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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Joe DiMaggio and the Art of Useless Information

Joseph Paul DiMaggio died in 1999.  He's still the quintessential American icon to the Greatest Generation.  To later Baby-Boomers he was known as the guy in the Mr. Coffee commercials.  To Generation Xers, Joe DiMaggio is that guy who is mentioned in the famous song by Simon and Garfunkel "Mrs. Robinson."  Theories abound regarding this ageless song and its relationship to the Yankee Clipper.  The last time I checked what these theories were, I found that Paul Simon stated in some television show that it was a matter of a rhyme and beats and that Joe DiMaggio fit better than say, Mickie Mantle.  Of course DiMaggio's marriage to Marylin Monroe and his devotion to her after her death is also widely known as one of the greatest love stories of all time.  But getting back to the theories of "Mrs. Robinson" and what it all means.

"Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you /
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson? / 'Joltin' Joe has left and gone away."

Roger Kahn explains that "These lines [the song verse] touched throngs who had never seen him play.  DiMaggio himself, who is made uncomfortable by certain public displays of sentiments, insists, 'I've never been about to figure out what that song means.'"  I don't proclaim to have solved the puzzle or have the final answer, but there seem to be two elements to the puzzle that make sense to me--Simon and Garfunkel did include Joe DiMaggio in the song perhaps to evoke a sense of what sociologist and cultural anthropologists call a "central point of optimism" (presently known as gravitational optimism).  1968 America looked very much like 1939-1941 America.  Back in 1941, when DiMaggio ran his hitting streak of 56 games, "[a] sense, a deep quivering anxiety, grew in America that the world was headed for terrible storms.  In March 1938, spring-training time, Hitler's soldiers occupied Austria, and in Nazi 'rite of purification,' twenty thousand books were burned in Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg.... The Spanish Republic was falling before the onslaught of Francisco Franco's forces, supported by German bombers and Italian fascist troops.  The Japanese swept south in China, raging through Nanking, and Japanese aircraft bombed and sunk the U.S. Navy gunboat Panay.... DiMaggio, the handsome, hawk-faced newcomer, won enthusiasts for the game.  Millions of Americans were relieved to turn away from headlines recounting war and violence and plunge into the sports section.  There they could read of DiMaggio's summertime heroics.... People complained that the hard news was depressing.  The hell with Hitler.  Maybe he'll go away.  Let's see what's doing with DiMaggio."  

As I said, the late 1960s resembled the early 1940s.  The generation that fought and won World War II was (during the late 60s) in their mid-40s, early 50s, still working hard, still believing that despite the events taking place (Vietnam, the counter-culture movement, drug experimentation, etc.) they still held some optimism.  But the thing that was really missing was a Joe DiMaggio to turn their attention away from a war gone wrong and a generation of young people ran amok.  There was no DiMaggio then... hence the line from the song.  The song was released in 1968 in the soundtrack of that most iconic film "The Graduate."

This is only a theory, one theory among the many.  It's hard not to think of these things when your brain seems to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Useless information?  You be the judge.  In the meantime, I'll be looking for our generation's DiMaggio.

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At 8:49 PM, Blogger Bleets said...

Very nice post. Liked the song and the movie, loved Marilyn Monroe and respected Joe DiMaggio for his devotion to her, but your ideas about the choice of names for the Simon and Garfunkel song are VERY interesting.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger m caroline said...

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray."

Read this morning about the discussions in Japan regarding delaying -or not- the start of the season.

...maybe it was just about baseball?


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