To understand the relationship between Herman Melville's 19th century novel and this 21st century blockbuster, perhaps a cliché would be useful: "The Art of Fielding" is as much about baseball as "Moby-Dick" is about whaling.
"Since the book came out, I've been talking about baseball so much that I'm almost misrepresenting myself as far more of a baseball expert than I really am," says Harbach recently by phone from Charlottesville, Va., during a break from the swirl of events since the book's publication last fall. "I didn't want to write a baseball book."
Harbach grew up in Racine, Wis., where youth team sports dominated life off Lake Michigan. Harbach played basketball and baseball through high school at St. Catherine's.
Wiry and athletic looking, the 36-year-old Harbach says that despite the centrality of team sports to his adolescence, he's not really a jock. He follows the Milwaukee Brewers, but Harbach would rather watch a game at University of Virginia, where he received his Master of Fine Arts, than watch a game on television.
Although the very first germ of the book was the story of Henry, a college shortstop on the verge of becoming a great player, Harbach had been long inspired by Melville.
In his sophomore year at Harvard College, in an English seminar with just four other students, Harbach found "Moby-Dick." While other students might be turned off by its heft, Harbach found it irreverent, big-mouthed, socially observant and entirely fresh.
"To my mind," Harbach reflects, " 'Moby-Dick' was the great American novel of male relationships."
In countless ways, "Moby-Dick" echoes throughout "The Art of Fielding." It's set at Westish College, whose teams are named the Harpooners. An important part of the book deals with an imaginary visit Melville made to Westish when he was an older, washed-up writer.
As Harbach worked on the book, he increasingly saw all sorts of analogs between the baseball team and the whaling ship, in which men are "thrust together and they may or may not like one another, but are in a quest together," says Harbach, who demurs at his own suggestion, adding: "I would never have wanted to make that analogy in any kind of serious or sub-serious way because 'Moby-Dick' is too good of a book to try to invite comparison to."
Rather than regard this novel as homage to baseball, it can also be seen as an embrace of a different kind of love — of books.
Harbach created a character, Henry, who may not be much of a reader, but lives life according to a book, a fictional book: "The Art of Fielding," by Aparicio Rodriguez, an eloquent guidebook for baseball and life. It's full of zen-like bits of wisdom like: "Number 26: The shortstop is the source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond."
Henry's passion for perfection and his psychic doubt, in a way, reflected Harbach's own doubts over the course of the decade he worked on the novel. After generating countless drafts and chapters, he says, he got to the point of feeling like he was creating performance art.
Harbach got off the computer and picked up pen and paper.
"When I'm writing new material," Harbach explains, "I like to write longhand because there's a better chance I'll pull something out of the blue, that goes against the grain of what I have been doing."
In the early days, before the big contract and best-seller, back when he was one of three guys who founded the journal N+1, Harbach ruthlessly threw away so much of his work. "One of the main things I learned over the course of writing this book was to take it easier on myself," he says. "I would be so high-strung about myself that I would be in a bad mood and read over some things and think, 'This is awful,' but in fact maybe half of what I was throwing away was fine."
Chad Harbach will discuss "The Art of Fielding" on May 7 at a Printers Row Live! event. See page 3 for details. Email email@example.com if you'd like to attend a small group discussion at Tribune Tower about "The Art of Fielding" on April 19.
Book of the Month
The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Join the conversation