There’s a scene early on in The Natural where Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs goes to a country fair and strikes out a legendary figure who is essentially Babe Ruth. We are in mythic territory here. But the landscape is not Hobbington or Camelot. Rather it is the ordinary, the banal and picturesque terrain of Americana. There is nothing new in that and over the years a significant number of American artists have infused the ordinary with the extraordinary to suggest that just beyond the horizon or right next door there is a world of legend.
The idea rests on two concepts. First, that eventually, if you wait long enough, the ordinary becomes extraordinary as a function of time and repetition. The story about so-in-so in The Great War begins as a banality and a function of a vast state bureaucracy but over time becomes indiscernible from legend. Secondly precisely because an increasingly large number of people have access to examples of that phenomenon (i.e. and e.g., plenty of people can go on line and read collections of myths and fables and legends and see how those stories are repeated and woven into the fabric of still more stories) one arrives at a sense that there’s no reason to wait for the passage of time. In other words, one can look at a Babe Ruthian figure, and the structures of the day to day (a country fair, a subway, the corner grocery, etc.) and say: why wait? Let’s talk about it as if it were already the myth we were waiting for because surely this now in which we find ourselves must by definition contain elements of that which has come before and, must by definition, contain elements of myth. At one end of the spectrum this is James Joyce taking Homer and setting it in Dublin amid the vast archipelago of the mundane. At the other end it is Star Wars and the princess and the farm boy and the flotsam and jetsam of the human mono-myth slammed into the particle collision machine of commerce and marketing and cinema. But regardless of which end of the spectrum one looks at the elements are the same. That one may be a sublime work of genius and the other a sublime work of pop does not in this sense matter. Superman can come to the supermarket and sell detergent but that doesn’t mean he’s not Superman.
And so to Hagerstown. A small post-industrial nub at the outer edge of Maryland and just before Pennsylvania. Close to the national catastrophe of Antietam, as well as the site of a skirmish notable for the presence of George Armstrong Custer and little else. Trains still run nearby and the city is growing but within the wider deeper context of the ongoing national stagnation. There is a main street that has over the years been renovated and gentrified so there are pubs that sell a diverse assortment of beers and food and there are a few galleries and a theater. And there, at the theater, several years ago, on the marque, was advertised: Jay Leno.
On the one hand it is the banal business of entertainment. Personality, comedian, traveling and there is a stage and customers and money and so there are bookings and travel arrangements and all of it hums and buzzes like a perfectly calibrated engine.
On the other, there amid the emptiness of a landscape that reeks of Springsteen at his most bitter, and the end of empire, of vast stretches of poverty, and of the gathering storm that would become Trump, down streets full of abandoned houses and repossessed buildings owned by banks that have no money, there was something impossibly sad – a life lived in what could be measured in a teaspoon. There was also something about fame and the ordinary but also the country fair. Ruth was going to appear on stage at that theater on Main Street and folks would come from miles around to watch the champ.
He would tell jokes that were honed to sharp edges and he would slip in words that were more blue than what he could ever be allowed to say on television. And after the show he would be on his way somewhere else. And the crowd would drift across the street to the pub and they’d laugh and repeat what they had heard and the myth machine would hum and buzz as it has for a thousand and a thousand years and a thousand more before that. He would take a mighty swing and miss. The ghost in the machine and the ghost of the young arm with the fastball and the curve would send three right by him. He’d strike out against time and the machine would turn over a new gear and hum and buzz and the lights would fade and flicker and then the stage would be cleared until the next act.
His reputation was shredded and yet he would continue and unlike his great rival he would not receive grand national honors. But he would endure because myth endures. Legend being legend, it endures and repeats.
That’s in Hagerstown. And that’s right down the road from you in a town you know by some other name.