Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The title of Bang the Drum Slowly is adapted from a line in “The Streets of Laredo,” a song about a cowboy who dies young. That the novel is not about baseball is suggested by the epigram taken from Wright Morris’s The Huge Season (1954) that “a book can have Chicago in it, and not be about Chicago. It can have a tennis player in it without being about a tennis player.” Bang the Drum Slowly is not about baseball, nor is it really about the friendship which develops between Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson. Red Traphagen, the catcher and college professor, reads part of Bang the Drum Slowly in manuscript and comments that few people will read the book and that “even the people that read it will think it is about baseball or some such stupidity as that, for baseball is stupid, Author, and I hope you put it in your book, a game rigged by rich idiots to keep poor idiots from wising up to how poor they are.” Red tells Henry to “stick to death and Pearson.” Ironically, Mark Harris has done precisely that. Whatever Henry Wiggen sees or says, the knowledge of Bruce Pearson’s death is ingrained in his consciousness. Every chance reference to death, from the lyrics of a cowboy song to the jeer of a cab driver, resounds in Henry’s mind and reminds the reader of human mortality. When Bruce becomes ill and Henry sends Goose for the doctor, Bruce accuses Henry of having told Goose that he is dying. He realizes that people are...

(The entire section is 468 words.)