(Photo: Russell Cothren/University of Arkansas)
(Obituary Reference: Published in The New York Times, Thursday, 12 November 2009, p. B18)
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Donald Harington, who created a surreal rural mini-world in more than a dozen novels set in the fictional Ozark hamlet of Stay More, Ark., died Saturday in Springdale, Ark. He was 73 and lived in Fayetteville, Ark.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his wife, Kim.
Mr. Harington, who never achieved popular success but attracted a devoted cult following, blended myth, dreamscape and sharply observed Ozark speech and manners to depict a rural society whose richness and eccentricity drew the inevitable comparisons to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
He rebuffed attempts to classify him as a regional writer, telling The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2000: “Regionalism is a term of opprobrium, condescension or contempt. The term ‘regionalist’ doesn’t really say anything about a writer except that the writer prefers writing about a specific place.” That place, Stay More, whose residents Mr. Harington called Stay Morons, turned out to be a strange one, populated by shrewd hillbillies, reclusive millionaires, an itinerant motion-picture projectionist, a candidate for governor who wants to abolish hospitals and schools, and, in “The Cockroaches of Stay More,” talking insects who constitute their own Ozark subsociety.
“Don Harington is not an underappreciated novelist,” the poet Fred Chappell told The Democrat-Gazette. “He is an undiscovered continent.”
Donald Douglas Harington was born on Dec. 22, 1935, in Little Rock and grew up there, but spent summers in Drakes Creek, a tiny Ozark town that served as the model for Stay More. As a boy he would sit on the porch of his grandfather’s general store, listening to local voices and accents that he preserved, as though in amber, after contracting meningococcal meningitis at 12 and losing most of his hearing.
Although he was a devoted reader of comic books and nothing else until meningitis put him in the hospital for a long stay, he tried writing a novel, “The Adventures of Duke Doolittle,” when he was 6. In time he graduated to reading Erskine Caldwell and Faulkner.
At the University of Arkansas, he earned a bachelor’s degree in art in 1956 and a master of fine arts in printmaking in 1958. After earning a master’s in art history from Boston University in 1959, Mr. Harington enrolled in the graduate program in art history at Harvard but did not complete a degree. Instead he taught art history for the next 20 years at Bennett College, a finishing school in Millbrook, N.Y.; and at Windham College in Putney, Vt.
In Millbrook he developed a close friendship with William Styron, who lived nearby in Connecticut and introduced him to the editor Robert Loomis at Random House, which published his first novel, “The Cherry Pit” (1965).
His first Stay More novel, “Lightning Bug,” was published in 1970, and after writing its sequel, “Some Other Place. The Right Place.” (1972), he knew he had found his subject.
“I was hooked,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1989. He realized, he said, that “I’ve got everything I need and can work with, right in that little village.”
Moving to a broader canvas in “The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks” (1975), Mr. Harington told Stay More’s 140-year history through the six generations of the Ingledew clan and the town’s dwellings, which he illustrated himself.
Mr. Harington moved elusively among fictional categories, making him hard to place and hard to sell, which is one reason he taught history at the University of Arkansas from 1986 until 2008. His work seemed regional and in some respects traditional, but his narratives unfolded in a magical-realist haze with metafictional twists and turns and excursions into nonfiction territory.
In the apparently nonfictional “Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns” (1986), for example, a deaf, alcoholic art history professor named Harrigan corresponds with a woman named Kim who is researching the ghost towns of Arkansas. They agree to collaborate on a book — the one already in the reader’s hands.
“With” (2004) is told from the point of view of an assortment of characters, not all of them human. In “The Cockroaches of Stay More” (1989), a satire, Mr. Harington shifted gears once again to develop a complex allegory centering on a roach named Squire Sam Ingledew, “a philosopher, an epicure, a naturalist and a bon vivant,” left partly deaf by the chiming of the clock he lives in.
In addition to his wife, the former Kim McClish, he is survived by three daughters from his first marriage: Jennifer Brizzi of Rhinecliff, N.Y., Calico Harington of Bethany, Conn., and Katy Harington of Chicago; a stepson, Mickel McClish of Salem, Mass.; a sister, Sue Kavanaugh of Sun Lakes, Ariz.; and four grandchildren.
In 1993 Mr. Harington published a non-Stay More novel, “Ekaterina,” an inside-out version of “Lolita” in which the sexual predator is female. He published his final Stay More novel, “Enduring,” in September.