By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published April 29, 2016
And lo, it came to pass that in the 1990s there arose a revived literary genre which ran rampant through book clubs all over the country: the personal memoir.
I know this because throughout the decade I facilitated a book club for a group of retired Jewish physicians and their wives, and every other month we met to discuss a book, a book which usually happened to be a memoir.
We read all of them, it seems, and while most of the books are now gone from my memory, there are a few that linger. Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” is certainly memorable, and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” also persists. Yet I’ve forgotten most of these books because so few actually made an impression. They were often overwrought. Many of them seemed exaggerated to the point of implausibility. Some were simply boring. The common problem with most of these memoirs is that they do not transcend the personal to achieve universal meaning and appeal.
The poet and novelist James Dickey once wrote that “a good poet will tell you how things are with him, but a great poet can tell you how things are with you.” So it should be with the effective memoir. We read a book to find ourselves, and if we aren’t able to locate ourselves within the text, the book fails to accomplish genuine audience engagement.
Writing a truly effective memoir or autobiography is no easy task. Certainly Thomas Merton knew this. Charged by his abbot to write the book that became “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Merton initially recoiled. Who on earth would want to read about a beatnik’s conversion to Catholicism and his subsequent vocation as a Trappist monk? As it turns out, lots of people wanted to read such a memoir, and Merton’s book succeeded because it transformed an uncommon experience into a story of universal spiritual appeal.
To come at a memoir from the other extreme, however, and write about an experience common to most people, is just as difficult, and perhaps more so. In this instance, the writer has to address not just himself but also an audience he knows may find the book mundane.
When William Faulkner figured out that his “own little postage stamp of native soil” in Oxford, Mississippi, was “worth writing about,” he took a giant risk. Everyone in his native South knew about their tragic history entangled in the anguish of slavery and war, they just needed someone to explain it to them.
So it is with one of the finest personal memoirs to come out of the book club swamp of the ‘90s, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Wait Till Next Year.” In this fine autobiography, Goodwin manages to write about childhood, community, baseball, love, loss and redemption in a way that locates the reader firmly in one specific place while also transporting him to a location dear to his own past. In doing so, Goodwin’s book has remained in print for 20 years while so many other ‘90s memoirs have vanished with the book clubs that made them onetime bestsellers.
Goodwin never intended to write such a book. She is first and foremost a scholar and writer who has managed to be taken seriously by both the profession and the public. Her book, “No Ordinary Time,” won the Pulitzer Prize, and she is often referred to as our “national historian.” Yet when filmmaker Ken Burns was making his wonderful documentary series on “Baseball,” he asked Goodwin to talk about her memories of growing up in the ‘50s as a devoted fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Goodwin is so engaging in that series; along with Roger Angell and Stephen Jay Gould, she nearly steals the film. It was obvious upon the film’s release on PBS that Doris Kearns Goodwin adored baseball, and as she recounts in the preface to “Wait Till Next Year,” “The reaction was startling. Almost everywhere, as I traveled the lecture circuit, I encountered people less anxious to hear my tales of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys, or the Roosevelts than they were to share memories of those wondrous days when baseball almost ruled the world.”
Baseball’s hold on the national consciousness was more powerful in New York than anywhere else. The Yankees of the American League dominated professional play for decades, while in Manhattan’s Polo Grounds, the National League Giants battled the Brooklyn Dodgers of Ebbets Field for the pennant year after year. The Dodgers and Yankees played each other in the World Series six times between the years 1947 (when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers and integrated baseball) and 1956 (the year before the Dodgers and Giants announced they were leaving New York for California). Every year it seemed the Dodgers suffered defeat from the Yankees. But in 1955, “next year” finally came, and the “bums” of Brooklyn were at last world champions.
If you lived in the New York metropolitan area, your team allegiance was determined by a variety of cultural and ethnic factors, and your chosen—or assigned—team defined a good deal of your identity. Goodwin was a Dodgers fan—a passionate, obsessed Dodgers fan. She inherited her love of the game from her father, who taught her how to keep score, listened with her to nearly every game on the radio, and took her to Ebbets Field for the first time.
Yet Goodwin didn’t live in Brooklyn; her family’s home was in Rockville Centre, a pleasant, even idyllic suburban neighborhood on Long Island. Goodwin’s descriptions of her neighborhood and its wonderful mix of characters and personalities are the second most engaging aspect of the book. She describes a genuine community and embodies such a distinct sense of place that readers from anywhere will be able to revisit their own childhood neighborhoods through her experience. You may not have grown up in New York, or on Long Island, but you will recognize and lament the bonds that existed in Goodwin’s community.
In a book whose larger theme is in fact bonding and the ways we all connect and construct ourselves according to our passions, it is especially important to note the crucial role religion played in Goodwin’s young life. As she writes, “My early years were happily governed by the dual calendars of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Catholic Church. … Analogous to the seasonal cycles of baseball were the great festivals of the Catholic Church.” An early chapter in the book beautifully captures the childhood sense of awe and wonder when confronted with mystery, ritual, and belief. Scenes of first Communion and first confession are rendered in ways that will bring back memories for all pre-conciliar Catholics.
Goodwin’s first confession is particularly funny, when she admits to the priest that “I wished that Robin Roberts of the Phillies would fall down the steps of his stoop, and that Richie Ashburn would break his hand. I wished that Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals would break his ankle, that Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees would fracture a rib, and that Alvin Dark of the Giants would hurt his knee.” As it turns out, the priest also happens to be a Dodgers fan! He is also a very good priest, as are almost all the priests and religious Goodwin remembers, and she describes all of them with warmth and respect.
In fact, it is the rhythm of baseball and Catholicism that give the book its gentle tone. The book is nostalgic, yet in a sincere way; Goodwin never lapses into sentimentality. The Dodgers seasons come and go, the liturgical calendar moves each year along, and in between life—real life—happens. Goodwin’s mother is often ill. Her father has sad and secret demons from his past. There are local tragedies and disappointments. The 1950s are exposed as the decade of growing anxiety that they really were, for Goodwin is haunted by the threat of a nuclear attack, the Korean War and the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Most of all, she’s deeply troubled by the race crisis in America; her memories of the Little Rock Nine are particularly poignant, and her descriptions of Jackie Robinson’s courage are stirring. At the same time, Goodwin is discovering her love of the library and of reading, the joys of Elvis Presley and James Dean, and all the familiar rites of passage we associate with adolescence.
One of my favorite Proverbs has always been “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” A careful reading of “Wait Till Next Year”reveals the brilliance of the book’s title, for the memoir is not simply about the Brooklyn Dodgers; it is about the ways in which a life is shaped for adulthood. The Jesuits often say that a child aged 7 provides a good glimpse of the adult to come, and that wisdom is evident in Goodwin’s book. “Wait Till Next Year” is a memoir that deserves to have lasted, and it still speaks to the child in all of us, both the one that is gone and the one that endures.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.