences that are nonetheless some of the closest analogues to mutual orgasm that one gets in mainstream Victorian writing. Of course, Trollope cannily presents such passions as disassociated because he couldn’t explicitly portray either imaginative lusts or sexual acts. But what is surprisingly modern here is his portrayal of the sexes equally sharing both sexual desire and its overwhelming emotional fulfillment.

6. Women Gaining Control
In the final novel of the Palliser series, The Duke’s Children, the widowed Plantagenet Palliser, now a duke and a former prime minister, battles with his children over their romantic choices. His daughter Mary loves the less-affluent M.P. Frank Treagar, but she increasingly realizes that she can outlast her father’s opposition to the match and thus declares her forbidden love early and often:
‘She would not have come if she had expected [Treagar’s presence],’ said Silverbridge.

‘Certainly not,’ said Mary, speaking for the first time, ‘But now he is here___’ Then she stopped herself, rose from the sofa, sat down, and then rising again, stepped up to her lover, who rose at the same moment,–and threw herself into his arms and put up her lips to be kissed. . . .

‘Now go,’ said Mary through her sobs.

‘My own one,’ ejaculated Tregear.
This scene presumably shocked Victorian audiences—it even ends with an ejaculation (!)—but it is genuinely erotic even now. Eventually, a clearly humanized duke acknowledges that his children’s wishes should take precedence over his own dynastic concerns. Perhaps it was easier for Trollope to unwind a taut, moralizing Victorian father figure—a stock character in the period’s novels—later in his lucrative writing career when he had secured a consistently large audience. And Mary’s triumph may also register the multiplying possibilities for Victorian women’s agency (or at least for wealthy women) following various public agitations on “the Woman Question” in the late 1850s and beyond. Overall, though, the scene highlights the basic contradiction that structures much of Trollope’s romantic writings: he is a conventional social thinker whose novels nevertheless sympathetically present some of his female characters’ unconventional romantic choices and, over his career, increasingly chronicle the social changes that allowed those choices to emerge. Trollope can be all over the ideological map.

7. The Exhaustion of Love
A number of these love scenes come at the end of long novels with many narrative twists and turns, and the relief when the characters are finally coupled is often palpable. In the melodramatic Phineas Redux, our hero Phineas Finn is elected—and unelected—to Parliament, loves and loses three women, is falsely accused of murder, and barely avoids the hangman’s noose. At the end, he visits his longtime female friend who found the evidence that acquitted him at trial:
‘I know why you have come.’

‘I doubt that. I have come to tell you that I love you.’

‘Oh, Phineas;–at last, at last!’ And in a moment she was in his arms.

It seemed to him that from that moment all the explanations, and all the statements, and most of the assurances were made by her and not by him.
At last, too, for the exhausted reader, who closes the novel finally having seen the widow Madame Max get her man, and who understands that the final embrace may be as much about ending the story as the sex. But after Trollope’s men seize the romantic moment, the quotidian often quickly returns, along with women’s agency. And if many 19th-century novels end in a kiss and a marriage, Trollope’s two novelistic series detail several marriages over time (often over several novels), focusing on day-to-day domestic life where the women often efficiently manage their husbands. Some novels play this up for satiric effect (famously, the harridan Mrs. Proudie in the Barchester series), but others cheerfully acknowledge the innovative social engineering of women like Madame Max and Glencora Palliser. Indeed, Glencora’s increasingly lavish social gatherings in the Palliser series alter the public’s perception of her husband’s political agenda as prime minister. The series is an early vision of a more modern political sphere shaped as much by the powers of celebrity and wealth as by political manueverings and policy debates. Trollope is transfixed by both the politics of the domestic and the domestication of politics.

8. A Modern Woman?
Let’s end our brief survey with Marie “Madame Max” Goesler, the wealthy widow of a Vienna banker who shoehorns her way into the upper echelons of Trollope’s very English world over several novels in the Palliser series. On the one hand, she is a stereotypical female Victorian success story: she eventually marries the gentleman she loves and influences the people around her with her style, wit, and advice, even braving Plantagenet’s wrath to champion his daughter’s romantic choices. On the other hand, she refuses a traditional woman’s role by fending off various suitors other than Phineas (including Plantagenet’s father, the fabulously wealthy Duke of Omnium), by successfully managing her late husband’s wealth, and by doing heroic detective work on the continent to prove Phineas’s innocence. She’s thus both a successful lover and an action hero, and her ambiguously gendered moniker, “Madame Max,” implies both the origins of her power (her late husband’s money) and her ability to transcend the limitations of her gender. But if she looks, retrospectively, like a game-changing protomodern female role model, the character probably wasn’t a major cultural threat then: not all mid- to late-Victorian women readers would have identified with a foreign outsider with a mysterious backstory, which the author never fully explains other than to hint, employing the requisite period bigotry, that she is Jewish.

But Madame Max is nonetheless fascinating, and, ultimately, for current readers, it’s not Trollope’s dithering gentlemen but his vibrant women—such as the clever heiresses Madame Max and Miss Dunstable, the sharply intelligent but self-defeating Alice Vavasour, the lively yet sorrowful Lily Dale, and the emotionally unsatisfied but increasingly politicized socialite Glencora Palliser—whose raw, baffling, and even self-contradictory desires still make his novels compelling reading and his deep dives into Victorian social mores and political struggles more accessible. Trollope isn’t as acute a psychologist as George Eliot or quite as funny as Charles Dickens, but his characters, especially the women, do undergo fascinating emotional and moral swerves. And the incisive observations and pervasive ironies in Trollope’s famously copious authorial interventions vividly chronicle these swerves even when they implicitly put into question his own very Victorian views. As our brief tour of Trollopian love succinctly illustrates, there’s a complex, surprisingly engaging, and increasingly modern world inside the author’s literally and figuratively heavy Victorian novels.

Sportswriting: A 2,000-Year History

Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.

The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.

The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
Yes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.

When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks  invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.

David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
Who knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.

Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).

The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)

The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?

Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.

The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.

The Sun Also Rises (1926)
This is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.

But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.

Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
In the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.

The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.

Beyond a Boundary (1963)
C.L.R. James’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.

In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).

Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
It’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.

Some of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.

Ball Four (1970)
Let’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).

Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.

The Boys of Summer (1972)
At some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.

Kahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fences—has itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.

1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).

In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.

The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?

Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox.  Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?

A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.