- Bang the Drum Differently:The Southpaw Slants of Henry Wiggen
We astonished readers in the 1980s find ourselves nearly overwhelmed by a torrent of fine baseball novels. Roaring out at us is a seemingly endless rush of restorative spring, lolling summer, and feverish autumn. Although the timing and the ferocity of the creative burst are perplexing, a number of partial explanations for this most welcome outpouring have been advanced. One is the testimony of several of the authors that as descendants of Jewish immigrants they turned to baseball, first in their lives and then in their fiction, as a ready means of identification with and acceptance in the adoptive land (Stein 9, 57). Donald Hall marks John Updike's classic 1960 essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" as a second point of origin (114). This contributing stream continues in the excellent and compelling nonfiction of such writers as Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, Thomas Boswell, Pat Jordan, Peter Gammons, and Donald Hall himself. In lending respectability to baseball as a subject worthy of close scrutiny and painstaking articulation, these essayists unquestionably have lent both encouragement and inspiration to the baseball novelist.
Yet another impetus is readily identifiable: Eliot Asinof's "seminal" (Hoopla Acknowledgments) study, Eight Men Out. Evidence of Asinof's influence is clear on the very faces of Eric Greenberg's The Celebrant and [End Page 151] Harry Stein's Hoopla, and of Lawrence Kelly's off-Broadway play Out! as well. The Black Sox Scandal—whose importance as an early national experiencing of tragedy F. Scott Fitzgerald sensed and therefore placed in The Great Gatsby as an historic landmark comparable to the discovery of the new land (by the Dutch sailors) and the frontier turned back on itself (as represented by Dan Cody)—is now firmly established as the sports analogue for what Custer's Last Stand or the Wilderness' loss of purity serve as in serious literature of the American West.
In the midst of these several plausible suggestions, the mainstream of historical development might well be lost sight of or at any rate undervalued. It is therefore particularly fortunate that a recent addition to the ever-growing number of splendid baseball novels, John Hough, Jr.'s The Conduct of the Game, affords us a renewed appreciation of the credit Mark Harris deserves for the emphatic arrival of the serious baseball novel in the present decade. Just as it remained for Robert De Niro to demonstrate what a magnificent actor he is before we could fully appreciate, in retrospect, his performance as Bruce Pearson in the movie version of Bang the Drum Slowly, so it remained for the incontrovertible demonstration by several novelists of what is possible in the subgenre of the baseball novel to open our eyes fully to Harris' considerable accomplishment. Heretofore, Harris had been spoken of with respect, but the commentator seemed always to reveal some sense of his own generosity and suitably broad gauge even as he voiced that respect.
Ring Lardner of course stands at the beginning of this mainstream influence, but it is a mainstream whose flow was interrupted for long stretches of time. Harris has paid proper homage to Lardner, both in interview and in the thinly veiled affection of direct though intentionally ironic reference he makes within the pages of his first baseball novel, The Southpaw. Beyond one fleeting reference to Lardner by name, Harris' good-humored but completely serious use of Lardner's work as point of departure is most rich in the very fact that Henry Wiggen is a southpaw—a delicious irony, given the paranoid aversion to left-handers that Lardner's Jack Keefe exhibits.
Although Hough supplies no epigraph for The Conduct of the Game, what may be termed the implied epigraph is the final sentence of Harris' second Henry Wiggen novel, Bang the Drum Slowly: "From here on in I rag nobody" (284). Hough's recurrent use in his novel of the verb "to rag" serves him handsomely as he expresses a Jeffersonian, a Whitmanesque faith in democracy, making of The Conduct of the Game the literary equivalent of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man"—in the sense that Hough...