Sunday, July 13, 2008

Field of Dreams/ Catcher in the Rye Connections

For eight summers now, I've been teaching Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and for eight summers, I've been showing the 1989 Field of Dreams along with it. And what does a film about spectral baseball players in an Iowa cornfield have to do with a depressed 1950s teenager wandeirng through New York? I'm glad you asked!

First off, the most obvious connection: for the three of you out there in Internet-land who may not know this,...
  • Field of Dreams, the film, is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.
  • In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella goes to Boston to find a reclusive novelist named Terrence Mann.
  • In the novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella goes to New Hampshire to find a reclusive novelist named J. D. Salinger.

That's right: Terrence Mann is loosely-based on J. D. Salinger. And I say "loosely-based," because Salinger is not a large, black man with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Mufasa. But like Terrence Mann, both the real-life J. D. Salinger and the character J. D. Salinger from the novel Shoeless Joe are hermits who stopped writing (or at least, stopped publishing their writing) at the peaks of their careers.

Incidentally, you really can't teach Catcher without talking about Salinger's biography; over the years, it seems more people are more interested in what Salinger hasn't written in the past forty years than anything he's ever has actually written. (You can find out more on Salinger's perculiar reclusiveness in the documentary, J. D. Salinger Does Not Want to Talk.) And the Terrence Mann character provides a way to segue into Salinger's infamous reclusiveness.

Beyond the Mann-Salinger connection, the film shares some thematic connections with Catcher. You can find the real biggie in Terrence Mann's famous climactic speech. (Come on: You know the words-- say it along with us!)

"People will come, Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."

The whole speech, and especially the parts I italicized, is about the biggest dream of them all: regaining childhood innocence. And Ray's field makes that impossibility possible. That's why those thousands of cars show up at the end: to get back to a time when there were no mortgages, no gambling scandals, no fallen heroes. That's childhood, essentially.

Holden desperately wants a place like Ray's field. He wants to be the "catcher in the rye," the guardian who keeps kids from losing their innocence, from falling from grace. He knows it can't happen in real life, but he wants it anyway. (Of course, a place like Ray's field can happen in the movies-- an artform which Holden claims to hate. If Holden actually saw Field of Dreams, he'd probably dismiss it as being "corny" or "phony." Or at least, he'd say those things, but who knows what he'd really feel deep down? )

Holden's desire to be a "catcher in the rye" relates to his fundamental fear of change. This seems odd to say, since he has been to four different high schools, but Holden can't deal with change and flux. This relates to one of the most important and most overlooked symbol in the book, for my money-- just as significant as the "catcher in the rye" symbol: the "big glass cases," which Holden talks about at the end of Chapter 16.

Holden marvels at how the "big glass cases" you find at museums preserve things: they keep objects and moments frozen in time. "Certain things they should stay the way they are," Holden says. "You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone."

Holden could probably really use a place like Ray's ballfield, a place where time stands still, where the flux of life is held in stasis. Basically, the Iowa ballfield is the equivalent of Holden's "big glass case."

Of course, if Holden heard a voice telling him to build a baseball field, he would never do it. For one thing, building the field takes work; Holden won't even pick up the phone to call Jane Gallagher. In addition, Holden, despite all his posturing, is too concerned with what everyone else thinks about him. (Remember, in the movie, all the locals think Ray Kinsella's crazy, the "biggest horse's ass in three counties.")

Finally, Holden is too self-absorbed to do something to help someone else. And that's really what the building of the field was for Ray. Just like he said to Shoeless Joe near the end of the film, "I never once asked what's in it for me." And his selflessness allowed Ray to realize his dream of playing catch with his dad. Holden's a lot of things, but you'd never really call him selfless.

There are other smaller connections too (Allie's baseball mitt with the poems on it, the name "Richard Kinsella" appears in Catcher), but the connections I detailed above get to the heart of both texts. Showing the movie in conjunction with the novel highlights the themes in both texts; plus, it's an excuse to show a timeless classic in class. And maybe, if you get "meta" with me for a moment, that timelessness can be a connection in itself.

Serendipity time: this past weekend, I was watching the Red Sox-Orioles game, and Kevin Costner was in the booth with Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy. (Some of Field of Dreams, remember, was shot at Fenway.) And Costner was saying that, while making millions at the box office is nice, he's more interested in making movies that stand tghe test of time. (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general gist of it.)

Well, he may not have passed the "test of time" with Dragonfly, but he definitely did with Field of Dreams. The film has aged well-- so well, in fact, that it doesn't age. And in that sense, the film Field of Dreams is like the "field of dreams" it showcases. Maybe Holden's idea of the "big glass case" is not so impossible after all.

7 comments:

Joanna said...

Hi... I love the connections you made between Catcher and Field of Dreams. I'm just starting my Catcher Unit (I teach Grade 11 at a highschool in Toronto) and think I will show the film as well... Here's a question: Do you have any good poetry that you use that relates well to the themes of Catcher? I'm trying to put together a poetry unit before our Catcher unit and would love some suggestions of poems that worked well for you. Thanks!

Kerry said...

Joanna, although it's somewhat disturbing, you could use a poem called The Reason for Skylarks by Kenneth Patchen.

kc78 said...

Hi Joanna,

This is an amazing connection and I am excited to use it next semester as I teach Catcher in 10th grade honors. Do you by change have a lesson plan outlining how you went about using Field of Dreams? Any help would be appreciated!

And by the way, I used The Reason for Skylarks last year and it worked brilliantly!

Kristin

E. Brandon said...

Very cool. I have been desparate to find something fun to connect to my students regarding this novel. It is one of my favorites! I'm planning on using the poem posted as well, as I need to connect one poem to every novel in order to hit standards in my state.

Joseph said...

This book has a lot of humor involved in it and its fair share of swear words.


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Urban Teacher said...

My name is Mark Kinsella; it's a great name for teaching CR. Find Mr. Kinsella's Uncle in the book. They have to read very far into the book to find it. Yes, I am related to the writer and in some way to all those other Ks. This trick of finding Kinsella has been working for 25 years.

Urban Teacher said...

My name is Mark Kinsella, and I have been an English teacher in Chicago for 27 years. Find Mr. Kinsella's Uncle in The Catcher in The Rye. It has worked for many years. You have to read a long way into the novel to find my relative. And yes, W.P. etc. are all relatives in some way. I had a great Uncle Ray, and I myself love baseball. Go Whitesox!