Field of Dreams and Nostalgia’s Magic Waters

By Mark Dursin

The end of the Major League Baseball season got my thinking about last June, when I went back in time.

When my wife had asked me what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, I was initially stumped. Then I found out that a local theater was showing Field of Dreams, to commemorate the film’s 30th anniversary, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I mean… spending Father’s Day watching on the big screen a classic father-and-son movie, and sharing that experience with my twin sons– who were just about the same age I was when I first saw the film? Talk about all the cosmic tumblers clicking into place.

Now, it’s not as if I hadn’t seen Field of Dreams in the past thirty years.  In fact, there was a good ten-year stretch when I watched it every July; I was teaching summer school, and I showed it as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye. (More on that later.) I ended up learning a lot about the film– watched the documentaries, read up all the trivia on imdb. In fact, I almost learned too much, to the point of disenchantment, where the magic ballfield just didn’t seem quite that magical anymore.

But seeing all those iconic scenes– from the first “if you build it, he will come” all the way to “Hey, Dad. Wanna have a catch?”– playing out, once again, on an actual movie screen, in an actual movie theater, was such a beautiful, surreal experience, that I immediately remembered why I fell in love with the film in the first place. But more than that: seeing the film again brought me back to summer 1989, when I saw the movie for the first time.

It was a great summer.  I had just finished a successful first year of college, and I spent the whole summer hanging out with my high school friends, going to fun concerts, and seeing some great movies. (Lots of classics were released in the summer of 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, When Harry Met Sally, and, of course, Field of Dreams.)   To paraphrase Bob Seger, I was eighteen, didn’t have care.

Of course, I did have some cares. I spent thirty-five hours a week at my crappy summer job, buffing floors at one of my town’s schools. My grandfather was in the hospital. (He died in early September.)  One of my friends had started dating my ex-girlfriend– and even though it seems so insignificant now, it consumed a lot of my emotional energy back then. So, yeah,,, Summer ‘89 had some moldy spots. But nostalgia has a way of cutting out all the mold from your memory so you can focus on the shiny good stuff. That’s why nostalgia is so glorious.

And Field of Dreams is all about glory of nostalgia. That’s what Terrence Mann is talking about in his famous climactic speech. (Come on: You know the words– say it with me!)

“People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom…They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past… They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces… 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.”

The whole speech is about the biggest dream of all: going back to a simpler time, a time when there were no mortgages, no gambling scandals, no fallen heroes.  A time that once was good and could be again. And Mann’s notion of being “dipped in magic waters.” That’s nostalgia.

I’m a very nostalgic person.  I’ve never missed a high school or college reunion. If I have a chance to drive past an old apartment, I do it. I enjoy it when Facebook reminds me of something that happened “On This Day.”  And, of course, there’s my 80s obsession. (I even started this article reminiscing fondly about an event that happened just five months ago!)

Don’t get me wrong: I love my current life.  I have a wonderful wife, wonderful kids, wonderful friends. I have a job I like, and minimal aches and pains. But I also get a warm feeling when I hear a song or see a movie from when I was a teenager.  It connects me to the Person I Was Then, who really doesn’t differ that much from the Person I Am Now. It gives me a sense that no time has passed, that there have been no years. And if I can share that song or movie with my own kids, and help them glimpse the person I was then and still am now, that’s even better.

Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the dark underbelly of nostalgia. I am now at the age that whenever I encounter a film or song from my youth, I find myself saying, “That came out (x-number) years ago?  You’ve got to be kidding!” That’s the price of being nostalgic: along with the warm whimsy of remembering the good ol’ days comes a keen awareness of the passage of time. Apparently, time HAS passed. There HAVE been years.

This is where the novel The Catcher in the Rye comes into play. (Told you I’d get to it.) First, some context: the 1989 film Field of Dreams owes a huge debt to the beloved 1951 novel:

  • Field of Dreams, the film, is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella.

  • In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella goes to Boston to find a reclusive novelist named Terrence Mann.

  • In the novel Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella goes to New Hampshire to find a reclusive novelist named J. D. Salinger.

That’s right: Terrence Mann is loosely-based on J. D. Salinger. And I say “loosely-based,” because Salinger was not a large, black man with a voice that sounds suspiciously like Mufasa. But like Terrence Mann, both the real-life J. D. Salinger and the character J. D. Salinger from the novel Shoeless Joe were hermits who stopped writing– or at least, stopped publishing their writing– at the peaks of their careers. (The real-life Salinger died in January 2010.)

If you use the Mann-Salinger connection as a baseline, you can find other nexus points between Field of Dreams and Catcher– e.g. Allie Caulfield’s baseball glove, the passing reference in the novel to a student named “Richard Kinsella.”  But beyond those surface connections, the film and the novel shares some thematic connections. In particular, one important symbol links the two: the “big glass cases,” which narrator Holden Caulfield talks about in Chapter 16.

Holden has wandered into a museum he used to visit as a child and he starts marveling at the items in the “big glass cases.” Then he starts thinking about how these big glass cases preserve things: they keep objects and moments frozen in time. “Certain things they should stay the way they are,” Holden says. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

Even though he’s just a teenager, Holden is a pretty nostalgic guy himself.  And when he talks about the “big glass case” that allows things to “stay the way they are,” he’s basically talking about the Iowa ballfield in Field of Dreams.  Holden could probably really use a place like Ray’s dream field– a place where time stands still, where the flux of life is held in stasis. Heck, we all could use that.

Holden constantly blasts movies as “phony” or “corny,” so he wouldn’t like this, but for me, re-watching an old movie like Field of Dreams — a film that has aged so well, it almost hasn’t aged at all– is sort of like entering into a “big glass case.” And in that sense, the film Field of Dreams is like the “field of dreams” it showcases. When you watch it, you feel dipped in magic waters.


Author: Dan

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *