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A Sketch of Contemporary American Culture in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter

  Richard Ford(1944 - ) is one of the contemporary American novelists drawing a sketch of contemporary America in his various works: A Piece of My Heart(1976), The Ultimate Good Luck(1981), The Sportswriter(1986), Rock Springs(1987), Independence Day(1995), Women with Men(1997), and A Multitude of Sins(2002). Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Ford has been regarded as a Southern writer or post-Faulkner by some imprudent critics. A more careful scrutiny, however, reveals that Ford re-presents one of the seminal topics in American literature, which is the definition of America. Ford's definition on American culture in The Sportswriter is the decline of America. He portrays this feature in diverse ways: "the individual's sense of alienation, restlessness, displacement, and fragmentation; the sense of rootlessness, of being cut off from the past, which so often characterizes life in an increasingly mobile society; the disintegration of community; the breakup of the family; and the impoverishment of all human connections" (Guagliardo 5).
   Frank, a protagonist, is a 38 year old sportswriter, a divorcee, and a resident at a historical place of Haddam, New Jersey. As Ford is itinerant moving around several cities like Jackson, New York City, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Princeton, Missoula, and New Orleans, so Frank is a nomad not only physically but also psychologically and emotionally. The irreconcilable accommodation is a symptom of modern American culture, where restlessness and anxiety are prevalent over the society. Because Frank and other characters cannot find something everlasting and permanent to hold themselves settled, they are becoming anti-religious and "therapeutic." It is an irony Ford chooses an Easter week, for the background of his novel The Sportswriter, to show how contemporary Americans are away from religious life and seek for the therapeutic one. Easter Sunday is supposed to be a day of "promise and renewal," but it is betrayed in Haddam, New Jersey (Guagliardo 19). Haddam is a religious town which possesses a seminary and Theological Institute. No inhabitants, however, go to church regularly or look forward to attending religious ceremony at Easter.
   The disappearance of religious tradition in American lives accelerates the disconnection between human beings and consequently each individual's nomadic life. At Easter, the characters in The Sportswriter reach severe mental crisis, losing navigation for their life. The religious holiday worsens the life of the nomadic characters, most of whom spend "the day cruising some mall for an Easter takeout . . . lost in the savage wilderness of civil life" (276). The disappearance of "evangelical Christians" leads to the explosive production of psychotherapists, divorcees, and cohabitants (Bellah 97). Frank visits regularly a palmist, Mrs. Miller, another version of psychotherapists, to deal with his problems. He stops by her office once a week paying five dollars for a visit, as in his youth he would have payed the same reverence to a clergyman in Haddam for the same service. Now the psychotherapist takes the priest's place.
   It is not hard to expect a lot of broken families will emerge with the weakening of religious tradition in American society. Every characters in The Sportswriter have been divorced without exception, and divorced males make their own clique, the Divorced Men's Club (DMC). X's father and mother, Henry and Irma, got divorced; Frank's girlfriend Vicki got divorced to Everett; Rhonda, an editor of Frank's sports magazine, Bert Brisker, an ex-sportswriter, Walter Luckett, Frank's friend at DMC, Lynette, Vicki's stepmother, and even a carhop Frank happens to meet at Easter evening, all of them got divorced.
   Frank's temporary relationship with females is a reflection of modern American culture where something new is preferable. He'd rather drive a new rental car than his old car due to "the stirring new smell" (148). He throws away his past, adopting "new today" and "new tomorrow" to renew himself (148). To him, even "love was simply a transferable commodity," so that the newer the commodity and his partners, the better for Frank (148). His continuous seeking for new women can be understood from this cultural context. He calls his ex-wife just X. X has multiple-meanings, signifying an unknown quantity at math, sometimes used for the meaning of being former, previous, and old. His negativity toward old commodity leads to identify his ex-wife as X, "an intimacy he doesn't have anymore" (Bonetti 31). X is just a used stuff to him.
   Frank's marginality is in close relation with the dismantling of American suburban area, Haddam, New Jersey in the novel. It takes for a while for him to realize his alienation comes partially from the deconstruction of his living town, Haddam. Haddam is a historical place where "three signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried" (4). It is for the white middle class with well-organized streets and old trees. Its neighbors knew one another, exchanging friendship and living with dignity. But the tradition of the whites is gone today, and it is replaced with that of multiracial origins. Besides, the area has lost the facilities for informal meetings to connect its neighbors, that is, a local restaurant, a coffee shop, and a local liquor store for a drink after dinner. They cannot find friendship, only friendliness. Nobody concerns about his neighbors, nor inviting for dinner and cocktail parties. The indifference between neighbors has become one of codes of conduct to residents at Haddam.
   It is not overstating to say that Ford's Frank Bascombe novel is about the decline of American culture as Frank himself confesses: "the whole nation was changing not so much for the better as for the worse" (201). Through his nomadic life, Frank realizes the important American holiday Easter does not contribute to solidifying American identities but commemorate "the death of a nation" (Gillespie 55).


Rho Heon-gyun  ryeong@dongguk.edu

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