I knew I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was 14 years old. I had discovered Mark Harris' Bang the Drum Slowly in the library . . .
---Ron Rapoport of the Los Angeles Daily News in the introduction to A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Great Women's Sportswriting.
"I never really met any baseball people until my novel came out," Mark Harris was saying of his celebrated novel Bang the Drum Slowly. "I was just imagining what the players must be like, because I didn't know a lot about them."
For years, there has been a universal feeling about Mark Harris' baseball novel among those who make a living writing about the game in press boxes across the country. They regard it as the truest, most sensitive piece ever written about the game. Only Bernard Malamud's The Natural is ranked in the same category. Curiously, even though both novels were written in the 1950s, nothing published since comes close (I say this knowing that fans of W.P. Kinsella are already thinking thoughts of the most wrathful nature).
Harris has been teaching creative writing at Arizona State University since 1980, but his presence in the Valley has remained a virtual secret.
Bang the Drum Slowly tells the haunting story of Bruce Pierson, a major league catcher who is gradually dying of a mysterious illness that may be cancer. It was made into a film in 1973 starring Robert De Niro, at that time an unknown quantity in Hollywood. Harris wrote the screen version, too.
Malamud's The Natural wasn't filmed until a decade later; it was released in 1984. It starred Robert Redford and was directed by the celebrated Barry Levinson. But Harris' work is generally considered superior.
I visited Harris recently. We sat in the courtyard of his walled-in Tempe home, in a shaded corner alongside his swimming pool. Harris is a small, bright-eyed man with hair trimmed short. He appears to be a decade younger than his 70-something age. He wears glasses with sun shades that can be flipped up and down like those worn by outfielders in professional baseball when they still played during the day.
"We never met," Harris said of Malamud, who, like Harris, was a college professor. Malamud has been dead almost ten years. "You would think we might have run into each other at some point. We never even corresponded."
Harris is a cautious man in an interview. He kept expressing concern that I might fall into the pool. But like a lot of writers who have done extensive interviewing themselves, he is economical with his answers. Ask a question and you get an answer. You do not get elaboration.
At the close of the interview, Harris handed me an 11-page booklet which, he explained, contained every pertinent fact of his life, including his birth date, time of marriage, honors received and the date on which he published everything he has ever written. The list later proved most helpful.
When I asked Harris about the filming of Bang the Drum Slowly, he recalled what a loner De Niro had been. Harris has not seen the actor since but vividly recalls the evenings after work when everyone else in the cast except De Niro would socialize.
One memory has been marked indelibly in Harris' memory. While the rest of the cast was at dinner, Harris saw De Niro dive into the hotel pool, swim a few laps to invigorate himself, then hurry back to his room to study his lines for the next day's shoot.
"I never talked much to De Niro," Harris says. "I do remember his complaining to me that his name was misspelled, even on the company records. He was a young man who really wanted to be alone. He was working hard to get his career started."
Now older than 70, Harris has burst once again on the literary scene this month with the simultaneous publication of a novel, a collection of nonfiction and the staging of his play Friedman and Son at Herberger Theater Center.
The Tale Maker is a novel about life on the campus of a big state university, not necessarily ASU; The Diamond: Baseball Writings of Mark Harris includes the best of Harris' writing on that sport, from 1946 to the present. The play is about the unexpected discoveries of father-and-son relationships.
Harris is a dedicated writer who has religiously kept a diary since he was a teenager. He writes. He does not watch television or read daily newspapers.
In an article written for the New York Times Magazine, Harris explained his reasons:
"I seldom read a newspaper and you shouldn't read one, either; I seldom watch television, seldom pick up a popular magazine. . . . The media are the opiate of the people. They substitute for our minds, which wither every day for lack of the habit of using them."
"You, whoever you are, if you must buy a newspaper, don't read it. Save it. Read it in 10 years. You'll see how much you could have skipped, how many hours of your life you will have preserved and how much clearer your perspective will be upon all subjects."
As you can see, Harris is his own quirky but intellectually honest man. Like Henry David Thoreau, one of his literary heroes, Harris walks to the beat of his own drum.
Despite his willingness to speak his mind on all things, Bang the Drum Slowly was Harris' last great commercial success. He has never been constricted by writer's block. Despite that he has continued writing steadily ever since, there has been no blockbuster. He is no Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton and would be insulted if you thought he wanted to be. Harris has written eight more novels and produced a steady stream of nonfiction, several screenplays and a considerable number of articles and book reviews for publications all across the country, ranging from the New York Times to Sports Illustrated, Life, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
For much of his adult life, Harris, who earned a doctorate in American Studies, has been a teacher of creative writing. He has taught many places, including San Francisco State, Purdue, the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh. Since 1980, Harris has been a professor of English at Arizona State, where he now devotes his time to teaching the art of writing to his students.
Much of what he feels about writing Harris has poured into his book reviews, assessing the work of contemporaries like Norman Mailer and William Saroyan, and looking at the baseball writing of Roger Angell. Harris has also written his own eccentric biography of Saul Bellow.
Harris approached Bellow, the Nobel Prize winner, after completing work on the Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell, who over years penned the classic The Life of Samuel Johnson.
It was, Harris says, going to be a "vast, comprehensive, scholarly and most affectionate Life of Saul Bellow."
The only trouble was that Bellow would have none of it. So Bellow's resistance to Harris' biography became the theme and central action of the book titled Saul Bellow: Drumlin Woodchuck, which was promptly denounced upon publication by Bellow's literary allies. At least one of these critics might have been influenced because he was in the process of creating his own version of Bellow's life.
I asked Harris about the book and the reaction of the critics.
"I think Bellow has learned to live with it by now," Harris said of the book, published in 1980. He does not offer more.
Could it be that Harris came close to revealing himself when he wrote the following about Late Innings, by the New Yorker magazine's Angell:
"Hordes of writers have been very good briefly," Harris wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "Who was it who said ten thousand people in Greenwich Village can write one brilliant letter to the editor? The great task as one grows older is to keep the signs of weariness out, to conceal from one's enemies the fact of one's tiring. In that way, one might go on indefinitely."
Of the preoccupation of famous writers with themselves, Harris wrote this in reviewing a biography of Mailer:
"He [Mailer] imagined that since he had written the best novel of World War II he had necessarily been assigned to write the 'best' novel of the century. It never occurred to him that other talents than novel writing may have been the more useful tools of his vision. Mailer is basically man suffering, not thinking."
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When we were finished talking, Harris took me inside the house to meet his wife, who had just returned from grocery shopping.
The former Josephine Horen, who once worked in Chicago as a wire-service reporter for the now-defunct International News Service, also holds a doctorate, hers in Psycholinguistics from Purdue University.
I asked whether she was excited about the opening of her husband's play at the Herberger.
She smiled knowingly.
"But I always worry about the reviews," she said.