Football literatures deserves better

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Julian Meldon D'Arcy

Violence on and off the field, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual excesses and rowdy male bonding are not a sufficient take on football literature. Although scholarly writing about the literature of football from the past thirty years has focused on these "selective and negative" aspects of the professional game, other serious themes are there to be mined, says Julian Meldon D'Arcy, an Icelandic literary scholar, particularly of Scottish and Nordic literature.

An associate professor of English with British origins, now at the University of Iceland, D'Arcy who came to his current subject through a "shocking" conversion from soccer and rugby fan to football and baseball fan during an earlier stay in the United States. With the support of a Fulbright award, he is in residence at the Center for fall term while working on a book, 'Suicidally Beautiful': A Study of College Football in Twentieth Century Fiction, a title taken in part from the James Wright poem "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio."

Within the critical tradition of football fiction and sport literature in general, college football fiction has been consistently underrated or ignored," said D'Arcy. "My preliminary research suggests that college football fiction has not only reflected changing social attitudes in America more realistically and critically than in, for example, baseball literature, but also that it has more intellectual and aesthetic potential than has hitherto been appreciated."

Among the serious themes in football literature are "stoicism and grace under pressure, modern angst and fear of failure, gender roles and identity, race, ethnicity, and desegregation. Yet very few of these issues have been dealt with in criticism of the football fiction of the last thirty years."

D'Arcy sees three main reasons why scholars have taken a pessimistic and narrow view of American football fiction: most scholars focus on the period 1968-1981 and on novels about National Football League players, with very little attention paid to pre-Super Bowl era professional football; the focus on lurid aspects of football fiction has distracted attention from more literary features; very little attention has been paid to more recent football fiction depicting the game at high school and college levels.

The last is the most important point for D'Arcy, "for not only is high school and college football deeply rooted in local cultures and identities, it is also rooted in the very history and mythology of the game itself. Moreover, college football is deeply embedded in the academic institutions and history of the country - indeed, the game's very shape and form was developed on the playing fields of America's finest universities."