The Natural | Study Guide

Bernard Malamud

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The Natural | 11 Things You Didn't Know

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Bernard Malamud's first novel, The Natural, was published in 1952 and is considered a classic of baseball fiction. Based partly on real events, the novel traces the strange career of Roy Hobbs, a baseball player who loses his chance at the big leagues when he's shot by a mysterious woman. Fifteen years later Roy reappears and seems fated to take his team to victory, but his too-human flaws overcome his nearly mythical talent at bat.

Said to incorporate myths from ancient Greece to Arthurian legend, The Natural portrays the game of baseball as part of the American myth. The novel was an immediate success, its blend of allegory, realism, and history drawing readers to what the New York Times called "a brilliant and unusual book."

1. The shooting in The Natural is based on the real shooting of a baseball player.

In 1948 a 19-year-old woman named Ruth Ann Steinhagen developed an obsessive crush on Chicago Cubs first baseman Eddie Waitkus. She was so obsessed she would set a place at the dinner table for Waitkus, and she made her bedroom into a shrine dedicated to him. After the baseball season, the Cubs traded Waitkus to the Philadelphia Phillies. Steinhagen took a room in the hotel where the ballplayer was staying, invited him to her room, and, when he arrived, shot him in the chest with a rifle. Like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, Waitkus survived the shooting and played for five more seasons. Steinhagen was declared insane and never tried, but the fictionalized assault is a pivotal plot point in The Natural.

2. Malamud's inspiration for The Natural was a New York Times article.

While the assault on Roy Hobbs in The Natural may have been inspired by real events, the temptations that Hobbs faces and the choices he makes were, Malamud claimed, based on articles in the New York Times by sportswriter Arthur Daley. Daley wrote about the gambling and fixing scandals of 1945 and 1950 involving college basketball. His treatment of the young men involved in those scandals and the reasons behind their downfalls led Malamud to explore similar themes in his novel.

3. Malamud burned one of his early works because he felt he could do better.

In 1940 Malamud was working at an evening teaching job and trying to write novels and short stories. He placed several stories in university journals, but he wrote a novel called The Light Sleeper that did not find a publisher. He wrote, "Later, I burned it one night in Oregon because I felt I could do better." His young son watched him burn the book.

4. The climactic statement at the end of The Natural was based on a real quote.

In the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, players on the Chicago White Sox baseball team deliberately lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in return for payment. One anecdote has a little boy calling out to the White Sox player known as Shoeless Joe Jackson as he leaves the courthouse, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" Malamud uses this legendary statement in The Natural when he has a boy say to Roy Hobbs, who is accused of cheating, "Say it ain't true, Roy."

5. Critics have drawn links between The Natural and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table.

Critics have said—and Malamud himself admitted—that Arthurian legends were a vital component of The Natural. Malamud said that he used scholar Jessie Weston's 1906 book The Legend of Sir Perceval as inspiration: "I wasn't able to write about the game until I transformed game into myth, via Jessie Weston's Percival [sic] legend." Malamud named the team for which Hobbs plays the Knights; he gave the coach the name of Fisher, after the Fisher King who stymies Perceval in his quest for the Holy Grail. Critics consider Hobbs a modern-day Perceval, his Holy Grail a World Series pennant.

6. Critics have compared Roy in The Natural to the Greek hero Achilles.

Critics have focused on Greek myth as well as Arthurian legend as a basis for the events and characters in The Natural. Commentary magazine's 1953 review of the novel claimed, "The Natural is loaded with Homeric parallels and suggestions of myth—overloaded in fact." It went on to say that Roy Hobbs, when unable to hit, seems like "Achilles brooding in his tent" and connects his bat, forged by lightning, to the god Hephaestus.

7. The film adaptation of The Natural was nominated for four Academy Awards.

The 1984 film adaptation of The Natural, starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close), Best Cinematography, Best Music, and Best Art Direction. Though it won no awards, it did get a Grammy for its score.

8. The director of the film version of The Natural horrified some critics by giving the story a happy ending.

The novel ends with Roy Hobbs striking out, but the film adaptation allows Roy Hobbs a home run that wins his team the World Series. Critic Roger Ebert called the ending "idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford." Other reviews, including those in Time and Variety, liked the film, but Ebert complained, "At about the 130-minute mark, I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field."

9. It's unclear whether Malamud approved of the film adaptation.

Malamud stated that he didn't plan to see the film of The Natural, saying, "I'm not going to this movie and I'm never going to read your screenplay." But he did eventually see it with his daughter. According to reports, when she asked him what he thought, he replied, "At last, I'm an American writer."

10. Some of Malamud's literary friends did not like The Natural.

When The Natural was first published, it received mixed reviews, even among Malamud's friends. Malamud wrote to his wife, "The book is no masterpiece but it is clever entertainment and says something to perhaps simple people." He lunched with Robert Warshaw, the editor of Commentary magazine, who stated that it was "lacking in invention." But the novel's popularity gave Malamud his start, allowing him to say, "Now I join the sacred company" of writers.

11. Author Philip Roth and Malamud had a falling out after Roth criticized his work in 1974.

Philip Roth and Malamud were good friends for over a decade and were often linked, along with Saul Bellow, as America's preeminent Jewish fiction writers. However, in 1974 Roth wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books titled "Imagining Jews," in which he criticized Malamud for his portrayal of Jews and his use of violence in the novel The Fixer (1966), which Roth claimed approached "violent pornography." The two writers were estranged for years as a result; Malamud wrote Roth a letter in which he stated that Roth's opinions were "your problem, not mine," and Roth "wrote right back to tell him that in time he might come to see that by my exposing fictional skeletons he was perhaps not wholly aware of himself, I'd probably done him a favor." The two reunited eventually, but Roth again criticized Malamud's work when he visited the author not long before his death. Malamud showed him some pages he'd written, and Roth responded with constructive criticism, then asked what came next. Malamud was displeased: "In a soft voice suffused with fury, he said, 'What's next isn't the point.'"

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