William J. Schafer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2734

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.

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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 baseball trilogy (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, and A Ticket for a Seamstitch), Trumpet to the World and Something About a Soldier are all variants on the education-of-a-youth theme, drawing on Harris's own autobiography for central motives. In a direct sense all of Harris's writings have sprung from autobiography, although only Mark the Glove Boy and Twentyone Twice take conventional autobiographical forms.

From the beginning of his career as a novelist, when he wrote Trumpet to the World (1946), a shaky but energetic story of a black man in the South discovering his identity and mission in life, Harris has worked with scenes and situations he knew firsthand…. The novel strikes a keynote of radical political consciousness coupled with an intense awareness of American themes and ideas, a strong emotional focus on problems of the underdog in a WASP society. Ten years later, Harris circled back to this basic story in Something About a Soldier (1957), using a viewpoint much closer to his own private experience but working with the same milieu and concerns. In the intervening decade, Harris's style and craftsmanship matured markedly, and Something About a Soldier emerges as a small classic of pacifism and the continual dialectic of innocence and experience in American life. The training ground for Harris had been primarily his three Henry Wiggen baseball novels, providing him a pattern of interests and problems in the novel form. The baseball novels forced Harris to concentrate on the shape and demands of first-person, vernacular narratives, on modes of folk-thought and -speech, and on methods for imagining his own personal experience in the ritualistic, conservative world of bigtime baseball. When he finished the baseball stories, Harris knew expertly how to become another character and still incorporate his own experiences and viewpoint into the novel framework. He learned to mold a highly characteristic prose style into various informal but flexible "unliterary" shapes, as Mark Twain learned through jackleg journalism, frontier tall tales, and Huckleberry Finn the infinite variety of American storytelling dialects.

Harris also seemed to move from the overtly propagandistic demands of Trumpet to the World, with its lengthy discussion of racism, military brutality, war and pacifism, and other socio-political themes, to a world apolitical and becoming anachronistic—the great American national pastime, baseball, already by the 1950's being shoved into the wax museum of American history. However, instead of abandoning his early themes, Harris was discovering ways to reuse, refine, and extend them. By choosing such a hierarchic and traditional American interest as baseball, long the most decorous and genteel WASP sport, Harris developed a microcosm inside which he could portray the subsurface tensions and divergences in our national life. (pp. 28-30)

In The Southpaw (1953) Harris created his new world—the New York Mammoths and their roster of heroes, along with Henry W. Wiggen, the central consciousness who is the mock-writer of the vernacular tales. The stories ring with echoes of Lardner's You Know Me, Al, but the novels range more widely than Lardner's experiments with the loopy surrealism of semi-literate sports figures and are less exercises in modernized frontier-humor styles. Beyond Wiggen's struggles with the American language and his earnest recording of the hard facts of his first year's work in the big leagues, a significant theme is of self-discovery and developing consciousness. (p. 30)

The game of baseball, as Harris develops it through Wiggen's mind, is a version of pastoral—a microcosmic, slightly simplified version of society stylized and shaped into a formal mold. The swains here are the players, each of whom has a viewpoint, an individual attitude toward life, to contribute to the dialogue. The artificial stresses and crises of the game, laid out in its neatly hieratic pattern of innings and outs, runs and hits, and errors, strikes, and balls, give Harris a framework for a dramatic tale and a metaphor or central image refracting American values which most interest him. The comic motion of Harris's fiction revolves around games, gamesmanship, strategies for winning and losing, for living…. Harris flows with the stream of Twain and Anderson—and Lardner, Hemingway, and all other American literary sportsmen. (p. 31)

Bang the Drum Slowly turns, like Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," around the pity and mystery of the unconscious young struck down untimely. Pearson is one of the faceless, semi-anonymous rankers of baseball, no star, no personality, an average plugging ballplayer, but Wiggen pays attention to him, to his story. Persistently, Wiggen demands respect for Pearson from his teammates, and he finally is forced to reveal Bruce's secret to them, one by one. Predictably, their attitudes of contempt or indifference change when they realize Bruce is dying, yet their change is not simply an illustration of the flags of hypocrisy unfurled in the face of mortality. The fact of death is brought home to the players, and Pearson's predicament galvanizes the floundering team and inspires them to win the pennant race…. Pearson, however, dies alone and friendless after the season, cast off like the superannuated players who fret about their meager savings and blank futures. The baseball machine, the reality behind the pastoral dream, has ground up another individual. (pp. 32-3)

Pushing Wiggen's enlightenment further is the last brief book in the trilogy, A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957), which again shows Wiggen in close interaction with another figure, Pearson's replacement, Piney Woods. Woods is a polar opposite, temperamentally, from Pearson, a carefree extrovert who rides a motorcycle, plays a guitar, and dresses up in a gaudy cowboy suit. Where Bang the Drum Slowly introduced the fact of death into the pastoral landscape …, A Ticket for a Seamstitch deals with romantic love, the traditional pastoral topic, and, specifically, with idealized love…. (p. 33)

A Ticket for a Seamstitch explicitly describes illusion and disillusionment, the chasm between appearance and reality in the baseball world. It develops two parallel stories of unreasonable expectations—the seamstitch's illusions about the heroism and chivalry of the players, and Piney Woods' naive, teenage views of women and love. The fair maiden turns out to be the average young woman, and she discovers that her idols are insensitive, hardworking professionals, not demigods…. The comparison of visions makes Harris's last baseball novel a more overt comment on the discrepancies in the American dream than the earlier stories.

Harris's development of the three baseball stories gave him a strong grasp on a vernacular novel form refined very carefully through the persona of Henry Wiggen. Wiggen is an alert, skeptical, but basically moral intelligence afloat in a maelstrom of powerful psychological and physical conflicts. His observations and protracted analyses of his teammates run through his narratives about the summer seasons to form a sensitive picture of American mores and folkways in the middle of the Cold War. Wiggen is the "ideal simple man" of pastoral needed to give us a lucid insight into a complex society. (pp. 34-5)

After the baseball novels, Harris turned to more versions of his own story, two of his finest comic inventions: Something About a Soldier (1957) and Wake Up, Stupid (1959). The novels are complementary, like opposed mirrors or bookends framing a shelfload of ideas. Versions of war and peace from the still center of the Eisenhower era, they develop Harris's meditations on his own experience and its relation to the American soul. Something About a Soldier reworks Harris's own World War II adventures, but it is also a skillfully developed bildungsroman about maturation and a young man's emerging recognition of Freud's two great psychic poles, love and death. (p. 35)

Something About a Soldier describes the awakening of a young mind and conscience to the facts of life and death, to the possibilities of experience. Jacob grows from a brilliant boy skilled in the abstractions of logic and forensics into a man confronting the narrow facts of his own existence…. As in The Red Badge of Courage, the naive young soldier is brought to look upon the face of war—in Harris's novel not through the direct experience of battle but through the experience of others, the love and concern of Epstein's fellows.

Unlike Crane's boy giving a classic account of the battle of Chancellorsville, Jacob never sees the monster in full view, but he learns from its effects all around him. Only after the war does he find out his battery was wiped out, all dead. His strategic retreat from the jaws of death was not an illusion, a failure, but the course of truth. Yet the experience itself was its own vindication, as it transformed Jacob from aimless boy into thoughtful man. From destruction Jacob seized life and love.

Wake Up, Stupid complements Something About a Soldier in its concentration on a voyage of self-discovery, but it is a broader, more comic view of the theme, a domestic comedy of errors about an author finding himself not through his work but through his life. Its central figure is Lee Youngdahl, an athlete-writer-teacher who has come to a crisis of confidence in his life. Approaching middle age, with successes as a boxer and a popular novelist behind him, Youngdahl becomes neurotically insecure about himself and his abilities. Resting after completing a play, he embarks on a course of mad letter-writing to fill the creative vacuum in his life…. His frustrated imaginative energies pour into the letters which constitute Wake Up, Stupid.

The novel is informed by the spirits of Boswell and Johnson, Lee Youngdahl's spiritual avatars. Youngdahl becomes a Boswell pursuing himself through the endless bales of his journals, writing about himself as if he were a figure in an eighteenth-century comedy. Like Jamie Boswell, he is capricious, egocentric, anxiety-ridden, and alternately hostile and placating. Also like Boswell he is penetrating in self-analysis: the barrage of journal-like letters that Youngdahl writes acts as catharsis and self-disquisition. Through them he comes to understand aspects of himself and his relationship with family and friends. They place him in contact with his living present by allowing him to sort out past friendships and connections. (pp. 38-9)

The self-revelation through the extended dialogues Lee Youngdahl holds with his friends, associates, and enemies is another side of Harris's pastoral—dramatic self-realization through dialectic. Youngdahl comes to understand himself not so much through conversation as through hearing himself think, bouncing his problems and anxieties off his various readers. He listens for the echo…. These two novels, Something About a Soldier and Wake Up, Stupid, deal with inner landscapes, with a man conducting dialogues with the world and with himself and synthesizing these conversations into thought and action.

The two novels from the mid-to-late '50's are a significant movement from Harris's stylized baseball fiction. While they still deal intensively with vernacular American thought and language, they are more sophisticated in their grappling with important psychological problems and developments. (p. 40)

In the 1960's Mark Harris published more autobiographical writings than fiction, moving from the self-analytical protagonists of Something About a Soldier and Wake Up, Stupid to his own experience in Mark the Glove Boy (1964) and Twentyone Twice (1966). These two books chronicle Harris's involvement with sociopolitical ideas and movements in the turbulent '60's. Mark the Glove Boy is a reportorial journal of Richard Nixon's 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, and Twentyone Twice covers Harris's experience in 1964 as a Peace Corps advisor in Africa. Both are speculations on the state of America and its mind at the times of writing, and both deal thoroughly with Harris's own sensibility. Like his fictional characters, Harris emerges from the books a man troubled and questing, asking impertinent questions of authority, trying to untangle the complex data of the modern world and to place himself in a context in that world. (p. 41)

[The Goy (1970) and Killing Everybody (1973)] reflect the sociopolitical thinking of Harris's journals, his movement back toward the direct social involvement with which he began in Trumpet to the World, as if he were circling around to the beginning of his craft after twenty years' accumulated experience with life and writing. Both the novels deal with more intense crises of life, both through more complex personae than Harris used earlier. Some of the comic power of the 1950's novels is gone, although both books depend on the poignancy of comedy encapsulated in tragic scenes and minds.

The Goy is a journey inside the mind of Westrum, a professor of history and a gentile wrestling with the problem of his own identity as informed by anti-semitism. By trade he is a historian and by inclination, like Harris himself, an inveterate journal-writer and self-analyst. Through his meditations he tries to work out the balance of guilt and achievement in his life. (p. 42)

In Killing Everybody Harris deals with a complex situation involving four central characters, all of whom teeter on a fulcrum between love and violence. The book revolves around the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam War, around the sense of futility and the thirst for revenge that arose from the national anguish over the war. The characters are caught up in the tragedy of Vietnam and the phenomenon of social violence generated by its shock waves….

Killing Everybody is a study in compulsion, like Crime and Punishment, yet not a case study of an isolated individual but a cross-section of a group driven by the same rages and the same necessity to seek love. (p. 44)

Like Harris's earlier novels, Killing Everybody is a study in distinctly American motives and states of mind. It captures two days in the lives of Americans muddled by news of astronauts in trouble in space, by memories of Vietnam, by elections run by machines. The four principals in the story are driven by the same internalized rages, creating the same impotent fantasies. (p. 45)

Mark Harris's fiction deals with individuals seeking self-definition, trying to view a landscape of the mind and the landscape around them and to reconcile the two. They are characters driven by a hunger for truth, for self-discovery, even if facts of the self are painful or destructive. (p. 46)

He comes back to the image of the writer, himself as writer, again, an image central to much of his fiction. A consistent self-consciousness in Harris's novels acknowledges that the story is a story, an artifice constructed by an artist, although it is not the surface self-consciousness of writers like John Barth, Robert Coover, or Donald Barthelme. The fact of artifice is kept beneath the surface of naturalistic fiction, but the mental world that Harris creates revolves around the sun of literary imagination. His characters are all authors in some sense, like Henry "Author" Wiggen, writers who seek to describe and explain their own existence.

They are all basic American types, profoundly enmeshed with America in the generation from World War II to Vietnam…. They are all ordinary people affected by the direction of their society, and they seek aid and comfort from their fellows, answers to questions they discuss with themselves. (p. 47)

William J. Schafer, "Mark Harris: Versions of (American) Pastoral," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1977, pp. 28-48.

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