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BlogJanuary-February, 2012
Football in American Literature, Part Two

Two years after the word "jock" entered our lexicon, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us Tom Buchanan, a character so one-dimensionally jock-like that he is The Great Gatsby's biggest flaw. Reread Gatsby and try to find one positive trait in Buchanan. You won't find one.

We all know assholes like Buchanan. The verisimilitude of his grown-up rich-kid immorality is the lone reason it's easy to overlook his lack of virtues. What's worth our attention in this blog is that Nick Carraway's introduction to Buchanan rests almost entirely in the latter's status as a former football great:

"Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven -- a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anti-climax" (10).

There's so much to unpack in this lengthy sentence, I'm compelled to make a list:

1. You can tell it's the early 1920s because Carraway describes Buchanan as an "end" without specifying offense or defense. Also, the Ivy League was a football powerhouse in the 20s. Not a single Ivy player in the last 30 years could make the claim of being a "national figure," but it was possible in Buchanan's era.

2. Compare Carraway's intro of Buchanan to Jake Barnes' intro of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, which came out one year later. The resemblance is uncanny. I'll always believe that Hemingway had Gatsby by his typewriter as he composed.

3. Compare the Carraway-Buchanan dynamic as Yale contemporaries to the one existing between Frederick Exley and Frank Gifford at USC in A Fan's Notes. They are far from identical, but I'm certain that the former was an influence on the latter.

All that, before we get to the meat of the description:

"I had no sight into Daisy's heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game" (10).

This line performs a remarkable feat: It aligns Buchanan's drive with Gatsby's, in the sense that both men are living their lives to recapture something from the past. If Tom wants to recapture the "dramatic turbulence" of a football game, then his lifestyle of adulterous abandon suddenly makes sense to a self-proclaimed, self-absorbed choir-boy like Carraway. After all, Carraway purports to be squeaky clean when it comes to romantic protocols -- recall how he breaks things off with his midwestern gal before taking up with Jordan Baker.

But for all his claims, Carraway is duplicitous, just like all the rest. He barely bats an eye about consummating an affair with a younger coworker. Yet he haughtily cites his own virtue as "one of the few honest people" he has ever known because he dumps his midwestern gal once Baker expresses her interest in him -- and not one moment beforehand (64). Why he never notified his nameless midwestern gal of his affair with the girl in accounting, he doesn't bother to explain. And most readers forget about it, losing it in the context of Buchanan's misdeeds and Gatsby's glory.

I began this blog comparing Buchanan to a jock stereotype, and here's why: There are astonishing parallels between Buchanan and Baker, the novel's other jock. If you perform a simple word count of Carraway's intro to Buchanan, you'll find the words "power" "body" and "enormous" used more than once in the span of a page. The descriptions of Baker are similar, only they are writ small and dainty. Sharing a couch with Buchanan, "she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arm." Later, "her body asserted itself with a restless movement of her knee" (22).

I'd have attributed these parallels to coincidence or authorial laziness, were it not for the stunning overlap in their personalities. The following text is about Baker, but you could believe it was about Buchanan:

"When we were on a house party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it" (62). A few paragraphs later, Baker nearly crashes her car into some passersby. When Carraway tells her she is a lousy driver, she replies, "It takes two to make an accident" and all but admits that she relies on the vigilance of others to overcome her own vehicular recklessness. Herein lies another Baker-Buchanan similarity: both have the hand-eye coordination of accomplished athletes, but in their jock-like arrogance they refuse to apply it to a task as quotidian and applauseless as driving.

In short, I believe Baker the golfer and Buchanan the end are literature's first examples of entitled, 20th- century jocks. Their cockiness is particularly endemic to post-WW1 life in America, and it's epitomized nicely by Meyer Wolfshiem's farewell to Carraway and Gatsby:

"'I belong to another generation,' he announced solemnly. 'You sit here and discuss your sports and your young ladies and your...'" (77).

Keep in mind: Wolfshiem is the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. To a man in his generation, that was only business. To a man of Gatsby, Carraway or Buchanan's generation -- raised on sports as a star-making vehicle and national institution -- fixing a World Series would be a much bigger deal, morally.

A lot has been written regarding Gatsby's use of the phrase, "old sport." For me, the expression will always make me think of a time when Americans did not take their sports -- and those who excel at them -- so seriously. Prior to the 20th century, there were no national football stars or celebrity golfers. The games on which Baker and Buchanan's arrogance was (at least partially) founded were nothing but the slippery marshes of an American land still figuring out how to channel its competitive fire into its leisurely pursuits.

Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2012). His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club and Oysters & Chocolate.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari