Mark Harris Biography
Mark Harris comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Mark Harris Finkelstein in Mount Vernon, New York, 1922. Education: The University of Denver, B.A. in English 1950, M.A. in English 1951; University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Ph.D. in American Studies 1956. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1943-44. Career: Reporter, Daily Item, Port Chester, New York, 1944-45, PM, New York, 1945, and International News Service, St. Louis, 1945-46; writer for Negro Digest and Ebony, Chicago, 1946-51. Member of the English Department, San Francisco State College, 1954-68, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, 1967-70, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, 1970-73, Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, 1973-74, and University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1973-75; professor of English, University of Pittsburgh, 1975-80. Since 1983 professor of English, Arizona State University, Tempe. Fulbright Professor, University of Hiroshima, 1957-58; visiting professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1963. Awards: Ford grant, for theater, 1960; American Academy grant, 1961; Guggenheim fellowship, 1965, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966. D.H.L.: Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, 1974. Member: San Francisco Art Commission, 1961-64; U.S. Delegate, Dartmouth Conference, Kurashiki, Japan, 1974.
Trumpet to the World. New York, Reynal, 1946.
City of Discontent: An Interpretive Biography of Vachel Lindsay, Being Also the Story of Springfield, Illinois, USA, and of the Love of the Poet for That City, That State, and That Nation, by Henry W. Wiggen. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1952.
The Southpaw: by Henry W. Wiggen: Punctuation Inserted and Spelling Greatly Improved. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1953.
Bang the Drum Slowly, by Henry W. Wiggen: Certain of His Enthusiasms Restrained. New York, Knopf, 1956.
A Ticket for a Seamstitch, by Henry W. Wiggen: But Polished for the Printer. New York, Knopf, 1957.
Something about a Soldier. New York, Macmillan, 1957; London, Deutsch, 1958.
Wake Up, Stupid. New York, Knopf, 1959; London, Deutsch, 1960.
The Goy. New York, Dial Press, 1970.
Killing Everybody. New York, Dial Press, 1973.
It Looked Like For Ever. New York, McGraw Hill, 1979.
Lying in Bed. New York, McGraw Hill, 1984.
Speed. New York, Fine, 1990.
The Tale Maker. New York, Fine, 1994.
The Self-Made Brain Surgeon, and Other Stories. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Carmelita's Education for Living," in Esquire (New York), October 1957.
"Conversation on Southern Honshu," in North Dakota Quarterly(Grand Forks), Summer 1959.
"Hi, Bob!," in Arizona Quarterly (Tuscon), Summer 1986.
"Titwillow," in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), Summer1986.
"Flattery," in Sequoia (Stanford, California), Winter 1988.
Friedman & Son (produced San Francisco, 1962). New York, Macmillan, 1963.
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, adaptation of the story byMark Twain (televised, 1980). Published in The American Short Story 2, edited by Calvin Skaggs, New York, Dell, 1980.
Bang the Drum Slowly, 1973.
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, 1980; Boswell for the Defence, 1983 (UK); Boswell's London Journal, 1984 (UK).
Mark the Glove Boy; or, The Last Days of Richard Nixon (autobiography). New York, Macmillan, 1964.
Twentyone Twice: A Journal (autobiography). Boston, Little Brown, 1966.
Public Television: A Program for Action, with others. New York, Harper, 1967.
Best Father Ever Invented: The Autobiography of Mark Harris. NewYork, Dial Press, 1976.
Short Work of It: Selected Writing. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.
Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck. Athens, University of GeorgiaPress, 1980.
Diamond: Baseball Writings of Mark Harris. New York, Fine, 1994.
Editor, Selected Poems, by Vachel Lindsay. New York, Macmillan, 1963; London, Collier Macmillan, 1965.
Editor, with Josephine and Hester Harris, The Design of Fiction. NewYork, Crowell, 1976.
Editor, The Heart of Boswell. New York, McGraw Hill, 1981.
University of Delaware Library, Newark.
Mark Harris by Norman Lavers, Boston, Twayne, 1978.
(1972) I have written eight novels. I think that a constant line travels through them. I didn't know this was happening while it was happening, but I can see it now, looking back after a quarter of a century since my first novel was published.
They are about the writer. That is, if you will, they are about the artist. Which is to say, if you will, they are about the one man against his society and trying to come to terms with his society, and trying to succeed within it without losing his own identity or integrity.
My novels are always very carefully written. Since hard work makes the writing look easy, there exist stupid reviewers and critics who think I (and others) just slam these writings out. My books are all constructed with great care. Nothing is missing from any of them in the way of plot. I forget nothing.
Of course, although I am spiritually at the center of my novels (every novel is mainly about one man), I am disguised as poet or baseball player or professor or historian. I am always a minority person in some sense, either because I am fictionally left-handed or, most recently, gentile in a Jewish milieu. (My first book was about a black man in a white milieu). I don't know why this is so. I believe that it is most deeply the result of being a Jew, but it may be attributable to other things I am not fully aware of. Maybe I was just born that way. It is a mystery.
Subject and theme: sometimes these aren't really stated in the works, and people feel disappointed. They want to know what they shouldn't: where does the author stand? In my heart, if not always dogmatically in my books, I stand for human equality and peace and justice.
I also stand for writing well: I don't believe that good ends can come of false or shoddy or hasty means. Books must be beautiful so that the world is put into a mood of beauty. Books mustn't merely say but must, on the other hand, exist as beauty.
I am opposed to the reduction or paraphrase of works of art. Thus I feel that I may on this page already have written more than I should.
* * *
Mark Harris's fiction and autobiography share several themes: the problems of racism and racial justice, the dilemma of violence and pacifism, the price of individualism and the forms of democracy and social justice. His work is dominated by genial comedy, a gentle optimistic view of man's possibilities and capacities, and Harris has pursued his own life through his fiction. His journal-autobiographies Mark the Glove Boy and Twentyone Twice complement fictionalized self-portraits like pitcher-author Henry Wiggen (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, A Ticket for a Seamstitch), boxer-novelist-teacher Lee Youngdahl (Wake Up, Stupid), soldier-pacifist Jacob Epstein (Something about a Soldier) and historian-diarist Westrum (The Goy).
Harris's novels depict individuals in pursuit of themselves, discovering through self-analysis, experience, and observation who they are and what their lives mean. His first novel, Trumpet to the World, follows a black man through self-discovery and self-education to his rejection of war and violence and his attempts to reach the world through writing. He suffers poverty, hatred, and violence but also discovers friendship and love. Through determination and courage, he overcomes dehumanizing conditions to become fully alive, a fully functioning man. The baseball tetralogy (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, A Ticket for a Seamstitch, It Looked Like For Ever) describes the career of Henry W. Wiggen, a young man who succeeds in big-league baseball. In a Lardneresque style, Wiggen writes the journal of his maturity as an athlete and a man. Wiggen grapples with the mysteries of love, the problem of hatred and violence, becomes reconciled with the finality of death. Each story shows Wiggen's growth, mentally and spiritually, and his progress down a road to self-understanding and reconciliation. Overtly a comedy of athletics and folk-hero rambunctiousness, the four books also form a study of pacifism, love and justice.
Something about a Soldier turns explicitly to the problems of violence and nonviolence which appear in the earlier novels. In it Jacob Epp (Epstein) discovers the importance of his identity, the meaning of love and loyalty, and the relationship between violence and justice. A young, very bright, but naive recruit, Jacob rejects the Army and the war (World War II), militantly works for justice and equality for black people and begins to understand love and friendship. He rejects death for life, war for peace, goes AWOL, and through meditation in prison comes to self-reconciliation.
In Wake Up, Stupid Harris uses the epistolary form to follow a crisis of insecurity in the life of a man who is successful as an athlete, teacher, and writer. Lee Youngdahl, during a lull in artistic creativity, takes up letter-writing to occupy his imagination. Comic crises of his fantasy life involve all his friends and enemies and lead him to a final understanding of his needs and desires, the sources of his imagination. Lying in Bed continues Harris's exploration of marital comedy through the viewpoint of Lee Youngdahl. Older and wiser in the ways of love and literature, Youngdahl extends his imaginative self-analysis and reviews his love affairs, real and fictive, as he tries to defend his virtuous monogamy and his need for varied romance.
The Goy continues the theme of self-discovery. In it, Westrum, a midwestern gentile who has married an eastern Jew, pursues his identity through a massive, life-long journal. He comes to understand, through the journal, his relationship with the Jews in his life, his father's virulent anti-semitism, his own obsession with history, his relationship with his son, his wife, and his mistress. The past, through his journal and his study of history, ultimately explains his present.
In Killing Everybody Harris explores opposing passions of love and rage, life-giving and death. The novel deals with the madness of the world and of individuals caught up in its madness. It studies revenge and charity, physical love and sexual fantasy, a dialectic skillfully developed as a complex dance between four central minds. The story moves more deeply into the roots of modern psychic life than Harris's earlier fiction, and he confronts a massive theme—civilization and its discontents.
All of Mark Harris's fiction is comic in conception, and sports and games are at the center of the work, especially the social games which are the substance of comedy of manners. Lee Youngdahl, in Wake Up, Stupid, analyzes American literature in a statement epitomizing Harris's own work:
What is it that thrusts Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson into one stream, and Henry James into another? … It has so much to do with a man's early relationship to the society of boys and games—that miniature of our larger society of men and business, with its codes and rules, its provision for imagination within these rules, with winning, losing, timing, bluffing, feinting, jockeying, with directness of aim and speech and with coming back off the floor again.
Harris's fiction is solidly within this tradition, which translates social games into comedy, a comedy which explains our secret lives more clearly than any social or psychological theory. Speed shows his talents to less advantage: the story is a confusing tale of two brothers, one of whom (nicknamed "Speed") has a painful stammer. The other, the narrator, suggests that he may have pushed Speed off of a table when he was baby, thus perhaps causing his lifelong stutter. Eventually these and other misfortunes visited on Speed by his brother lead to his disappearance, and the narrator ends up wondering what happened to him. Much stronger are the tales in The Self-Made Brain Surgeon. The title story, for instance, concerns a grocer who fancies himself a psychologist, and dispenses harebrained advice to the unwary. Throughout the volume, readers will find many of the ingredients most appreciated in Harris's work, from baseball to comedy to criticism of social injustice.
—William J. Schafer
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