Donald Harington, the late Arkansas novelist labeled an “Ozark Surrealist” by the New York Times, was born in Little Rock in 1935 and would go on to teach art history at the University of Arkansas for 22 years. When he died in 2009, he left behind a series of deeply idiosyncratic novels set in a fictional Arkansas town called Stay More, which, as William Grimes noted in his obituary for the Times, “drew the inevitable comparisons to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.” Grimes also quotes from an interview with the poet Fred Chappell: “Don Harington is not an underappreciated novelist. He is an undiscovered continent.” He won the Robert Penn Warren Award for fiction in 2003 and the Oxford American magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Southern Literature in 2006.
Brian Walter, an English professor at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and a friend of Harington’s toward the end of his life, has spent several years (through hard-drive crashes, several moves and job changes and a divorce, as he explains below) making a documentary about the author titled “Stay More: The World of Donald Harington.” The film is now finished and will receive its Little Rock premiere this Sunday, April 27 at noon, at the Arkansas Arts Center, as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival.
How did you find Donald Harington (as a reader)? What drew you to his works initially?
I first encountered Don’s work through the Vladimir Nabokov Electronic Discussion Forum in the spring of 1996, when he and another novelist were discussing Nabokov’s influence on their work; as a complement to the dialogue, Don posted the first five chapters of his then-most recent novel, 1993’s Nabokov-inspired “Ekaterina,” to the forum. It still embarrasses me to admit that this brief initial taste of his work did not make much of an impression, so it wasn’t until I met him many months later that I went ahead and picked up a copy of “Ekaterina” and ended up devouring it. It turned out to be one of the most remarkably and successfully ambitious novels I had ever read, a tour-de-force of narrative layerings that would have done Nabokov himself remarkably proud. From there, I started working through Don’s other novels, our correspondence continued to grow over the years, and the rest (as he permits himself to say once in the documentary) is history – delightful history, in my case.
How would you characterize the universe of Harington’s fiction? What is Harington-esque?
Art history professor that he was, Don once said that he wanted to bring the style of the unorthodox modernist Henri Matisse to the subject matter of George Caleb Bingham, the mid-nineteenth century realist painter of dynamically sociable life in rural and small-town heartland America. So, reading Don’s books can sometimes seem like you’re walking through the most rugged and remote stretches of the Ozarks enjoying the choiring of the trees and the delightfully-reproduced mountain speech of the inhabitants one moment and then, in the next, touring a gallery of bracingly non-mimetic paintings and drawings of those very trees and indelible hillbillies – who are really just the parts of oneself, as Don puts it in the documentary, that one recognizes and laughs at and comes to love still more fully for their artful treatments within his stories.
For my own part, what makes Don’s work irresistible is its ability to immerse and circumscribe the most devastating of personal tragedies within a hard-earned vision of comedy – not punch-line, laugh-a-minute comedy (even though his books are certainly generous with the ‘yuks,’ as he acknowledges at one point in the documentary), but comedy in the Dantean sense: experiences that inspire us to journey through the darkest reaches of hell and purgatory to reach our personal Beatrice (or, in Stay More, our Latha Bourne) at the entry to some permanent vision of paradise. Don’s characters wrestle not so much with demons as with angels, and perhaps like Ozarkian Jacobs, they manage finally to plant a ladder down into the improbably rich soil of Stay More deep away in the Ozarks, a ladder that they can – after surviving all the hardships and challenges that life so close to Nature throws at them – climb together with the reader into the rewards their author has so lovingly been withholding from them. Or, to put the matter more simply, Don’s work not only inspires tears of joy, but also gives us superb cause to smile and even laugh through the inevitable tears of loss and sadness.
When did you first meet him? And what sort of relationship did you have?
Improbably enough (or marvelously enough, if you have fallen under the sway of the Fate-Thing that Don describes in the documentary), I ended up taking a teaching position at the University of the Ozarks (in Clarksville) only a few months after my first, aborted experience with his work. Shortly thereafter, Don saw a book review of mine in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and e-mailed me an invitation for lunch in his Fayetteville home. I was more than a little mortified to accept the invitation when I had not found the “Ekaterina” excerpt all that appealing, but the visit turned out to be a delight, so I went right home and dove into “Ekaterina” and, eventually, all of his books.
That first visit included an exchange that foretold and established certain elements of our long and often lovingly combative relationship. Like most college literature teachers, I had several friends and acquaintances who combined academic day-jobs with their preferred avocation as writers, publishing both scholarly and creative work, a description which seemed likely to apply to Don too, given his position at the University of Arkansas. So, on one of the 3 x 5 notecards that he used to field student questions in his classes, I wrote out what I thought was a safely open-ended query about his current endeavors: “What projects are you working on now?” With perfect mock indignation, he threw my question right back across the table at me: “Projects? I don’t do ‘projects.’ I write novels!”
Over the years, in e-mails and in person, we had a number of similarly playfully contestatory exchanges. Once, after a reading he gave in Clarksville, I kept slipping teasingly oddball questions into the stacks of notecards that my American Literature students were submitting to him, and Don became more and more strident in response. Finally, when he got the one that asked him if God ever got the ‘frakes’ – a peculiarly Stay More malady described in “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks” in which the sufferer just lies about, useless and crushed by the futility of life and hopelessly hoping to die – Don pretended to explode (at least, I think he was pretending), “How the hell would I know?” It was great theater for my students and a bit of a foretaste (unbeknownst to either of us) of things that were to happen a decade later when I fed him lots of ‘tricky questions,’ as he rather euphemistically refers to them in the final chapter of [his book] “Enduring,” in which an ‘old coot’ named Brian Walter shows up to interview Latha Bourne, the century-old demigoddess of Stay More.
What inspired you to make the documentary?
A dear old friend who also knows and admires Don’s work actually suggested that I record him for posterity. As this friend put it, what would we give now for a record of Shakespeare discussing his plays in the context of his life? Despite their immortal influence and more or less universal reach, many elements of Shakespeare’s plays will always remain shrouded in tantalizing mystery because we know so little really about the playwright’s personal life and the ways that it informed his art. In Don’s case, his work flows deeply and naturally from his remarkable life – so filled with hardships, losses, and personal tragedies on one hand but also with such palpably vibrant, vital joys on the other – that a record of him discussing his life should only add to his books’ enduring appeal.
As for the production process, it was long and often frustrating, as if the Fate-Thing had decided to bestow upon me some of the cosmic mischief that it had always visited on Don. I went through (endured?) three different computers, about eight or ten hard drives (three of which crashed outright while another was accidentally erased by well-meaning techies who were trying to help, an unfortunate situation that cost me years’ worth of still images, among other files), camcorder malfunctions, some seven trips to the Fayetteville area, a change of jobs, a divorce, the entire tenure grind in my new position, and a whole coven of partridges in a pear tree to reach this point, typing out these responses for the Arkansas Times today shortly before the documentary’s Little Rock premiere, courtesy of the good offices of the Arkansas Literary Festival.
But I should also add that I received lots of invaluable support and encouragement from friends and fans of Don’s over the years, starting with Don and his beloved wife Kim, of course. I received grants both private and institutional and, most importantly, remarried to a beautiful, loving woman and gifted scholar in her own right who didn’t know Don’s work previously but who now is a Harington fan herself and without whose tireless love and support I certainly would not have finished the documentary even when I finally did.
Was he easy to work with?
Don was certainly generous and thoughtful throughout the documentary interviews, but he also found some of the questions impossible or at least frustrating to answer – especially those in which I was trying to get him to summon his playful wit off the top of his head. The unused portions of the interviews include many clips of him looking at me and rather pointedly noting that this or that was one of my ‘creative’ questions that he didn’t feel he could really answer – not exactly scolding his interviewer but hardly willing to be led in the direction suggested. (At one point, he even bowed his head to the camera and invited me to verify that, in fact, the top of his head was far too plain to provide an answer to my ‘creative’ query.)
Nevertheless, the overall tone of the interviews was certainly friendly and encouraging. In fact, at the end of the third and final round of interviews, he requested that we turn the tables so that he could interview me, giving him the opportunity to ask (among many other things) if – in the event that anything prevented him from finishing “Enduring” (which did turn out to be his final novel) – I could finish it for him. As I noted a couple of years later at his memorial service, that question – which he batted my way while wearing a t-shirt that read “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel” – was the most outrageously exaggerated compliment anyone had ever paid me, a remarkably generous gesture of affirmation on Don’s part. The sequel documentary that I’m currently working on, “Farther Along: The World of Donald Harington, Pt. 2,” will feature a snippet or two from his interview with me, hopefully underscoring just how wide and wealthy an array of material it was that he poured out for both scholars and lovers of his books.
What would you say was the aim of the film — what impression or experience do you hope to leave with the viewer?
The simplest and most important aim of the documentary is to inspire viewers to read (or hopefully reread) his books, which constitute their own superb gifts to anyone with an attentive ear, an open heart, and a taste for inspired logophilic wit grounded deeply in the timeless vagaries of human love and loss. The film’s more ambitious aim is to convey some of the divinely devastating comedy of Don’s warm-hearted but clear-eyed sensibility, developed through decades of sadness and devastating trials – to help the viewer (like readers of his books) to smile through the tears that his stories inevitably conjure along with all the laughs.
What will be Harington’s legacy? Can you trace his influence in contemporary fiction?
Returning to his double-barreled wedding of Bingham to Matisse, I would first say that Don managed to recreate and deepen the world of authentic Ozark homespun country people with remarkably sophisticated narrative artistry, to make a kind of modernist or even postmodernist folk art. If the novel is (as an old literature scholar friend of mine once put it) the most social of all art forms, then Don has managed to enlarge its sphere enough to meaningfully and delightfully incorporate lives and sensibilities that high or official culture all too quickly excludes and even scorns as mere hillbillies. This accomplishment has inspired another scholar to declare Don (pretty aptly, I would say) our Chaucer, our court-jester poet of authentic vernacular American speech who in presenting us with the inimitable voices of his Stay Morons is preserving whole ways of life that helped give birth to but seem almost to have disappeared from our relentlessly CGI-ed and Photoshopped 21st-century experience. In the documentary, Don mourns the “Vanished American Past” (a term from his first novel, “The Cherry Pit”), declaring that it’s just gone forever. Well, anyone who would mourn America’s past with Don can perhaps take some consolation from the marvelous way that he has managed so artfully to preserve crucial portions of it.
For what it’s worth, I would add that Don’s work also marvelously updates and in welcome ways redeems American literature’s long haunting by the dream of a return to a lost Eden, the elusive recovery from corruption back into innocence that our Puritan ancestors promised to each other they would establish even as they voyaged the Atlantic to the ‘New World.’ Of course, generations of writers since – from Hawthorne to Faulkner to Cather to Fitzgerald to Morrison to Vonnegut and on and on – have exposed this New World Eden as a sad, more or less impossible myth. But for Don, the dream of an American Eden is never just a regressive design on unrealistically idealized innocence; rather, it inspires him to explore the tangled, comic, and often tragic relations between Nature and the delightfully human condition of his characters. Don’s America doesn’t allow his characters to force their way back into a benign, air-brushed paradise of innocence that never really existed, but rather to find a way to live and love and joy in the fallen world into which we have been exiled actually as a great gift, if we can only learn to embrace it as such. When Long Jack Stapleton, the imposing preacher of “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks,” takes the pulpit and magically conjures the story of Adam and Eve in connubial bliss in Eden, one of his parishioners immediately cries out, “Why, it looks just like Stay More on a summer’s day!” Similarly, when Long Don Harington conjures the stories of Latha and Dawny and Daniel Lyam Montross and all the other Stay Morons for his readers’ delight, he is inscribing the traditions of the novel with a remarkably familiar but also remarkably fresh image of an enduringly and endearingly hardscrabble American version of Western culture’s primal paradise.