Friday, August 22, 2008

Heywood Broun Rides Again

I knew about Heywood Broun for a long time before I read anything he wrote. I knew him as one of the prized wits of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, but it wasn't until I did the research for my book on Victory Faust that I experienced that wit directly. Consider this nugget from Broun's coverage of the 1911 New York Giants in the New York Morning Telegraph: "The Giants played Brooklyn twice yesterday on the Hilltop and won on both occasions. Brooklyn is something like baseball, only much easier." Eat your heart out, Keith Olbermann.

A Harvard dropout, the iconoclastic Broun leaned toward socialism, was a staunch defender of Sacco and Vanzetti, and married a militant feminist named Ruth Hale. An all-purpose journalist, he covered sports and straight news, reviewed books and plays, wrote columns, and was a war correspondent during World War I. Burly and rumpled, he went his own way during an all-too-brief lifetime at the center of New York's literary world.

He also wrote a novel, The Sun Field, published in 1923 and out of print until a fresh edition was brought out this summer by Rvive Books, a publisher whose "mission is to introduce lost literary gems and their writers to a new public." If the rest of Rvive's offerings measure up to Broun's long-lost gem, the new public is in for a lot of treats.

The Sun Field is an untraditional love triangle based on three real people who were very close to Broun. The narrator, called George Wallace, is Broun himself, an earnest, humorous sports writer who falls in love with Judith Winthrop, a Vassar-educated intellectual dynamo and feminist based on Ruth Hale. Before George can claim her heart, he makes the mistake of taking her to her first baseball game, where she becomes infatuated with "Tiny" Tyler, a hulking slugger based on Babe Ruth. Judith pursues Tiny and lands him, and the rest of the novel traces the ups and downs of their unconventional relationship.

That's really all there is to the plot, which is secondary to Broun's focus on their characters and the reasons why they behave as they do. George's character is the simplest; he's on the outside looking in, cares deeply for Judith but recognizes that the only power he has over her is the power of observation. Tiny is more complex. His baseball exploits are clearly Ruthian (though it's ironic that Judith's initial fascination with him comes from watching him make a leaping catch, not a home run), and George speaks of his undisciplined lifestyle, but in Judith's presence we see an uncultured man struggling to keep up with his sophisticated mate. Indeed that's their chief problem; she is attracted to the animal in Tiny, but he sees her as the only "good woman" he has ever known and tries to treat her too well. They're too good for each other.

George and Tiny are both helpless in the presence of the remarkable Judith, who makes the reader realize what an amazing woman Ruth Hale must have been. She is utterly unpredictable. It isn't just that you don't know what she's going to do or say next. You also can't predict what her opinions or values might be or how she will react to the actions or opinions of others. She isn't being contrary; she's being true to her original nature. Nothing gets past her. When Tiny says it must be difficult to understand what's happening at the Moscow Art Theater if you don't know the language, Judith sets him straight by saying, "Don't be silly. I saw you talking to the umpire in Cleveland when he called you out at second. I was so far away I couldn't hear a word and yet I knew exactly what you were saying and you're not an actor." No wonder Tiny, despite his two years at Holy Cross, has trouble feeling comfortable around her.

I wish this novel had been twice as long so I could have kept listening to Judith's original voice. I must admit that it helped that every time she spoke, I heard Katharine Hepburn's voice. There's a good reason for this. I believe that Ruth Hale was the model for the Hepburn character in "Woman of the Year," the 1942 film co-scripted by Ring Lardner, Jr., who probably knew Broun and Hale when he was growing up or at least would have heard all about them. Hepburn's Tess Harding and Broun's Judith Winthrop are virtually identical: highly principled journalists and activists, very intelligent, glib, feminist, passionate, eccentric, disarming, and delightful. Listen to Hepburn's voice as Judith passes judgment on William Shakespeare: "I challenge you to show me that I ever attempted to hurt Shakespeare by spoken or written word. I may have said that the actors have to be genuises to keep him alive, but that's nothing against him. Second rate interpretations of first rate work are always terrible. Of course, I'm not going to swallow Shakespeare whole. He had his off days and he wasn't smart enough or strong-minded enough to take them off and go out poaching or drinking or making love. He was too indolent to stop writing. He insisted on putting words down on paper even when he had nothing to say. A man like Shakespeare ought to be ashamed of himself to have written 'As You Like It.'"

Is it any wonder that poor George couldn't stay away from her? Or that Tiny put her on a pedestal and tried to live up to her standards? Or that I'll be heading for a library sometime soon to read more about Ruth Hale?

All I know now about Ruth Hale is what I read in the first-rate introduction to the Rvive edition of the novel, written by the esteemed baseball novelist Darryl Brock. He notes Hale's protest of the phrase "to obey" in the marriage vows and her work in forming the Lucy Stone League, which campaigned on behalf of married women keeping their maiden names, a big issue with Judith Winthrop as well. The principles raised by Judith are timeless, overcoming the small instances in which the novel is dated. Brock says it best: The Sun Field is "a one-of-a-kind vintage confection with some surprising and delightfully modern flavors."

Read it and savor it.


Unknown said...

I like Heywood Broun's newspaper stuff, which I've read in various collections, but I've never read his novel. I'm also a fan of his son, Heywood Hale Broun, the sportswriter and actor.

Thanks for the tip; I'll pick up The Sun Field as soon as I get a chance.


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