I grew up in Canton in the 1950s and 1960s, and it wasn’t what anyone would call a center of literary culture. In fact my greatest interest was baseball. This was almost certainly because of my father, who had been something of a star athlete in his day. His big sport was football, but I never weighed enough to play that game, so I played Little League, Pony League, and Colt League baseball, right up until the time I left home for college.
Bottoms in 1957, age seven;
photograph courtesy of David Bottoms
My interest in baseball was normal enough for a kid in Canton in the late fifties, but by the time I was twelve or so, I was living a double life. I loved books, a rare enough thing for a teenager in Canton. Back then the town was just about as American as anyone could imagine—a place both beautiful and bleak for its lack of anything we might call “the arts.” There was a library, sure, old and tottering at the head of the town, a beautiful Victorian ramshackle that radiated in its decades of dust all the mysteries of time, culture, and place. But by the time I was seven or eight years old and susceptible to its attractions, the city fathers had torn it down and built where it had stood a very utilitarian brick and concrete box, which looked like it should have had machine gun turrets on the roof.
So how does a guy come to literature in such a place? Not really from my family. Not once in my entire childhood did I ever see my father or my mother sit down in the living room and pick up a book for the purpose of leisure. They simply were not book people. Television was their only entertainment. After a hard day at Holcomb Chevrolet or the Jones-Hendrix clinic, they had little energy for anything else. Most of the books in our house belonged to me. Most of those were schoolbooks. Granny Ashe had ten or so novels on a small bookshelf in her living room. Two of those were "Gone with the Wind." She had a hardback and a paperback. Besides the King James Bible, that was just about our entire library.
One great advantage I did enjoy, however, was my mother’s encouragement. She understood the importance of an education, and even though I could hardly take my mind off second base and shortstop, she pushed me to develop an interest in books. She took me regularly to the county library and to A.W. McClure Bookstore, a wonderful little shop owned by my second-grade teacher. It was a quaint and dimly lit place filled with many of the classics one would expect a child to read—Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Louisa May Alcott—as well as the more “with-it” adventures of the Hardy boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew. One day, though, when I was around twelve years old, I chose from the adult rack a paperback called Girl in a Big Brass Bed. The only thing I remember about that book is the title and the disappointment that fell across Ms. McClure’s face.
Not so long ago, I finally brought my two very different childhood interests together. For most of my life, I’ve loved the great Russian novelists, Tolstoy especially, and especially War and Peace. Prince Andrei, who is wounded at the battle of Borodino, is one of literature’s greatest characters. In a little poem from my most recent book, I combined this with a memory of high school baseball, where I finally couldn’t get around on the pitching and spent a good deal of time warming the bench.
Pinch Hitting in the Playoffs, 1967
On the Cherokee High School baseball
team, I didn’t nab much respect
for being well-read. All the real jocks
got the at-bats while I warmed the
bench, knocking off
For me that season was heat and dust
and the bad light
of dugouts, and out in the glare
a constant scream off the infield, the out
field, the stands,
until one afternoon
in a frenzied croak the coach broke
through the noise—
Grab a bat! Grab a bat!
It was nothing as dramatic as a tied
or even a squeaker we might pull out—
only a chance to take a swing
in a game we had no chance of winning.
I don’t even recall the score, only
the haze, the heat, the dust
like cannon smoke drifting off the infield,
then the coach against the dugout fence,
shooting crazy signs with his hand—
cap, nose, eye,
cap, nose, eye.
And all I could think
was Lev Nikolaevich, don’t let Prince
Poet and novelist David Bottoms is the current poet laureate of Georgia, an inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and founding coeditor of Georgia State University’s literary magazine, Five Points. He presently serves as Amos Distinguished Chair in English Letters at GSU. Published in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Poetry, and the Paris Review, Bottoms released his latest collection of poems, We Almost Disappear, last September.