Diamonds In The Rough Mark Harris
An Interview with the writer of Bang the Drum Slowly
Who can recall the character name of Bernard Malamud's The Natural, or the narrator of Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al, or the players who inhabit Robert Coover's Baseball Association, never mind the gloved heroes of minor baseball novels?
In the end, only one lone ballplayer matters beyond the page in the whole history of American fiction. Only one character hangs on in the reader's thoughts, season after season. That's Henry "Author" Wiggen, left-handed starting pitcher of the mythical New York Mammoths and narrator of Mark Harris's perennially best-selling The Southpaw (1953), Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), and A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957). Wiggen is a hero for adults: the strikeout artist as Artist, who not only wins on the field twenty-one victories and a World Series belt in his first campaign but writes wonderfully about it. Harris's trilogy is grand first-person, with Wiggens narrating his story in an inimitable style.
"Ungrammar" is what Harris likes to call it. It's the Huck Finn vernacular tradition with a pinch of Ring Lardner and maybe a smidgen of J.D.Salinger. Harris: "The baseball books are written out of a rebellion against formal language." Henry Wiggen is Dizzy Dean with a typewriter: "would have" is "would of"; "everybody" becomes "every body"; "brought" is "brung." Wiggen's most telling literary trademark is that no number is ever written out: "3 persons come to dinner yester day" is a quintessential declaration.
Henry Wiggens's universe, with its own fictive baseball teams, managers, players, ballparks, is an expansion world as utterly pleasurable as the Borges-like construct in Coover's Universal Baseball Association. It's as funny as a Thurber carnival. And it's utterly convincing. When Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen introduced speaker Mark Harris at the Globe Book Festival, Blowen began by reading aloud a letter ostensibly received from Henry Wiggen himself. How could anyone doubt its validity? After all, the envelope was postmarked Perkinsville, New York, which everybody knows is Wiggens's home town.
Harris was in Boston to talk about It Looked Like For Ever (McGraw Hill, $9.95), the first Henry Wiggen novel in twenty-two years. Being a baseball fan, Harris watched the World Series on his Park Square Hotel TV. When he left his hotel suite, the Pirates were well ahead in the fourth game. He walked out satisfied. He is a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. By his return to the Park Square, the game had become "dreary," Harris told me over dinner.
The Orioles had exploded for too many runs, and even the Baltimore pitcher had reached base.
How would Wiggen have performed, batting in similar circumstances? You can look it up. "He got a double in The Southpaw," Harris said, then recalled a passage in It Looked Like For Ever where Wiggen summarized his nineteen-year career at the plate: "I hit only 2 home runs, and 1 one of the parks I hit 1 in is tore down." Of course, Wiggen never needed to swing a hefty bat in the majors. He reserved his strength for the mound, where he prevailed as "the 27th winningest pitcher in baseball history (tied at 247 victories with Joseph J. 'Iron Man' McGinnity and John Powell}," according to the dust jacket bio on It Looked Like For Ever.
"The guy who reminded me most of Wiggen was Warren Spahn toward the end of his career," said Harris. "Wiggen's pitching record is closest to Jim Kaat. Yet Henry is modeled less on ballplayers than on my temperament. My thoughts are distanced in another tongue." Harris grants that the resemblance to his six foot three creation is more psychological than physical. Henry "Author" Wiggen's alter ego is a small, sweet Jewish intellectual with glasses. He looks as if he might have played some scrappy second base, if he weren't so pressured going to grad school (the University of Denver), writing intense non-Wiggen novels (five of these), working on his Ph.D. (the University of Minnesota, 1956).
I wondered if Harris considers Wiggen something of a prefigurement of Tom Seaver, with Seaver's fantastic strikeout arm, also his intelligence, and his strong leadership in Players' Union activities? Harris nodded in agreement. He wrote Wiggen as a player representative, "a union man who tried to fight against the extermination of careers." Wiggen opposed both the Korean and Vietnam Wars in his own 1952-1971 career. Like the Bosox's Bill Lee? No, Harris thought "the Spaceman" too purposefully flaky to be a Wiggen stand-in. Ex-Yankee memoirist Jim Bouton? Harris balked. "Henry Wiggen is an artist. I don't know that Bouton is."
In life, Harris prefers baseball pitchers of his imagination to those toeing actual rubbers. His friends are college professors. However, Harris once struck a friendship with ex-Cincinnati pitcher Jim Brosnan, the first ballplayer to write intellectual books (and excellent ones) about his major-league career. Also, Harris spent weeks on the road for Life magazine in the 1950s in the company of Runyanesque Dick Stuart, a journeyman first baseman (Pirates, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels) who swung only for home runs.
Stuart obsessed that the man who broke Babe Ruth's record would become a millionaire. "Money can buy nothing but happiness," he told his Boswell, a quote Harris so adored that he snuck it, years later, into his Bang the Drum Slowly screenplay. As for "slamming" Dick Stuart, he was released in 1962, never having approached his home run goal. He saw Roger Maris hit sixty-one home runs, and probably not become a millionaire at all.
Are actual baseball players aware of Henry Wiggens's co-existence? "The other night I met Steve Blass, who used to pitch for the Pirates," Harris said. "He had read Bang the Drum Slowly at a down moment and it had cheered him up. I heard also that Bobby Brown of the 1950s Yankees had read it, and occasionally there are other such rumors." Harris does recall one unusual fan, Red Deigh, an executive for the St. Louis Browns-or Cardinals?-in the 1950s. When Deigh was hauled to jail for illegal business practices, he carried a copy of The Southpaw for literary company.
Harris's new novel is about Henry Wiggens's forced time away from the game of baseball too, after nineteen years. "I was released," he keeps telling people, who think he voluntarily retired. His old manager, Dutch, dies on the book's first page, and Wiggen is removed uncermoniously from the Mammoths' roster, after two decades there. For a time, Henry flirts with joining an expansion Japanese club in the far-away city of Oyasumi. ("Think of Japan as a dog sitting down with her tail stretched behind her," explains the team representative, "and Oyasumi is the tip of the tail.") However, Henry decides to make his last baseball hurrah an American one, in large part because his youngest daughter, Hillary, has never seen him pitch.
It Looked Like For Ever is a book about refusing to grow old; and Mark Harris, a hearty and active fifty-six, sides completely with his stubbornly youthful 39-year-old protagonist. In the book's hilarious black comedy climax, Wiggen finds himself trapped as the youngest player-by at least a decade-in the annual Old-Timers Day. His reaction is an uncompromising refusal to slow down his game in deference to his elders. Amid seventeen pin-striped geriatric cases, Wiggen insists on major-league caliber ball; embarrassing everyone, he strikes out the enfeebled opposition on nine pitches. Soon after, Wiggen is picked up as a relief specialist by a California team. The rebirth of the Hero.
In It Looked Like For Ever, surprisingly little space is given to Wiggens's swell wife, Holly."That's my wife's complaint," Harris said of the former Josephine Horen, whom he married in 1946, and who serves as Holly's model. "Holly is so stable. She's behind the scene. She's not part of Wiggens's turmoil. My wife is also part of my tranquility. Other writers like Bellow write about conflicts with women. Henry's quarrel in It Looked Like For Ever is really with nature. My quarrel is usually with society."
Few readers know that Harris began in fiction as a heated social-conscience novelist. Trumpet to the World (1946) had a "Negro" protaonist, and it was an attack against bigotry in the segregationist South. Something About a Solder (1957) was the first of Harris's "Jewish" works. It's a very thinly disguised story of the author's abortive military career during World War II, when Harris was declared "psychoneurotic" by army doctors. Soon after, he embraced paficism. Harris's play, Friedman & Son (1963) and a novel, The Goy (1970), complete a kind of "Jewish identity" trilogy, written by this man born Mark Harris Finkelstein. In addition, he has edited a volume of Vachel Lindsay poems and a forthcoming James Boswell reader. And he has composed several memoirs, including the superb autobiography, Best Father Ever Invented (1976).
Which book does Harris recommend as the starting point for those who know him only from the Henry Wiggen stories? "Whatever they pick up," he answered modestly. "In the twenty-two years since the last Henry Wiggens I've written plenty of other books." It's a fact that Bang the Drum Slowly, his best-known work and one composed long ago, is among his least favorite of his novels. Harris said, "The other day a woman asked me why I had resuscitated Henry Wiggen again. I got hurt. Wasn't she really saying that I was resuscitated?"
(The Real Paper (Boston), October 27, 1979, pp.5, 8, 9.)