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by EDWIN T. ARNOLD

Chip Arnold co-authored The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich (University of Tennessee Press, 1986), edited  Conversations with Erskine Caldwell (University of Mississippi, 1990), and co-edited Interviewing Appalachia: The Appalachian Journal Interviews, 1978-1992 (University of Tennessee Press, 1994).

 

Donald Harington was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on December 22, 1935, the son of Conrad Fred and Jimmie Walker Harington.  Although he lived and went to school in Little Rock (a city he hated), Harington spent his summers with his mother's mother in Drakes Creek, a hamlet in the Ozark Mountains near Fayetteville.  :Some of the people in Drakes Creek treated me as a kind of outsider," Harington told Larry Vonalt in an interview published in the Chicago review (Vol. 38:4), "but I was Jimmie's boy, and Jimmie, of course, my mother, she was a native.  So being Jimmie's boy gave me a special  cachet to be treated as a native even though they knew I was a city boy."  Drakes Creek would become the inspiration for Harington's fictional, almost mythical Stay More (or Stick Around), Arkansas, the village which centers most of his novels.  He described the place in his second novel, Lightning Bug, as "a community of some 113 souls in the Ozark mountains of Newton County, south of the county seat, Jasper, and the lovely village of Parthenon, west of the village of Spunkwater, north of Demijohn, Hunton, and Swain, east of Sidehill and Eden."  He then warned "One must not attempt to find it on a recent map; one may find Newton County, and one may find Jasper and Parthenon and Swain, but one shall not find Stay More - Not because it is some screwball name that I made up in my own head, but because today it is nothing but a ghost town, almost."

At the age of 12, Harington was stricken with meningococcal meningitis and lost most of his hearing, a condition which afflicts some of the characters in his fiction (including one cockroach).  He told Vonalt in 1992 that he had approximately eight percent auditory sensation in his left ear, "which, amplified by a hearing aid or a good phonograph, is quite sufficient to perceive the strains of Mozart, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky."  Since he does not use the telephone, much of our interview was conducted by electronic and paper mail.  ("It might revolutionize the interview process," Harington wrote me when I suggested it, "a step beyond what you fellows [at AppalJ] have already done by eliminating the questions from the Q & A format.")  But on the occasions I met Harington in Fayetteville, Arkansas (April 14-18, 1993), we carried on lengthy conversations with little difficulty.  (Harington's wife Kim was present at several of our meetings and sometimes repeated my questions for him.)  At our first meeting, in the bar of the Fayetteville Hilton, I had more trouble hearing Harington, due to loud music, than he had understanding me, an irony which was lost on neither of us.

Harington graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1956.  The following year he married Nita Harrison, and together they had three daughters: Jennifer, Calico, and Katy.  He received his M.F.A. in studio art from Arkansas in 1958 and then earned an M.A. in art history from Boston University in 1959.  He did doctoral work in art history at Harvard University in 1959-1960 but left without a degree.  His first teaching job, as an instructor in art history, was at Bennett College in Millbrook, N.Y., from 1960 to 1962.  He then moved to Windham College in Putney, Vermont, where he taught from 1964 until it closed in 1978.  During that time he published four novels:  The Cherry Pit (Random House, 1965); Lightning Bug (Delacorte, 1970); Some Other Place.  The Right Place (Little, Brown, 1972) and The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (Little, Brown, 1975).  None of these books was commercially successful, although Harington developed a loyal following of readers who admired his postmodern narrative art, his sometimes broad but often gentle humor, and his incessant, inventive wordplay.

The next years, however, proved exceedingly difficult.  He separated from his wife in 1979.  When Windham College closed, Harington subsisted as a visiting professor at a string of schools - the University of Missouri-Rolla, the University of Pittsburgh, and South Dakota State University, Brookings.  He drank heavily and was unable to finish his next book.  He described his situation in a frank comment to Contemporary Authors in 1982, noting that he had endured "every conceivable financial and personal problem inimical to creative work" and was "loading my car in preparation for going off to some as-yet-unknown remote location in the Ozarks and starving to death.  After three visiting professorships in as many years, and being totally unable to locate a fourth for next year, I am prepared to quit the academic rat race entirely, whatever the cost...  I have struggled with my [next] novel, Farther Along, for six years, a time beset by short-sighted and uncaring editors and agents, by being uprooted and scattered to different colleges.  I am not over the hill; I'm still climbing it, but I need a place to sit down."

He sat down finally in Fayetteville in 1986.  As he tells the story in Let Us Build Us a City (HBJ, 1986), "Harrigan," a deaf, alcoholic professor of art history, is teaching, despondently, at a school, in Brookings, South Dakota.  There he receives a fan letter from a reader named Kim who tells him that his novels have inspired her to search out the "ghost"  cities of Arkansas, to interview their remaining inhabitants, and then to collaborate with "Harrigan" in writing an account of her (their) discoveries.  Although in the book "Harrigan" and Kim do not actually meet until nearly the end, in reality (or "reality," as Harington, following Nabakov, always insists), he and Kim journeyed together throughout the state and married soon afterward.  William Styron called the book "an original and unique work of Americana," and it won the Porter Price for Literary Excellence.  With Kim's devoted help, Harington gave up drinking and overcame his case of writer's block.  The novels have come with alacrity ever since:  The Cockroaches of Stay More (HBJ, 1989), The Choiring of the Trees (HBJ 1991), and Ekaterina (HBJ, 1993).  Harington is now a tenured professor of art history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where he and Kim live.

It was originally my intention in the interview to examine in some detail the individual novels, but Harington discouraged this approach, explaining that the novels spoke for themselves and that he had little to add to what he had already expressed in them.  He was more interested in responding to broader questions about his life, his art, and his region, the Ozarks, which he sees as a kindred "outpost" of the Appalachians.  He was aware that William J. Schafer had attacked The Cockroaches of Stay More in this very journal ("All God's Chillun Got Wings," Vol. 17:3, 276-84), in which Schafer deplored, among other things, Harington's use of dialect, accusing him of having a tine ear: "They [his "lapses" and "discords"] make us feel he is lazy or careless in listening to the Muse, mishears common words and phrases," Schafer wrote.  [See Larry Vonalt's reply to Schafer, AppalJ, Vol. 18:3, 258-63, for a stirring defense.]

Although Harington was undergoing radiation treatment for cancer of the throat when I met him, he was nevertheless in good spirits in anticipation of the publication of his newest novel, Ekaterina, a remarkable turn on his favorite novelist Nabokov's Lolita, which he thought might finally break into the ranks of bestseller.  The book did receive a number of excellent reviews, by D.M. Thomas in the Los Angeles Times, and most notably Peter Straub's Washington Post Book World piece in which Straub declared that Harington "has not only invented this dense, deeply loved fictional world [of Stay More] but created an inclusive fictional manner, a voice and style at once playful thoughtful and lyrical, utterly his own.  Harington is a true original, and what he has accomplished radiates fascination" (6 June 1993, p. 9).

The Ghost world of Stay More continues to live and grow.  Harington is already planning his next novel, titled Butterfly Weed, and others beyond.  Bouncing back, as he always does, from adversity and disappointment, he now seems ready to go at writing again with heroic enthusiasm.  He recently invited me to visit, saying I could sleep in the "Styron Bed," where his friend William Styron slept when he stayed wit them, but he warned that he and Kim were building a new house which, he told me, didn't have room for the bed.  "If you don't want it, I may donate it to Duke University," he joked.

-Edwin T. Arnold


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