Soon after the second Dempsey-Tunney fight, which took place in the fall of 1927, Yale's legendary Professor "Billy" Phelps invited Gene Tunney to speak to his Shakespeare class. The lecture may not have advanced literary scholarship, but no matter, the Champ delivered a knockout tribute to the Bard, as reported in The Literary Digest: "It occurs to me, whether if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be a boxing fan, and would he be rooting for me in Chicago to get up in that seventh round or stay down. Shakespeare was a sport; there is no question about that, and there is also no question about the fact that he has been the greatest playwright the world has ever known."
Athletics and imaginative literature have been intersecting, sometimes memorably, at least since Homer sang the story of the Greeks' funeral games for Patroklos. Now, with a good kind of inevitability, we have the first two issues of Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature (for subscription information write to the San Diego State University Press, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA 92182. Single copies are $12.50), edited by Lyle I. Olsen and Alfred F. Boe, both of whom are professors at San Diego State. The journal is a logical response to the recent discovery of sport as a legitimate subject of intellectual inquiry from many angles—sports and religion, sports and myth, the sociology, politics, economics, psychology of sport. Considering this trend, one may wonder precisely to what degree the world of athletic endeavor can be academically subdivided before the sport of sports is lost from view; and one value of Arete may be that it can use a wide-angle lens and celebrate the sweep and variety of athletics, a wide world indeed.
So editors Olsen and Boe promise in their first issue, anyway; in the name of that undefinably holistic Greek virtue arete (a striving for excellence), they say they will strive "to encourage, stimulate, and foster the alliance of sport with the humanities." An admirably high purpose, and these first two installments measure up pretty well; clearly a good deal more is at stake here than just an editorial pickup game. Thoughtful and readable essays by ex-NFL player Michael Oriard (on sports fiction), John Dizikes (on the amazing career of King Edward VII's American jockey, Tod Sloan) and Eric Solomon ("Jews, Baseball, and the American Novel") could probably have been published in the best general-interest reviews, but Arete seems especially appropriate for them, setting, let us hope, the pattern for more good nonspecialized essays to come.
To be sure, not all of Arete 1 and 2 measures up. Several of the essays here are afflicted by what seems to be an occupational hazard of the sports-lit field: a glib pop-myth/pop-existential discourse in which everything in an athletic contest from the heroics to the liniment used by participants becomes symbolic of some larger truth. As if every sports text were Malamud's The Natural! Then, too, although the editors' ambition to publish original fiction and poetry is laudable, the bulk of what they offer is, alas, forgettable—all the more so because of the inclusion of truly compelling stories by William Heyen, Neil D. Isaacs and William Cobb (the last a lovely fantasy about the mysterious reincarnation, on an Alabama town team, of that great slugger Luke Easter).
Perhaps some editorial pump priming is in order, especially for poetry, in the form of republication of classic poems on sports themes and solicitation of work by younger, or undiscovered, writers. Maybe even a contest? Somewhere out there, sports and poetry fans, there must exist a Great Lyric on High Jumping, as definitive of that awesome event as Wordsworth's sonnet is of daffodils dancing. If found, please notify the reviewer, whose only claim to athletic prowess is as the inventor, but not the perfector, of a primitive version of the Fosbury Flop, years before Fosbury. Or send it directly, SASE, to Arete.
In sum, even at the risk of costing this magazine a few subscribers, I recommend this brave new journal to anybody whose verbal enjoyment of sport extends beyond the daily and weekly chronicles of who won and lost and how. Of the themes that have inspired memorable writing in our culture, sport isn't the least—and that is what Arete in its first two issues seems to be all about.