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'America's greatest unknown writer'

Matt Schudel

Donald Harington died Nov. 7 at the age of 73. He grew up in Arkansas and lived in New England for two decades as a student and teacher of art history, while writing novels about his home state. In 1981, he moved back to Arkansas, where he spent the rest of his life.

His special talent was writing a series of novels set in a fictional Ozarks village called Stay More. (He affectionately called the residents Stay Morons.) Harington wrote 15 novels in all, including 13 set in Stay More, but he had a difficult time getting his odd, often experimental books published. He may have been a minor celebrity in Arkansas, but he was unknown everywhere else and was continually being rediscovered as an overlooked prose master.

It was Entertainment Weekly that called him "America's greatest unknown writer." The novelist and critic Fred Chappell -- himself an undeservedly obscure writer from North Carolina -- delivered perhaps the most wonderful blurb-worthy praise I have ever seen about an artist of any kind: "Donald Harington isn't an unknown writer. He's an undiscovered continent."

Such claims are made all the time about artists, and they are hard to substantiate. But in the case of Harington, the critical hosannas are so frequent and so deeply felt that you have to pay attention.

Novelist James Sallis, writing in the Boston Globe: "Harington's books are of a piece -- the quirkiest, most original body of work in contemporary U.S. letters."

Another novelist, Peter Straub, wrote that Harington's 1972 novel, "Some Other Place. The Right Place," was the book he most wished he had written himself. Describing the novel in terms that could fit many of Harington's books, which are surprisingly varied in style and subject, he called "Some Other Place" a "vast, delicate, bawdy, playful, reckless masterpiece filled with wit, overflowing invention, tremendous courage, technical wizardry, profound feeling andmysteries opening upon further, richer, more dazzling mysteries. Who would not wish to have written such a marvel, to have had the experience of writing it?"

Harington's fictional town of Stay More was based on the Ozarks community of Drakes Creek, where his mother grew up. Harington, who was born in Little Rock, spent his summers in the tiny northwestern Arkansas hamlet, which is now a ghost town. In one of his novels, "The Choiring of the Trees," he wrote about the yearning for a sense of place that Stay More represents. (The novel, set in 1914 and is about the impending execution of a wrongly convicted rapist named Nail Chism.)

"At sundown, when they led him to the chair, Nail Chism began to understand the meaning of the name of his hometown, Stay More. Down through the years, citizens have theorized about the origin of the name, but Nail Chism had always taken it for granted: it was just a name, like you call a tree a pine: you don't wonder if the tree's name is a behest too, telling you to yearn or to long or something. But now it suddenly dawned on Nail that the name of the village of his birth and rearing might contain some kind of message, urging him not to go to the chair but to hang around awhile and see what the world was a-coming to."

One reason why Harington could capture the architecture, customs and speech of Stay More with such precise, diorama-like fidelity may be because his world was dramatically foreshortened when he was 12. He developed meningitis, the story goes, after eating unwashed fruit, and lost his hearing, never to regain it.

He kept his ability to speak and spent his life as a professor of art history, but he never heard the sound of the human voice again. In a strange, remarkable way, his handicap helped make Harington the novelist he became.

This is what he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2000: "It was almost as if I were supposed to keep my hearing just long enough to record the memory of it. If I had kept perfect hearing I probably would not have remembered as well the accents and the expressions they used."

Five years later, in another interview with the Democrat-Gazette, he returned to the theme of the language he could hear only in memory: "Nowadays, because of the influence of television and radio, everybody sounds alike, more or less. Radio and television was just beginning to come in, and there was an enormous distinction between the way people talked out in the Ozarks and the way they talked in town. Losing my hearing at that particular date embedded the language into my memory. I can still hear these people, the way they sounded in 1948."

In the remarkable video below, which is a trailer for a documentary made about Harington not long before he died, you can hear him speak for himself about art, comedy, his own emotional sensitivity and "lost places in the heart." His speech may be hard to understand, but remember that you are listening to a man who had not heard another human voice in 60 years.

By Matt Schudel  |  November 14, 2009; 4:53 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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