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Best remembered for his lengthy comic poem ”Casey at the Bat,” Ernest Lawrence Thayer was also a writer for the San Francisco Examiner. Though most of his writing has been lost over time, ”Casey at the Bat” has won a place in the American literary canon and is considered one of the best-loved American poems of all time.
Biographical and Historical Context
Working as a Humorist
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on August 14, 1863, Ernest Lawrence Thayer was the son of Edward Davis and Ellen Darling Thayer. His father was a moderately prosperous textiles manufacturer, and as a result of his family’s prestige and his own intelligence, Thayer was admitted to Harvard University in 1881. He studied philosophy and worked on the school humor publication, the Harvard Lampoon. Future newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst worked as business manager of the publication, and the two met during their Harvard years.
After graduating from Harvard, Thayer took a tour of Europe that lasted several months. Meanwhile, his friend Hearst took over the San Francisco Examiner, and he offered Thayer a job writing a humor column. Thayer accepted the position, and for the next year and a half he contributed editorials, obituaries, and poems to the paper, often using the pseudonym “Phin.”
A Final Contribution
In the winter of 1887, Thayer’s health began to fail. He returned home to rest and began working for the family business, but he continued to send a few pieces to the paper. As one of his final contributions, he composed ”Casey at the Bat” in May of 1888. It appeared in the June 3 edition of the paper and received as much attention as any of the other comic ballads he had written—which is to say, almost none. Like the paper in which it was published, the poem might have been lost in time, if it had not happened to fit the theme at Wallack’s Theater in New York City one night in the late 1880s: baseball.
Saved from Obscurity
De Wolf Hopper, a well-known actor of the period, was to perform at Wallack’s, and he wanted to do something special. A friend had read Thayer’s poem in the paper and clipped it to pass on to Hopper. After some misgivings over whether he could memorize such a lengthy work, Hopper decided to do it, and in August 1888 he performed the poem at Wallack’s Theater. The performance was an extraordinary success and undoubtedly saved the poem from obscurity, as did the resultant controversy over its authorship. For several years, investigations sought the author of the poem, and Thayer’s authorship was not fully established and recognized until around 1910.
”Casey at the Bat” went on to be known, by the time of Thayer’s death, as a masterpiece. Thayer himself thought little of the poem: in an interview for Something about the Author he said, ”During my brief connection with the Examiner, I put out large quantities of nonsense…. In general quality ‘Casey’ (at least in my judgment) is neither better nor worse than much of the other stuff.”
Perhaps this nonchalant attitude towards his writing helps explain why, despite the success eventually gained by his baseball ballad, Thayer wrote little more in his lifetime. He contributed a few poems to newspapers, which were soon forgotten. Otherwise, he focused on his family’s mills until he retired in 1912. He died of a brain hemorrhage in Santa Barbara, California, on August 21, 1940.
Works in Literary Context
According to his own statement, Thayer wrote much ”nonsense” in his career, and ”Casey at the Bat” was intended as more of the same. The poem, however, can be considered both a ballad and a mock epic, two genres that merit greater respect than Thayer gave his own work.
”Casey at the Bat” is written in the form of a ballad, or a poem that tells a story. Its singsong rhythm renders it easily adaptable to oral performance, and indeed, the original ballads were songs. Perhaps it is for this reason that the poem only seemed to acquire half its meaning through print; the other half, which Hopper contributed in his oral performance of the work, was necessary to give the poem its full, striking effect.
Other well-known ballads written in the English language include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ”Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” (1798), John Keats’s ”La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” (1819), and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Thayer’s work differs from these examples, however, in that it is meant to be comic, whereas the most famous English ballads are tragic.
A mock epic takes a relatively trivial subject, such as a baseball game, and applies to it the poetic techniques used in an epic—a long narrative poem that generally tells the story of warriors and heroes. The result is comic, at the expense both of its subject and of epic ideals.
”Casey at the Bat” belongs in this genre alongside Alexander Pope’s masterpiece The Rape of the Lock (first version, 1712; expanded version, 1714) and Clive James’s more recent Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through The London Literary World (1974). Some modern satires, while they do not technically belong to the genre, share similar characteristics.
Works in Critical Context
Most of Thayer’s writing, which was done for newspapers and mostly, by his own account, for money, has been forgotten over the years. The merit in his one enduring work is obvious from the fact that the public has continued to enjoy it, and critics to discuss it, for more than a hundred years after he himself dismissed it as ”nonsense.” Today it is considered, together with such works as Mark Twain’s novel Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a piece of literary Americana.
”Casey at the Bat”
When it appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, ”Casey at the Bat” aroused little attention. It was not until after the poem’s oral performance that the public, as well as critics, began to recognize its value. William Lyon Phelps hailed the work, stating, ”The psychology of the hero and the psychology of the crowd leave nothing to be desired. There is more knowledge of human nature in this poem than in many of the works of the psychiatrist.” The poem is beloved, not only because of its psychology, but also because of the story it tells and the way in which it is told. According to a New York World article on the day following its first performance, ”The audience literally went wild. Men got up in their seats and cheered …it was one of the wildest scenes ever seen in a theatre.”
- Moore, Jim, and Natalie Vermilyea. Ernest Thayer’s ”Casey at the Bat”: Background and Characters of Baseball’s Most Famous Poem. New York: McFarland and Co., 1994.
- Neiman, LeRoy, and Ernest L. Thayer. Casey at the Bat. New York: Ecco, 2002.
- Phelps, William Lyon. What I Like in Poetry. New York: Scribner, 1934.
- ”Casey at the Bat.” San Francisco Examiner (June 3, 1888).
- Croy, Homer. ”Casey at the Bat.” Baseball (October 1908).
- ”’Casey at the Bat’ by Ernest Thayer.” Baseball Almanac. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www. baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_case.shtml. Last updated in 2008.
- ”Ernest Lawrence Thayer and ‘Casey at the Bat’.” Joslin Hall Rare Books. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.joslinhall.com/casey_at_the_bat.htm.
- ”From the Page to the Stage: Ernest Lawrence Thayer.” Speaking of Stories. Accessed November 30, 2008, from http://www.speakingofstories.org/Author% 20Bios/ernest_lawrence_thayer.htm.
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