Mark Harris

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

Mark Harris, an important American novelist, was born as Mark Harris Finkelstein, the son of the lawyer Carlyle Finkelstein and Ruth Klausner Finkelstein. His erratic father periodically abandoned his suburban family to live secretly in a Manhattan hotel. Despite such treatment and frequent ill health, Harris’s mother transmitted an optimistic outlook to her son. His culturally assimilated Jewish family was financially stable, and Harris attended Mount Vernon public schools. After finishing high school, he sought work but found his Jewish surname a severe handicap, as many employers of the time practiced open discrimination. Around 1940, he therefore dropped Finkelstein from his name and, with his family’s approval, became known as Mark Harris.{$S[A]Finkelstein, Mark Harris;Harris, Mark}

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, where he soon experienced both the prospect of sudden death and the reality of anti-Semitism. These two shocks impelled Harris to resist the military, and he was discharged in 1944. While in the service, he began his first extended work of fiction, Trumpet to the World, a protest novel whose protagonist, a young black man, rebels against and escapes from a racist military to become a writer. From 1944 to 1946, Harris worked as a reporter in New York and St. Louis, and there he met Josephine Horen, whom he married on March 17, 1946. It was the beginning of a long, fruitful, and happy relationship.

Encouraged by his wife, Harris attended college; by 1951, he had received a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Denver, and in 1956 he was awarded his Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Minnesota. During this time, he also found his lifelong vocation as a teacher of creative writing. In 1952, he published City of Discontent, a fictionalized portrayal of the American poet Vachel Lindsay as a victim of a commercial society bent on the destruction of the artist. As a graduate student, Harris was inspired by Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to attempt a novel in the vernacular, narrated by a semiliterate young man, star baseball pitcher Henry Wiggen. The result was The Southpaw, which gave Harris his first critical success.

The 1950’s were an extremely productive period for Harris, as he continued his nearly obsessive pattern of writing about writing: All of his central characters were writers. Henry Wiggen, now a successful author, narrated two more novels, Bang the Drum Slowly and A Ticket for a Seamstitch, both of which used comic language, characters, and situations to develop such serious themes as the place of the individual in a conformist society, the price of success, the clash of authentic and falsified versions of reality, and the nature and value of community in American life. Also in 1957 Harris published his “breakthrough” novel, Something About a Soldier. A fictionalized account of Harris’s own military experiences, the book takes its hero, Jacob Epp, on a journey from naïve idealism to chastened maturity; the hero confronts his own Jewish identity, fights against pervasive injustice, and accepts his mortality. Harris’s central characters were now mature, responsible men. Such a man is Lee Youngdahl, the hero of the comic epistolary novel Wake Up, Stupid.

The creative flurry of the late 1950’s, the death of his father in 1959, multiplying family responsibilities, growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, an impulse to introspection—these and other factors combined to stall Harris’s production of notable fiction during the 1960’s. Instead, his work took new form and direction. In 1962, his play Friedman and Son was given its premiere. After exploring the relationship of father and...

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son in drama, Harris deepened the political dimensions of his work inMark the Glove Boy and Twentyone Twice, which recounted his experiences as a Peace Corps staff evaluator.

Starting around 1970, Harris extended his creative activities, consolidating them with substantial works of drama and nonfiction. This later period witnessed a fusion of the fictional achievements of the 1950’s with the autobiographical developments of the 1960’s. In 1970, he published The Goy, in which Westrum, a gentile historian, wrestles with anti-Semitism, family violence, and his own obsessive self-examination. The novel Killing Everybody anatomized the anger, sorrow, guilt, and need for vengeance felt by parents of American boys killed in Vietnam. Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck, a controversial critical biography, was published in 1980. Later in the 1980’s, Lee Youngdahl reappeared in the novel Lying in Bed, and three of Harris’s dramatizations, based on works of Twain and James Boswell, reached large television audiences. In 1990, Harris used a young narrator in Speed, a coming-of-age story set in his hometown of Mount Vernon. His satiric novel The Tale Maker also broke with his traditional themes by focusing on jealousy and revenge within the publishing industry. Late in life, Harris suffered from Alzheimer’s. His death on May 30, 2007 in Arizona was attributed to complications from that disease.

Despite his achievements in nonfiction and drama, Mark Harris was primarily a novelist of a kind not easily defined and appreciated by established criticism. In an age dominated by overtly Jewish writers such as Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, Harris did not emphasize his Jewishness. In an age of fashionably alienated antiheroes, Harris’s comic and optimistic protagonists may seem out of place. Many readers, however, find in Harris’s fiction themes of perennial interest in American literature. These issues include the individual’s quest for a real identity and security in a society sometimes indifferent, sometimes inimical, to such basic needs; the writer as artistic subject and social conscience; the questions of how to confront, establish, and verify authority; and the necessity to fight through life’s problems, without losing heart.


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