Mark Harris Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 940 words.)