Sunday, 15 November 2009


NOTE: Here's another obituary, written for the Guardian in 2007, but not published, probably because the centrality of baseball to Harris' appeal seemed a little outre, if not inconsequential, to them. Oddly, cricket has never spawned a sub-genre of literature the way baseball has. But as you will see, although the Wiggen novels are impressive, and Bang The Drum Slowly remains one of the best baseball, indeed sports, movies, Harris' credentials went far beyond that. I found the copy when I was filing an obit of another somewhat negelected novelist, Donald Harington, to the paper today, look for it soon.

Although he wrote 18 books, including novels, memoirs, and literary criticism, Mark Harris, who has died aged 84, will be remembered best for four novels narrated by Henry Wiggen, a left-handed baseball pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths. No sport has been transformed into more lasting literature, and, with the arguable exception of boxing, into better films, than baseball; Harris is unique in that his most famous novel, Bang The Drum Slowly is considered one of the very best set in the world of baseball, and its film adaptation, for which he wrote the screenplay, routinely features near the top of lists of successful sports movies.

The novel was the second to feature Wiggen, introduced as the author of The Southpaw (1953). Left-handed pitchers are baseball’s eccentrics; it is telling that their signature pitch, a reverse-breaking curve, is called a ‘screwball’. Harris’ (and Wiggen’s) style was influenced by the baseball fiction of Ring Lardner, particularly You Know Me, Al, but on publication he was often compared to Bernard Malamud, whose The Natural had appeared the previous year. But where Malamud was recasting myth, Harris used the quotidian nature of the baseball season to reflect everyday life, and the baseball team to mirror society.He once explained that ‘the society of boy games is a miniature of the larger society of men and business,’ and that some writers understood that and some did not.

Bang The Drum Slowly appeared in 1956 (that's a 1956 shot of Harris from Sports Illustrated above) and was immediately adapted for television with Paul Newman playing Wiggen and Albert Salmi as his dim-witted and much-ridiculed catcher Bruce Pearson, who thinks Wiigen's nickname 'Author' is actually 'Arthur'. In the film, Michael Moriarty, looking every inch a pitcher, played Wiggen, while Robert De Niro, less convincing with his baseball mechanics, was endearing as Pearson, whom Wiggen discovers is suffering from terminal Hodgkins disease. With Wiggen orchestrating Pearson’s acceptance, the catcher blossoms and the team wins. Harris downplays the baseball melodrama in favour of wryly comic insights expressed best when Wiggen initiates Pearson into the card game ‘TEGWAR’, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules’, and eventually allow him to win. After Pearson’s death, Wiggen meditates on what he has learned: ‘from here on in, I rag nobody’.

Concerns with prejudice, peace, and justice permeate Harris books. His characters are often trapped between worlds, an echo of his own life story. Born Mark Harris Finkelstein in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, he changed his name legally after serving in the army in 1943-44, advised that he would have a better chance at a writing career without such an obviously Jewish surname. He worked in New York on the short-lived left-wing daily PM, and for International News Service,then in Chicago for Black Digest and Ebony. His first novel, Trumpet To The World (1946) is about a struggling black writer who marries a rich white woman.

While working as a magazine writer, he earned bachelors and masters degrees in English at the University of Denver, and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 1956. While studying at Denver he wrote City Of Discontent, (1952) an off-beat study of both the poet Vachel Lindsay and his home city of Springfield, Illinois. After Wiggen’s third book, A Ticket For A Seamstitch (1957), Harris turned to more mainstream novels, with perhaps his best book, Something About A Soldier (1957). Its protagonist, Jacob Epp, (ne Epstein), is disillusioned by both the war and by racial injustice. He goes AWOL, and winds up in prison writing out his process of self-discovery. Sixteen years later, confronted with the Vietnam war, Harris wrote Killing Everybody (1973), a more diffuse and much darker work, focussed on parents who’d lost their son in the war.

Harris often used narrators to highlight his seemingly-natural style of humour. Wake Up Stupid (1959) and its sequel, Lying In Bed (1984) take the formof letters written by Lee Youngdall, a novelist/teacher/boxer whose character bears obvious parallels with Harris’ own. The eponymous protagonist of The Goy (1970) keeps a life-long journal detailing the conflicts which follow his marrying a Jewish woman. Harris’ own journal-memoirs, Mark, The Glove Boy or The Last Days of Richard Nixon (1964) and Twenty-One Twice (1966) anticipated the blurring of the line between novel and non-fiction by writers like Norman Mailer and Robert Coover (himself the author of the novel The Universal Baseball Association). He maintained his playfulness in a more formal autobiography, The Best Father Ever Invented (1976).

Harris’ baseball non-fiction was collected in Diamond (1994) and his short-stories in The Self-Made Brain Surgeon (1999). He maintained a parallel career as an English professor, including twenty-two years at Arizona State, where he retired in 2002. He published another eclectic work of criticism, Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck in 1980. The previous year, the final Wiggen novel, It Looked Like Forever chronicled the now-39 year old pitcher trying to cope with the loss of his fastball. As a metaphor for the aging process, many writers have done worse. He died a month after breaking his hip and contacting pneumonia, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his wife of more than sixty years, Josephine, two sons and a daughter.

Mark Harris (Finkelstein)
Born 19 November 1922, Mount Vernon, NY
Died 30 May 2007 Santa Barbara, California

No comments :