One afternoon back in 1963 novelist Mark Harris received a telephone call from Sargent Shriver inquiring whether he’d be interested in writing a special report about the Peace Corps. Mark gladly accepted, then waited five months while his loyalty and sanity were investigated (been there, done that), and then went overseas to West Africa where he wandered around for ten days in a country he called ‘Kongohno’ and then wrote his one-and-only Evaluation Report for Charlie Peters.
Mark Harris retells all this in a book entitled, Twentyone Twice published in 1966. The book has two sections. One is about getting through security, the second is about Africa. The fictional name that he used of the West African country he visited is Kongohno…I’m not sure of the actual country, but I believe it is Sierre Leone. Old timers in the Peace Corps might know the real name of the country Mark Harris visited as a Peace Corps Evaluator in 1964.
But who was Mark Harris and why did he come to the Peace Corps?
Harris came to the Peace Corps really at the invitation of Charlie Peters, head of Evaluation, and Bill Haddad, Charlie’s boss, who had one of those impossible titles that the Peace Corps favors: Associate Director for the Office of Planning and Evaluation. Both Peters and Haddad were fans of Harris’ novels, and they liked the idea of this rough and tough guy writing about the work of Volunteers. Harris was just the sort of person to comment on the new agency overseas. (James Michener was another.)
Mark Harris arrived at the Peace Corps Office on July 28, 1963. He was an unlikely type, but the Peace Corps was full of unlikely types. Harris was best known for a quartet of novels about baseball: the Southpaw (1953), Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), A Ticket for a Seamstitch (1957), and It Looked Like For Ever (1979). In 1956, Bang the Drum Slowly was adapted for television and starred Paul Newman and Robert De Niro. (If you haven’t read Harris, start with Bang the Drum Slowly; a wonderful book and sad movie.)
Harris was born Mark Harris Finklestein in Mount Vernon, New York. After serving in World War II., Harris worked as a journalist in New York City, St. Louis, and Chicago before enrolling at the University of Denver, from which he received a Master’s degree in 1951. He obtained a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 1956 and went on to teach at several universities, eventually settling at Arizona State, where he was a professor of English and taught in the creative writing program from 1980 to 2001.
This journal of his Peace Corps tour was only one section of the life-long journal that he kept. I’m told he would mail out sections of his journal to his friend, and that today, all of these journals are with his papers at the University of Delaware. If someone is looking for a masters or PHD topic, here is a source of new and raw literary material.
Anyway, hiring Harris to be an Evaluator (even for one trip to Africa) was pure Peace Corps, pure Shriver. It made no sense. But then Sarge once hired a guy he met on a plane ride. The best story I ever heard about one of Shriver’s early hires was this former military officer who Shriver made a Country Director and sent to Africa, and after a welcoming party of new PCVs at the Country Director’s home, the military guys wife asked her husband who would clear up the mess in the backyard and he replied, “oh, we’ll get the PCVs to police the area.” You can imaging what the Vols said. The first word begins with an “F” and the second word is “you!”
Back to Mark Harris who arrived in Washington at the Peace Corps headquarters on July 28, 1963. Even though he was ‘just a consultant’ to the agency he was run through the famous ringer-of-interviews, a number that ran from 6 to 10, before he met up with Shriver on the 5th floor late in the day. Harris liked Shriver and he writes about Shriver, calling him, “the Prince of Vitality and the King of Hope.” He writes that Shriver was a front for all dreamers, giving confidence to the anti-dreamers because he doesn’t himself appear to be a dreamer. Coates Redmon, however, in her book says about Harris at the Peace Corps, “It soon became clear that Harris was far too imprudent a cause-seeker to work in a bureaucracy, even the most unbureaucratic bureaucracy in the world, which the Peace Corps prided itself on being.”
Harris’ ‘journal’ is full of interesting nuggets, and while names are not named (in most cases) older timers will be able to recall jobs and faces and put names to old friends and famous enemies. One paragraph that caught my eye–and is something that I clearly remember from working in HQ back in 1964-65–is this. Harris is new to the Peace Corps and a woman named ‘Prudence Churchill’ is his guide “through the labyrinths of the Peace Corps building.” She is a former Volunteer, Harris writes, having spent two years in Africa. “She (Prudence) is amazingly religious in her devotion to the Peace Corps and to the people she works for and with….The other girl with her is a regular civil-service worker, and it was soon obvious to me throughout the building who was a Peace Corps person and who was a civil-service type: The Peace Corps worker works harder and stays later and leaves when the work is done, rather than when the clock says it’s time to go home.”
If Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams needs another reason to hire RPCVs, this is it:: they work hard, stay longer, and get the job done.
At the end of his Evaluation Report of the African country ‘Kongohno’ Mark Harris would put down in prose his last thoughts on his experience, and the Peace Corps.
“I hope the Peace Corps will never fall backward, as institutions often do, into the swamp of self-perpetuation,” he wrote. “ The Peace Corps was itself a “risk” when it began. The world and America would suffer without the Peace Corps, if my extrapolations tell me right, but the danger arises not from official disolution but from the danger of the Peace Corps itself forgetting its original ideals, and become timid, safe, avoiding ‘risks.’..The only absolute fact I know is that the work of the Peace Corps in Kongohno filled me with optimism, pleasure, and hope. Respectfully submitted, Mark Harris.”
As far as I know, Mark Harris never again wrote about the Peace Corps. When he retired from teaching creative writing, but was still connected to Arizona State, I emailed him and asked about interviewing him for my Peace Corps Writer newsletter. He never responded.
In 2007 he died in Santa Barbara, California of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 84.