Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Southpaw was the first of four novels by Mark Harris featuring Henry Wiggen; the others are Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957), and It Looked Like for Ever (1979). Of the four, the first two are by far the most highly regarded.

In The Southpaw, Harris transforms elements common to “baseball books” and “juvenile sports series” into a serious novel. While Harris does examine the drive to win, to achieve, within the context of professional baseball, his analysis of contemporary values and morals is fully applicable to business, entertainment, or any other profession. Dutch Schnell, Sad Sam Yale, and many other characters in The Southpaw are found in any walk of life.

Henry Wiggen, the narrator of The Southpaw, is not so typical. He is a left-handed pitcher, a left-hander in a right-handed world. Comparison with two other young heroes in American fiction is illuminating: Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, fictional characters who have become part of our culture.

Like Huck Finn, Henry is a naïve narrator. The matter of race is raised obliquely in The Southpaw as it is in the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). It is worth noting that this book was first published in 1953, two years before the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Henry’s roommate, Perry Simpson, a black infielder, is not allowed to stay with the team in certain cities. Henry does not preach about race, but the reader is insistently asked to question the social mores that turn Perry, a black man, into a second-class citizen only because of his color.

Henry Wiggen, unlike Holden Caulfield, is not presented as a victim of society. Henry is finally a more admirable figure morally than Holden Caulfield, the victim and child, helpless in the face of a society for which he feels no responsibility. Indeed, from a moral perspective, Henry is much closer to Huck Finn; he is never “precious.”

Because The Southpaw was initially classified as a “baseball book,” it was slow to receive the serious and thoughtful attention it merits, but, with Bang the Drum Slowly, it is now widely acknowledged as a novel which transcends its genre.