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OPINION | CHRISTOPH KELLER III: Homily for Harington

Some people magnify their own importance. Author Donald Harington tended to diminish his. by CHRISTOPH KELLER III SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 17, 2021 at 1:52 a.m.

In retirement, I have been working on a small collection of homilies from funerals titled "Getting on Toward Home." The title draws from Donald Harington's "The Choiring of the Trees," where Ozark house guests, standing up to leave, will say, "I'd like to stay, but best be gittin' on down home."

In two of my homilies I use Harington for flavor, because I love his love for Arkansas. Seeking copyright permission, I wrote Kim, his wife. She was curious about my book, so I sent the manuscript. She liked the way I'd used her husband's work, she said. This gave me an idea. What about a homily for him? Would Kim be interested in that?

"I would," she said. So here, with thanks to Kim, is "A Homily for Harington."

Donald Harington was born in Little Rock in 1935: hard times. He grew up on Arch Street, where whites and Blacks lived side by side. "My father was a real racist," he told an interviewer, but "most of my best friends in childhood were Blacks in Little Rock."

In summer, he left town to stay with his grandmother in a little Ozark hamlet called Drakes Creek. "I had, in a sense, a double advantage ... Nine months of the year, people I played with and talked with were Blacks, and during the summer, people I played with and talked with were hillbillies. So instead of having a conventional childhood of growing up with kids like myself, I am, in a sense, half Black and half hillbilly."

He was also deaf. At age 12, he lost his hearing to meningococcal meningitis. He believed he caught it from an unwashed peach.

For college, he went to the University of Arkansas. In 1958, furious with Orval Faubus, he left the state--ashamed, he declared, "of the disgrace that he brought upon my hometown" and Arkansas. "I wanted to get just as far away from it as I could." He stayed gone for 16 years, starting a family and raising three children in New England.

At Windham College in Vermont, he taught art history by day and wrote novels by night. His first, "The Cherry Pit," takes place on Arch Street and nearby. His third novel is seminal: in "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" he creates his town of Stay More, in a clearing between two creeks, "in a narrow winding valley that snaked along through five mountains, each a thousand feet higher than the valley." According to a little girl named Latha, who lives there, it is "the wonderfullest place on earth."

Don was homesick. "He liked Vermont," Kim told me. New England hills and streams resembled Arkansas' minus chiggers and cottonmouths. But he missed Ozark ways and Arkansas tomatoes ("maters"). An interviewer asked: "Would you resettle in the Ozarks now if you could?" "Oh, in a minute. In a minute," he replied.

Windham College folded, and his family life did too. At loose ends, he couldn't write. After a crummy teaching gig in South Dakota, he gave up and came home, "yielding," as he would write of someone else, "to the homesickness that brings most far-flung Arkansawyers back eventually."

"Arkansawyer." That identifier was important to Harington. I had never heard it until my Harington-savvy lawyer son, as a young court clerk, worked it into a judicial order. The word "Arkansan," Harington despised. The Chamber of Commerce invented it, he would tell you, to make us sound respectable.

He didn't mind "Arkie," which is cousin to "Okie." In the Depression, more than 300,000 Okies and Arkies, tenant farmers dusted out and tractored out, packed makeshift trucks and headed west, Route 66, to California.

In 'The Grapes of Wrath," two Okies compare notes on their reception there, which was, to put it mildly, brutal. "Okie use' ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you're a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you're scum." Arkie meant the same. Don wore contempt like that with pride, so "Arkie" was acceptable. But he liked "Arkansawyer" more.

How did Don meet Kim?

I thought I knew from Donald's book "Let Us Build Us a City." Don lives up north. Back home, Kim read "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks." Inspired, she drives her little Datsun 280Z deep into Newton County, trying to find Stay More, which is like searching for Atlantis. While zipping around the Ozarks, she slows down though a tiny town, more dead than alive, called "Marble City."

In a fan letter to Don she writes: "The people who once lived there must have been the same kind of folks who populate your books. I couldn't help wondering, did they really expect it to become a city? It could have been one, if all their dreams had come true. But it never even came close to being a city."

She intends to pursue this as a theme. "Should I keep you informed?" she asks. "Oh, by all means," he said.

Kim begins to notice little came-to-nothing "cities" everywhere in Arkansas. She starts a list of Arkansas towns called something "City," finding 37, "and not one of them has made it," she tells Don. Don suggests she trim her list to manageable size. Eleven is his favorite number. Eleven suits Kim just fine.

In the book, Kim visits every city on her own, a solo odyssey. First stop is Sulphur City in the Boston Mountains. From there she heads north, then east across the state, then down, moving clockwise on a circuit: Cherokee City, Marble City, Buffalo City, Cave City, Lake City, Mound City, Arkansas City, Garland City, Bear City, and Y City, the last fateful stop.

Kim reports, Don writes, each city gets a chapter. Don calls Arkansas City, near the Mississippi River, "the only truly Southern place of these lost cities," with flavor more of Mississippi or Louisiana than of Arkansas, "which is not," he deems, "a Southern state, despite its misguided association with the Confederacy."

Writing about Garland City, in the southwest corner, on the wrong side of the Red River, Don shows his feisty Arkie colors: "It is easy enough to dislike this part of Arkansas for the simple reason that it is closest to Texas." At Kim's 10th stop, Bear City, Don makes a brief, mysterious appearance, incognito. In Y City, No. 11, he reappears, reveals his identity, they kiss and fall in love.

About that tale, Kim chuckles: "Don was prone to fictionalizing reality. 'Let Us Build Us a City' had nothing to do with our meeting."

Here, for the record, is how they met.

One day in 1974, Kim went to the Beebe Public Library looking for a book by Thomas Hardy. Adjacent on the shelf, she noticed "Some Other Place. The Right Place," Harington's second novel.

"What's this?" She read a little, "didn't understand it," and put it back.

Three years later, she felt strangely "called back to the book." She could not recall the author's name or title. She went into the stacks and started with A, checking every book. At H, she remembered what she'd come for. This time she understood. She wrote Don "a gushing fan letter." They began to correspond.

One day he wrote that he would be in Little Rock on writer's business. Would she like to meet for dinner and talk books? On Oct. 14, 1977, at Cajun's Wharf, they met. He brought pens and note cards, which they used for conversation, back and forth, as I imagine, over Play-De-Dos and crab legs. "I had such a good time and it was kind of hard to say goodbye."

Four years later, homesick Don moved back to Arkansas, settling in Fayetteville. Kim moved there too, "and that," she says, "was when our romance started. I saw ourselves as being romantic figures in an almost fairy tale."

Their love was fuel for his creative fire. Professor Brian Walter, our best authority on Harington (and my source for much of this) credits Kim as "the key figure in [Donald's] re-emergence" from personal despair and writer's doldrums. He then wrote "Let Us Build Us a City" (which was his idea, Kim says, not hers) followed by 10 new novels, including "The Choiring of the Trees."

"How did Don regard his loss of hearing?" I asked. "It was challenging, no doubt," Kim said, "and it got worse as he got older."

But Don decided that his hearing loss had worked to his advantage. The pre-television Ozarks were his writer's habitat. About the time when he moved north was when that habitat was dammed and flooded with East Coast news, West Coast movies, and urban slang and music.

"The old time of the Ozarks is gone," Don wrote, "and we're now living on standard, American, central, dull, tedious time ...The old life of the Ozarks is vanished. The old folk speech is gone. The old customs and habits have died out. Everybody in the Ozarks nowadays is just about like everybody else. We all watch the same things on TV, we all eat in the same fast-food places."

But it wasn't gone to him. Deaf to change, he still heard it as it had been, accent and expression, undiluted. In the hills, when company came there wouldn't be a chair for every rump. Folks sat on their heels for relaxation. That's what it meant to "hunker down." Don has a moonshine salesman show and tell a city slicker how to do it right. "P'int yore heels more inwards ... Thet's the way. Now rest yore elbows more on yore knees."

Another writer's benefit of deafness was involuntary isolation. First Don filled the void with books by top-notch writers, then with stories of his own invention. The reward was an active social life in two dimensions.

One friendscape was the world he shared with Kim, his students, and writer friends including William Styron. But there was now for Don another fellowship he loved with the Stay More villagers who owed to him their own existence. Nail Chism, Viridis Monday and Doc Swain were as real to Don as we are.

Harington's favorite and best creation is the beautiful Postmistress of Stay More, Latha Bourne. In almost every novel she shows up at some point, whether as a school child, a gray-haired widow, or the leading lady. She is ideal and down to earth in perfect combination. About Harington's artistic achievement with Latha, listen to writer Peter Straub:

"In all of Thornton Wilder's work, there is no Latha Bourne. Nor in Saul Bellow's, Philip Roth's, or John Updike's; and not in David Foster Wallace's, Michael Chabon's, or Jonathan Latham's; and certainly not in mine ... It is unimaginably difficult to create a universally lovable female character, a woman taken to be ideal, even as she is a normally functioning human being. It cannot be done by cheating, by which I mean by craft alone--the writer must be fully present, completely open and engaged, vulnerable to his own creation."

In assessing writers, Donald venerated two: James Agee and Vladimir Nabokov. His "Ekaterina" was an homage to Nabokov's Lolita. Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," Kim said, "transformed my husband."

It had a similar effect on me my senior year at Amherst College. Agee was assigned to document conditions for the poorest of the poor in Alabama by living with three tenant farming families: the Ricketts, Woods, and Gudgers. Each soul was God-endowed with mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities. In the grinding struggle for subsistence, most of that potential had been suffocated. For this disaster, Agee blamed our country. Many writers in the 1930s called for revolution. Agee stands out for his perception that the judgment on conditions was divine:

"What takes place here, and happens daily in this silence, is intimately transacted between this home and eternal space."

In retrospect, that book steered me towards the priesthood, and it is time I talked a little as a priest.

This is Kim's description of her husband: "He was the kindest man I ever met. He was eternally patient. I could tell him anything, and I knew it was in safe hands. I always knew that I was in safe hands."

In First Corinthians, St. Paul names what Kim describes: safety that is kind and patient, and not envious, resentful, boastful, arrogant, or rude. Almost everything we think, feel, or do in life will cease, but Paul names three that will endure: faith, hope, and the kind of safety Kim had found in Don.

Farther along we'll know

all about it

Farther along we'll

understand why.

"Farther Along" is the title of one of Don's last books. It evokes the hymn the mountain folk invariably would sing at time of death in any book by Harington. In the first one I read, "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks," Don seemed to not-so-gently mock the sentiment as false comfort. It may be change in him, or change in me, as both of us got older, but in his later books his couching of that hymn has seemed to have a different feel, more hopeful.

"Let Us Build Us a City" ends in a graveyard on a beautiful spring morning just out from Y City off Highway 71. The place is called "Chant Cemetery," a typically lovely Arkansas mountain resting place. Don and Kim have just met. Love is in the air.

Someone in town had said ,"Seems like we were happier back when we didn't have nothing than when we did." That struck Don as a perfect epitaph "for any town that aspires to be a city and doesn't make it, or any person who aspires to greatness and fails."

Don seemed to feel that he and these little towns, that had aspired to be great but failed to launch, have that in common. That wasn't true from his side even in his doldrums, and with Kim in his life the best of his work was yet to come. Some people magnify their own importance. Donald Harington tended to diminish his. "Failure to launch" does not describe the author of "The Choiring of the Trees."

"The place is enchanted," he says. "Of all the cemeteries Kim has seen, this one, the last, will seem to her the most beautiful." At that, Donald Harington conjures an epiphany. From beneath the earth, and all around the graveyard, the dead begin to sing. Those above the ground join in.

"What is taking place here ... is intimately transacted between this home and eternal space."

And it is safe.

Farther along we'll know

all about it

Farther along we'll

understand why.

Cheer up, my sister, live

in the sunshine,

We'll understand it all

by and by.

The Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller III is an Episcopal priest (retired).

Kim and Donald Harington (on the right) join Wendell and Florence Minor of Washington, Conn., at a social event in northwest Arkansas in 2008; regarding the Haringtons’ relationship, “I saw ourselves as being romantic figures in an almost fairy tale,” Kim said.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Kim and Donald Harington (on the right) join Wendell and Florence Minor of Washington, Conn., at a social event in northwest Arkansas in 2008; regarding the Haringtons’ relationship, “I saw ourselves as being romantic figures in an almost fairy tale,” Kim said. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
“The Choiring of the Trees,” published in 1991, is one of 10 new novels written by Donald Harington after meeting his wife Kim in 1977.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
“The Choiring of the Trees,” published in 1991, is one of 10 new novels written by Donald Harington after meeting his wife Kim in 1977. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Archie Schaffer speaks during a memorial service for Donald Harington at Old Main on the Fayetteville campus of the University of Arkansas on Nov. 30, 2009.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
Archie Schaffer speaks during a memorial service for Donald Harington at Old Main on the Fayetteville campus of the University of Arkansas on Nov. 30, 2009. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

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