Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bang the Drum Slowly is a deceptively simple book, which, like The Southpaw, has suffered from being assessed as a “baseball book.” Even in the clichés and slang of the ballplayers, the word “death” is repeated with telling irony. The reader shares Henry Wiggen’s sensitivity to the word and gradually comes to realize that Bruce’s death foreshadows that of everyone. The understatement of the dialogue accentuates the impact of Bang the Drum Slowly. The characters are inarticulate, most of all Bruce, but their very lack of sophistication is skillfully used by Harris to engage the reader’s emotions. Bang the Drum Slowly merits comparison with some of Ernest Hemingway’s best short stories. As a work of art, it is better written than Hemingway’s story of Colonel Cantwell’s death in Across the River and into the Trees (1950). At the end of the novel, when Henry forgets to send Bruce a copy of the winning scorecard, Harris resists the temptation to sentimentalize the relationship of Henry and Bruce. Henry Wiggen quite nobly works out his contract so that Bruce will remain with the Mammoths throughout the season, but he forgets to send the scorecard. Ironically, too, Harris makes a point of the fact that Henry Wiggen has been writing the book about Bruce’s death while Bruce is dying. At one point, Henry even wonders if the book will have an audience if Bruce lives. Though Harris resists any hint of sentimentality, he resists the pressure on contemporary artists to depict the world as valueless and empty. The owners and manager would sever Bruce’s relationship with the Mammoths if they knew of his illness, but the men on the team are united and inspired by the fact of his approaching death. Few novels with such a serious theme manage to be so amusing. The Southpaw had great energy and charm; Bang the Drum Slowly ought to be regarded as a minor classic. Perhaps because it has baseball as its setting, this important novel has not received the careful scrutiny that it deserves.