Harris, Mark 1922–
Although Harris has had a literary career as an American novelist, short writer, playwright, screenwriter, autobiographer, and editor that has spanned more than thirty-five years, he remains best known for the Lardneresque baseball trilogy he wrote in the fifties. The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, and A Ticket for a Seamstitch, written from the persona of baseball player-author Henry Wiggen, form a Bildungsroman of a young athlete growing to maturity and making several pithy comments on American manners and morals along the way. Bang the Drum Slowly became a successful movie, for which Harris wrote the screenplay. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
It is very much to Mr. Harris's credit that, in writing ["Trumpet to the World," a story] of a Negro educated and loved by a white woman, persecuted in the army as well as in civilian life, he avoids the bitterness, the emotionalism, and the loss of perspective which mark so many of the books which attempt to deal with the plight of the American Negro. Mr. Harris never loses his perspective; his Willie Jim never loses his perspective; and what emerges is a fine and sensitive study of a very strong character, of his relationships with other human beings, his attitudes, his misfortunes, his triumphs. (p. 13)
Probably the most outstanding feature of Mr. Harris's novel, however, is his ability to combine a profound sympathy for the group and the problems of the group with a genuine insight into the individual mind and emotion, never losing sight of either. As a result, there is an excellent balance between the strong, carefully examined characters and the more numerous, almost anonymous ones who wander through his story. Willie Jim is startling, is clear, is the individual—his story alone is important—but at the same time he is the chorus, pronouncing and reiterating his hard-learned democratic lesson….
Mr. Harris is clear-headed and sincere, writes beautifully, and directs his energies toward problems which, sadly enough, cannot ever in our time have too much literary attention. (p. 14)
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Edward J. Fitzgerald
[In] time for the opening of the 1953 season Mark Harris has come up with a novel, "The Southpaw" … that is the best straight—as distinguished from Lardner's satirical—treatment of baseball we have yet had. Mr. Harris has written a serious novel, skilfully using the folklore and mythology of baseball to illuminate some pleasant and unpleasant aspects of contemporary American character.
His story is the story of Henry Wiggen…. A phenomenal player, Henry shot quickly into place on the fabulous team of the New York Mammoths … and in a short time was well on his way to becoming one of baseball's "immortals." In the course of these developments—told in a semiliterate first-person prose—Henry learned, as will the reader, a great deal about the racket as well as the game of baseball, about himself, and about the American veneration for and sacrifices to the symbols of success.
Mr. Harris's novelistic achievement is a considerable one. He has taken a long, serious, and penetrating look at American mores and morals. And he has done this while telling a highly dramatic, colorful, and absorbingly exciting action story.
Edward J. Fitzgerald, "Jeu de Spring," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1953 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 15, April 11, 1953, p. 58.
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A portion of "Bang the Drum Slowly" is a percussive dirge for Bruce Pearson who didn't get very much of the little he wanted out of life. He died with the '55 season, from Hodgkin's disease. But mainly it's a book about the ball players who will be back next season, not the legends of the sports magazines, but the inarticulate young men who lie about their salaries, idolize cowboys, sing hillbilly music, and guard every cent that comes their way. This is a complete and unusually accurate picture of a baseball team. It is very funny, yet serious. It is sometimes rude, sometimes sad and occasionally wise. It is often poetic….
When it sticks to its characters and the baseball background, "Bang the Drum Slowly" makes wonderful reading—whether one hates baseball or loves it. But the actual pennant race is a persistent intrusion and instead of a first-rate novel, author Mark Harris must be content with a fine baseball novel. If "Bang the Drum Slowly" is not all Mr. Harris hoped, it is awfully funny in parts, and laughter is rare enough on anybody's bookshelf.
Robert Daley, "Henry Was a Southpaw," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1956 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 18, 1956, p. 5.
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["A Ticket for a Seamstitch"] may have its shortcomings, but it does, at least, provoke the sort of laughter that a grown man needn't be ashamed of, and that, as current fiction goes, is saying a great deal….
Although there are occasional lapses into Runyonese ("Is he not in a nervous sweat?"), the author's ear for the idiom is generally good, and his eye for character even better. (p. 17)
Mr. Harris is not just a writer of funny baseball novels; he is a comic artist of considerable skill, whose subject happens to be the national sport. (p. 18)
Donald Malcolm, "The Pitcher in the Rye," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1957 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 136, No. 7, February 18, 1957, pp. 17-18.
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John P. Sisk
I found [Something About a Soldier] an enjoyable performance, full of humor, sympathy and a relish of language. Mr. Harris has resisted the temptation to use his hero simply as a means of flaying the corrupt world. There is no bitterness in his high-spirited book. His attitude of affectionate irony towards Jacob is just right, and an appealing figure emerges.
Some Harris fans may be disappointed to learn that Something About a Soldier is not in the manner of Henry Wiggen, the southpaw narrator of the three previous novels. But if they read with their ears open they will discover that the Wiggen style was only the Harris style in vernacular dress. It may be that Mr. Harris intends to return to Henry, and if he does I am sure that Henry will amuse me. Nevertheless, I feel that Mr. Harris is too good a writer, and too concerned with style, not to know that the moment when one begins to do something easily is the moment for the writer to begin doing something else. (p. 215)
John P. Sisk, "One Man's Trial," in Commonweal (copyright © 1957 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVII, No. 8, November 22, 1957, pp. 214-15.
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Mark Harris is one of the most engaging of the young novelists, a man of incorrigibly high spirits, one who is not merely willing but delighted to entertain his readers. "Wake Up, Stupid" … is the wildest and gayest of his novels, and I hope that many readers will find this out. Some of them, I trust, will also discover that Harris has a large capacity for seriousness.
"Wake Up, Stupid" is a novel that is presented through letters and, occasionally, documents…. The letters are written by or to Lee Youngdahl, a professor of English at a college in San Francisco….
The invention is in part of a rather rough-and-ready sort. Lee Youngdahl being what he is, the epistolary form lends itself to gags and wisecracks, and there is a good deal of what might be called low humor. There is also sharp satire….
The form Harris has chosen does not encourage discipline, and the novel contains a certain amount of extraneous material and has several loose ends. On the other hand, the form permits Harris to make the most of Youngdahl's exuberance, and there are wonderfully comic passages….
The novel is to be welcomed simply as entertainment, but, as I began by saying, Harris is fundamentally a serious writer…. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Harris has a tremendous sense of the possibilities of life—outside himself as well as inside himself. He tells us not merely that we don't have to...
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[Mark Harris] has returned to one of the oldest novelistic forms to relate his new story about an academic hero…. Samuel Richardson wrote the "first English novel" ("Pamela," 1939) through the narrative device of letters, which "Wake Up, Stupid" also uses.
What is more significant is that Mr. Harris has returned to tradition in attitude as well as technique. Through the apparently haphazard letters from a dozen sources that shuffle in and out as casually as day-by-day life itself, he has woven a taut thematic thread….
A bewildering number of characters make their epistolary entrances….
Yet all these characters, all these problems, and all these different Lee Youngdahls add up to one process in Mr. Harris' book—the proper way an individual should define himself, in relation to his work and in relation to the people he works with.
"Wake up, stupid"—the clarion call of a Youngdahl classroom—is one that the author directs to everybody in his novel, including Youngdahl himself. For this is a deceptively casual search for what the individual's experience has to offer when encountered with alertness, humor, and energy.
An occasional hint of smugness creeps in, as if Mr. Harris were aware how adroitly he had synthesized the rebels of yesterday and the conformists of today into the cantankerous but committed citizenship of Youngdahl. But for the most part he is...
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Edgar Z. Friedenberg
A reviewer who attempts to look … deeply into Twentyone Twice faces curious but interesting problems, both technical and moral. If it were fiction, I would hail it as a satirical masterpiece. The character, Harris, who emerges from it is just the sort that Jean-Paul Sartre, say, would have drawn to depict an American professor in a provincial college torn between fidelity to his youthful radicalism and the ambition to become an instrument of "national purpose." It is all there: the studied use of obscenity to project an image of impulsive warmth; the deliberate, self-critical assumption of an anti-heroic posture to explain the absence of militance. Mr. Harris loses no opportunity to present himself as sensitive, good-hearted, and so tolerant that he has come to expect, as a matter of course, to betray himself….
What is the function of all this self-abasement? Apparently to suggest that self-abasement has become a necessary part of being human, the way we all live now. (p. 24)
The source of the reader's difficulty with Twentyone Twice is not a defect of literary craftsmanship—Mr. Harris is an excellent craftsman. The book is filled with detailed observations of Washington, Africa, and the singular daily life of both locales, sensitively recorded, and placed precisely in its context so as to be most richly meaningful. The difficulty is philosophical; and it lies precisely in the distinction between...
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The title character of "The Goy" is a Christian cast among Jews. He takes a Jewish wife and a Jewish mistress. His scholarly, professional life depends on the favor of Jews—in a New York faculty, in a Washington population study, at the hinterland "Center" where he arrives at the beginning of the book, hoping for a place to finish his life's work.
But even here, ironically close to the Gentile roots of his boyhood hometown, he is a kind of exile. And he is haunted by the thought that he may have been guilty of anti-Semitism in an almost Biblical act of violence against his own son.
This character, Westrum, becomes not only recognizable, in the sense of those non-Jews drawn toward Jews, but almost mythical in a classic reversal of the role of the Jew trying to make the grade in a world that subtly and overtly exiles him.
Yet all this, done with fine personal and institutional detail, is only one level, and not the most provocative one, supplied by Mr. Harris. For Westrum, whatever his relationship to Jews, is caught in a uniquely contemporary matrix of media. He wants to live his life and have it, too, so he is keeping a minutely detailed journal, "living his life twice to understand it once," leaving it to posterity as data for study like a scientific resource….
Westrum's own memory becomes entangled with and corrected by his memory bank in typescript. His certainties are...
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The Goy is an enterprise which, it seems to me, not only makes large claims for itself, but lays large claims on our attention and our inquiries.
One of these inquiries ought to go to the metamorphosis of the novelist himself: how does it come about that the author of baseball novels, a writer whose fiction has up to now engaged in what must be called WASP impersonation, suddenly bursts out with a book about the nature of the Jewish mind? Is it that something has happened inside Mark Harris, or inside America?….
What makes The Goy untouchable, particularly for critics, is that it is an attack on that very Gentile culture—the literature of "humanism"—which produces literary critics. Worse yet, it is an attack on the complex of historical and social attitudes that make up the Gentile mind itself—or call it, more definitively, the Christian mentality. It is this mentality, in its most secularized and liberalized forms, at its apparent pinnacle of clarity and effectiveness, that The Goy is out to get. (p. 104)
The burden of The Goy is that Westrum is the country; that like Westrum the country is a lie and a deception, that moral indifference is endemic, and cannot be introspected away; is in fact increased by intellectual application. Ultimately this is a novel … about its own apparent premise—which is to say, the premise tested, contradicted, traduced: the...
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William J. Schafer
Mark Harris, over the past thirty years, has produced a large group of fine novels, too many to survey easily in one essay. His work has garnered good reviews and some general reputation; he is known as an exceptional essayist and journalist, and he has taught creative writing for years in San Francisco and in the Midwest. Yet his work is rarely discussed in surveys of "new" fiction or promising writers; he is rarely grouped with the Jewish writers of the 1950's renaissance and has seemed to work in isolation from a critical audience…. [But] all through the 1950's and '60's Mark Harris worked his own individual territory, explored the intricate maze in the heart of America, and wrote some of the finest comic fiction of those decades.
Some persistent themes run through Harris's novels from his first, Trumpet to the World (1946), to his most recent Killing Everybody (1973). Among the basic concerns of his fiction are: the variety and multiplicity of American life, and its corollary demands for tolerance and understanding; the collision of young innocence with the world of hard experience; the uniqueness of the individual and the completeness of imaginative experience. All the novels deal directly or indirectly with tensions between pluralist and conformist patterns in American life and with the response of the individual to demands of his culture. The early novels take the familiar shape of the bildungsroman—the...
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["It Looked Like for Ever"] is not so much about baseball as about aging, just as "Bang the Drum Slowly" was not so much about baseball as it was about dying. It is the strength of all of these novels that Mark Harris uses material that we normally associate with the sports pages and by skill and compassion enlarges what he touches until he reveals us to ourselves—our ordinary, universal lives.
This novel begins with losses. At the age of 39, Henry Wiggen has lost his fastball, and last season he lost all but three ball games. When his old manager drops dead on a golf course, Henry expects to succeed Dutch as manager of the New York Mammoths, but he loses again. At the end of the first chapter, he is passed over for manager and released as a ballplayer. (p. 13)
[The beginning of the book covers] too little of the game itself. This is a pity. Harris's accounts of baseball games and pennant races have always been exciting, the compelling background of action against which his characters have played out their moral dramas. His literary game of baseball is a version of pastoral—a small, intact reduction of the world.
Only one element ever rings false here. When I saw the film of "Bang the Drum Slowly," I was disturbed that the coaches all sounded like Rodney Dangerfield. Reading this novel, I think I understand where the language comes from. Father of the Henry Wiggen novels is clearly Ring Lardner,...
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["Short Work of It: Selected Writing by Mark Harris"] might well stand on any writer's desk alongside a dictionary, a thesaurus, and "The Elements of Style"—the last three as reference, the Mark Harris as example, taskmaster, and, perhaps, conscience….
His writing here is so free of mannerisms that it is hard to identify a Harris style—but he always writes with a lucidity that seems suited to the subject….
Harris observes his subjects closely, then stands back to take in the wide view. It is a method that has never encouraged editors to seek him out for quick write-ups …, but has made the final product worth reading long after its publication date. For example, his piece on the hippies of Haight-Ashbury (written in 1967) is possibly the best in the book. Its thoughtfulness and energy (he punches up the prose with bits of graffiti) pushed me to one new perspective after another, until, finally, I had to look back over the subject as if from a height.
Although Harris doesn't depend on the flashy phrase ("I am appalled by my limited vocabulary," he writes), the final effect of his pieces, so skillfully sewn together that the stitches are invisible, often is brilliant. He refuses to reduce ideas to labels and he is not in the habit of summing up his subjects in hyphenated adjectives or catch phrases—he has resisted the trend to make life fit into a headline….
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[It Looked Like For Ever] is a very likeable book, and to damn it with a little faint praise, I should say that it rather amused me but not violently. Part of the problem is that it goes on too long, allowing Mr. Harris to repeat jokes and stretch out bits that were perhaps best deleted to begin with. (p. 102)
It Looked Like For Ever is about the sadness of growing older in a game for younger men—of being, in effect, struck out by Nature. Henry Wiggen has reached forty, retirement age—actually well past it—for most baseball players, and his problem is that he would like to play out one last season so that his youngest daughter can see him play. But such plot as there is here is scarcely more than an excuse for Mr. Harris to mock the clichés of baseball and to deflate the overblown pieties of a game that, since the infusions of large sums of money made available by television fees, in most respects has become a business like many another. Mark Harris truly knows his subject, and knows what is funny about it and what is poignant about it. The difficulty with his book is that in it the most heavy-handed jokes commingle too easily with the most subtle. The effect is rather as if a solid three-hundred hitter were picked off every third time he got on base—the man would have to be sent down, as one sets down It Looked Like For Ever, with regret. (p. 103)
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[Although] I do think Henry Wiggen (the hero of It Looked Like For Ever and several other Harris novels) is something more than a baseball player, I think he is something less than a writer. Mark Harris, however, is a fine writer, as he has proved many times in his 15 books, among them Bang the Drum Slowly….
[Henry Wiggen is] nearing 40; he is the "27th winningest pitcher in baseball history," admired by the nation, an admirer of women, an ardent free-enterpriser and—here is the problem—the author of three books: The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly and A Ticket for a Seamstitch. He is also supposed to be the author of It Looked Like For Ever. The conceit is that he is not just the narrator, as Huck Finn was of his book, but the actual author. What we are reading is not a novel, but Henry Wiggen's unedited autobiography, complete with misspellings and other orthographic peculiarities (one of which is in the title).
These are merely irritating; the real problem is that Henry has no ear for dialogue. He cannot, as Mark Harris well could, hear how the other characters in the novel speak….
In these novels "in the Henry Wiggen manner," as he calls it, Harris is writing in the comic, colloquial tradition of Mark Twain and Ring Lardner. But in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, say, the characters other than Huck are permitted to speak in their own...
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From the subtitle on—the reference is to a poem by Robert Frost—["Saul Bellow; Drumlin Woodchuck"] is surely one of the most eccentric biographical works since A.J.A. Symons' "The Quest for Corvo." I call it a biographical work because Mr. Harris has written more a quest for Bellow than a conventional biography. "For specific facts you must go to a certified public accountant," he declares, and his indifference to facts in this research-dominated age is an act of sheer bravado: He "believes" that Bellow is associated with the Committee on Social Thought; introduced to one of Bellow's girlfriends in a restaurant, he fails to catch the name: "Stat or Stats or Stap or Staps." After a decade of purported research, he writes the novelist: "I date this letter your birthday. It is one of the hard facts I have about you." Wrong again, he discovers: "His birthday was not July 10 but June 10."
But then, Mr. Harris isn't really a biographer by temperament. He is a novelist and, like so many other contemporary novelists, self-obsessed. The main character in this curious narrative, it seems at first, is the biographer himself, a grievance-prone academic brimming with self-contempt and in perpetual competition with his subject….
Like Rousseau, Mark Harris is shameless; like Boswell, digressive: He reports on a telephone conversation with Richard Ellmann (because he is a biographer?), intimates sexual adventures...
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