Review & Discussion. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. Rare first edition dust jacket of the novel, published in 1952. Bernard Malamud, 1914-1986.
Bernard Malamud’s The Natural
Rare first edition dust jacket of the novel, published in 1952
Bernard Malamud was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He grew up in humble circumstances, learning to love literature and the ‘National Pastime,’ baseball, especially as played by his home team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Malamud attended the City College of New York and Columbia University. After earning his M.A., he worked as a night school teacher and later as an adjunct professor of composition, writing in his free time. In 1952, he published his first novel – The Natural.
Malamud, at center, pictured with four other leading Jewish novelists of the 20th Century: Franz Kafka, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow
Though Malamud is most famous for The Natural, a book that avoids Jewish content or themes, his most highly regarded work describes the Jewish-American immigrant experience in the early to mid-20th century. His novels The Assistant (1957), about a Jewish Brooklyn grocer who takes in a dubious Italian-American assistant, and The Fixer (1967), about anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia, are seminal works in the development of a Jewish-American literary tradition, whose most important writers are Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth.
The Natural is an allegorical novel in which Bernard Malamud exploits the archetypes of Arthurian ‘Grail’ legend and transfers them to a modern setting, in which baseball players are quest heroes (the New York ‘Knights’), and the pennant stands in as the ‘Holy Grail.’
Malamud imagined Roy Hobbs as a quest knight with mythical abilities. Like Arthur, Roy uses a special ‘weapon’—’Wonderboy,’ an apparently ‘magical’ bat with similar qualities and characteristics to Arthur’s ‘Excalibur,’ also known as ‘the sword in the stone.’
Like the quest knights of Arthurian legend who appear in early English poems and verse tales such as ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and Malory’s ‘La Morte D’Artur,’ Roy is a Romantic hero involved in a quest and beset by obstacles—particularly, seduction by evil or morally corrupt women, a common trope in Romantic verse.
Left: Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher in the film version of ‘The Natural’; right: an etching of the mythical Fisher King.
Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth
Left: Odysseus slays the suitors who have exploited his kingdom in The Odyssey. Right: The duel of Achilles and Hector in The Iliad.
Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in the film version, which notoriously alters the conclusion to turn Malamud’s tragic morality play into a rousing fairy tale of redemption and mythic glory.
Glenn Close as Iris Lemon in the film version—when Iris is in the stands (dressed in virtuous, virginal white), Roy can’t miss.