Mark Harris Finally Exorcises An Eerie Writer's Block Called Saul Bellow
04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST
Samuel Johnson once thundered at Boswell, "Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both!" Yet the good doctor was not nearly so resistant as the quarry of Mark Harris, a latter-day Boswell and creator of one of the most eccentric biographies of this or any literary season. Titled Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck, it is ostensibly an unauthorized study of the Nobel Prize-winning author of Herzog and Mr. Sammler's Planet. But the book's real subject is Harris himself, a 58-year-old novelist and English professor whose account of his ardent pursuit of the unwilling Bellow amounts to one of the strangest obsessions in literature since Ahab set out after the white whale.
Twenty-five years ago Harris won early fame on his own with Bang the Drum Slowly, an affecting baseball novel about a dying catcher that was made into a 1973 movie starring Robert DeNiro. But while his next 14 books flopped commercially, Harris found himself increasingly obsessed not with baseball but with Bellow. Rebuffed in his initial offer to be Bellow's Boswell—"to just hang around for a long time and write down everything he says"—Harris began collecting letters from their sporadic correspondence, writing down their phone conversations, interrogating his friends and third wife, and plotting ways to interview him. (Reading that Bellow might be jailed for missing alimony payments, Harris speculated that he might finally corner the novelist in prison.)
Even reviewers who admired Harris' unfettered candor worried about his mind-set. "Mr. Harris," fussed the New York Times, "is a grievance-prone academic brimming with self-contempt and in perpetual competition with his subject." Despite Harris' clear admiration for the extraordinary talent of his subject, Bellow is occasionally portrayed unflatteringly as a womanizer and a remote parent.
"My biographical ambition has ruined a friendship," Harris laments ingenuously in Drumlin Woodchuck. (The title refers to an elusive rodent who, Robert Frost once wrote, "shrewdly pretends he and the world are friends.") The two met for the first time in 1961 when Harris, after interviewing Frost for LIFE, phoned Bellow in Tivoli, N.Y. and invited himself over. So far, Harris reports, Bellow has kept a tactful silence on the book. "I suppose I'll never hear from him," Mark concedes now. "It's not his style."
Always more open, Harris has already chronicled his own "happy middle-class" youth in his 1976 memoir, Best Father Ever Invented. Mark began writing in 1940 for his high school newspaper in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Then, after a hitch in the Army, he worked at the International News Service in St. Louis where he met Springfield, Ill. bureau chief Josephine Horen. They married a year later, and he picked up a B.A. in English and a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Denver in 1950. After earning an M.A. there, he went on to the University of Minnesota, for his Ph.D. in American studies in 1956, the year Bang the Drum Slowly was published. He taught there for three years, then began an itinerant teaching career: San Francisco State, Purdue, the California Institute of the Arts, Immaculate Heart College in L.A., the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh, from which he is now on leave and lecturing at Arizona State University.
Harris' college teaching has been his safe harbor against the vicissitudes of critics and journalism. "Teaching," says Harris, "is the most agreeable way of not having to write for a living. As a reporter and free-lancer, I had to work faster than I really wanted to."
Harris rarely leaves his Arizona adobe house without paper and pencil and has scribbled in a nightly diary since 1934. Although he's best known for his sophisticated baseball fiction (The Southpaw, A Ticket for a Seam-stitch), he now says, "I don't follow sports anymore. I won't sit and watch a game all the way through." But his attempts to gain recognition in other areas have failed. His 1964 book on himself and Richard Nixon, Mark the Glove Boy, which sprang from a 1962 LIFE assignment to cover the California gubernatorial race, was a disappointment. "Nixon turned out to be not nearly as complex as I thought," he says. "He wanted to go as far as he could and make as much money as he could on the way."
For all his own job-hopping, Harris has kept a remarkably stable marriage. "Where women are a conflict for Saul," says Mark, "my wife has been a strength for me." Jo, 58, has a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics. They have three children: Hester, 30, is a department store executive in San Francisco, Anthony, 26, a computer engineer in Santa Barbara and Henry, 19, a drama student at Arizona State.
Harris works at two electric typewriters (one for correspondence, one for manuscripts) and keeps in shape swimming (1,000 yards a day) and cycling (20 minutes daily). Afternoons he often can be found reading—including such Bellow standards as Humboldt's Gift. "I now read Saul with greater interest," Harris smiles. "I really can relate to him much more comfortably now. I wouldn't have to remember everything he says. My Bellow file is now closed." Indeed, Harris has irrepressibly opened a new folder for a possible third biographical subject who might prove as difficult to pin down as his first two. The label on the folder: REAGAN.