Chad Harbach is the co-founder of n+1 and a best-selling author. His novel, The Art of Fielding, is a compelling take on baseball and the myth of the American success story. It introduces us to inspired shortstop Henry Skrimshander — a Natural who loses his confidence — and the people around him partaking in his ups and downs. The story treats baseball as a metaphor for the Midwest as a whole, a huge outfield where life can only happen on sports terms: loyalty, betrayal, obsessive rituals. I spoke to the Wisconsin-born author about sports, values, landscape and local literature.
Francesco Pacifico: Re-reading your novel, I got the sense that the Midwestern landscape is sort of an extension of the baseball field. What is the relationship between sports, baseball in particular, and life in the Midwest ?
Chad Harbach: I think of sports and the Midwest as being intimately bound up together. Growing up in Wisconsin, sport was literature, it was religion, it was the pursuit into which all of one’s hopes and dreams were concentrated. Where I grew up, this was basketball as much as baseball. Basketball games would draw thousands of people to my high school of 600 students. And you see this with university games there—100,000 people in a football stadium. Sports are the common ground of the whole culture, and maybe the one topic on which pretty much everyone can come together during politically and religiously divisive times.
You thematize loyalty in the book, as well as some of the more perverse aspects of friendship and relationships. Are sports an outpost of a more ancestral moral code, and is there something particularly Midwestern about it?
I think there’s this culture of tough love around athletics. In the book, there is a certain implicit, and maybe at some points explicit, contrast between teaching and coaching. The coach-player relationship oftentimes can be much more intense and emotionally involved than a teacher-student relationship, because there’s a culture around sport that insists on loyalty and hard work, dedication and excellence, whereas teaching needs to be much more distant and respectful and hands-off. And that aspect of athletics may be more American than specifically Midwestern, although in the book there is probably a sort of sternness, or a kind of Lutheranism to it, that may be somewhat Midwestern.
While reading, I kept thinking: could this be set elsewhere in the U.S.? I couldn’t imagine the same story taking place in California or on the East Coast, but maybe you can dispel that myth.
Very early in the process, there was a moment in which I thought that the book might have been set in New England, in New Hampshire, or Maine. You know, to put it on the rugged New England Coast where the Melville heritage would be a little more obvious and natural. But I very quickly turned away from that and wound up in the Midwest. For a couple of reasons: I grew up in Wisconsin; I feel my writing to be extremely Midwestern, and I find myself turning again and again to that setting in the things I try to write. It’s the place that I feel steeped in. I speak in its soil and I am knowledgeable about it. I could live in New York for thirty years and I would never feel as versed in the place as I am about Wisconsin. When the book came out, many people said to me that it feels like the Midwest, the prose somehow feels like the Midwest. I think that’s a nice compliment and also may be correct.
What does that mean then — Midwestern?
In terms of the book, there are also some specific reasons for it to be set in the Midwest. West College is very Middle Class, very squarely in the middle, and so this makes it a center that different characters of course are coming to from very different directions. So, you have a character like Pella [the principal’s daughter], who grew up on the campus of Harvard and went to prep school in New England and then moved to San Francisco; for her to wind up in this little Midwestern town is a bit of a come-down, right? This is a little bit ignominious. Whereas for a Mike Schwartz, who grew up in the poor projects, or for Henry [Skrimshander], who grew up poor in an even more rural place than the college, this middle class, this middle-western-ness is actually a glamorous step up.
Tell me more about Herman Melville’s role in the book. By letting him discover the Midwest, you could show its exotic side. We think it’s the heart of America, but from the point of view of Melville it was a distant place. How did you come to that? And why did Melville make you consider setting the novel in New England?
The idea that this college was going to be associated with Melville was a very early idea of mine. And of course I went to college in Boston and of course if you take the early sections of Moby Dick before they go to sea, those sections are set in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. And so at the very outset, I thought this would be a liberal arts college around those places.
What convinced you to put Melville in the book?
Melville started to crop up quite early. The book began with Henry and his problems, so I knew from the outset that I was going to be writing about a baseball team, a college baseball team, and so basically out of necessity, this book was going to be set in a world of men, right? And so, the more I thought about that, I realized it was going to be a novel about male friendship as much as anything, and of course the pre-eminent American novel about male friendship is Moby Dick. So, I began to either see or imagine all of these parallels between a team and a situation on a whaling ship, where a group of men go off on a sort of strange quest together; and are thrown together in close quarters for a long time and come from different backgrounds but are in pursuit of the same thing. So I began to envision a baseball team as a version of Pequod, so it seemed natural and funny to call the team the Harpooners and build up this whole mythology of college around that. So then, to have that college in the Midwest, to have the body of water in question be Lake Michigan instead of the ocean, it makes it a little bit comic and a bit ironical.
What role does Lake Michigan play?
Well, it’s important to me, for one thing. I grew up in a city called Racine, which is on the shore of Lake Michigan, so my version of the Midwest is going to be very different from the Midwest of someone who lives in some other part of it. But my version of the Midwest is this upper Midwest of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan and the Great Lakes, and has much to do with the water. So, for me, growing up there, this really was my ocean, because of course Lake Michigan is an absolutely vast body of water if you stand on the beach and look out at it. And if I blindfolded you, and took you there and told you it was the ocean, you’d have to taste it to know that it wasn’t. To me, Lake Michigan equals the Midwest.
What about other mid-Western writers? To the outsider, “Midwestern authors” brings to mind Johnathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. Is there a specific regional influence? Are there authors you draw inspiration from in re-creating your own Midwest?
I mean, those are, personally, what I am drawing on. Franzen and Wallace are really my Midwestern writers too in a way. I think the early part of The Corrections, where you’re getting a lot of the contents of this Midwestern home. I think of that as a peculiarly Midwestern piece of writing. And a lot of the affinity I feel for Wallace comes from his Illinois-ness and the long amount of time that he spent there. And of course there is Marilynne Robinson and her books that are set in Iowa by and large. She’s somebody with an extraordinary feel for that part of the Midwest. There is certainly a regional tradition, but I may not be someone who knows very much about it, really. I’m very interested in Wisconsin and the history of Wisconsin and some things that have come out of Wisconsin.
What was the reaction to your book in Wisconsin?
Extremely gratifying. I’m from a small city of 100,000 people and I think I had my picture in the newspaper about 7 or 8 different times during the months after the book came out. I visited a couple of times on my tour and I did about 5 or 6 events in Wisconsin and people were so kind. Of course, there are also people everywhere who hate the book, for whatever reason. But I did get a sense in Wisconsin that people felt I had grasped the sensibility of the place, that I was able to convey what it felt like there.
What role does Milwaukee play in the state?
Milwaukee is a fast moving place, like every American city. I would not describe it as a very integrated place. In fact, it does have a very multi-ethnic population, but it is a deeply and tacitly segregated place. It’s also an underrated place. It has a couple of large universities and consequently some pretty interesting districts in which you can get a very nice apartment near the lake, so if you’re a poor artist, I recommend it. It once held most of America’s beer brewing industry and it still is a very industrial city. Wisconsin has a very interesting political history that kind of spans the entire American spectrum. Joseph McCarthy was ignominiously a senator from Wisconsin, but Milwaukee also had a socialist mayor. Now of course we have this governor who is the most horrific, Trump-like person, his name is Scott Walker — look him up, he’s a monster.
I wrote about Milwaukee in an essay for Grantland, which was about the Milwaukee Brewers and went into the history of the ownership of professional sports teams in Milwaukee and how the public reacted to these things. In general, I think the relationship between professional sports teams and their communities and cities to be a really fascinating dialectic. On the one hand you have these billion dollar stadiums and billionaire owners being paid with public money, all of which is quite despicable, while on the other, you have these teams that really mean so much to the community.