A Writing Life A Teaching Life
“Teaching students how to SEE requires the experience of having SEEN clearly and vigilantly. And that experience has helped me be a better writer. In every class session I have learned something new from the students about the ways of looking at art and at the world.”
Most professors maintain symbiotic careers as teachers and researchers; their work done in the classroom both stimulates and inspires ideas for research, which in turn tempers and expands the knowledge conveyed in their lectures and their work with students as mentors and collaborators. This spring, Donald Harington retired as Distinguished Professor of art history after 22 years of service to the University of Arkansas. And indeed, Harington’s non-fiction work, On a Clear Day: The Paintings of George Dombek, which reviews the life work of a graduate of the University of Arkansas’s MFA program, is just the sort of publication a reader might expect of an art history professor. But what of, say, a novel written from the point of view of cockroaches inhabiting a dying hamlet in the Arkansas Ozarks?
On the surface there appears to be no interrelation between such fiction and Harington’s long teaching career. Harington was popular with students and earned the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Arkansas Alumni Association in 1992. Each art history class he taught is purported to have begun with his announcement: “Art is an escape from reality that makes the return to reality somehow more magical, more understandable or more bearable.” Harington is justifiably proud of his work with his students.
“I have enjoyed a spirited give-and-take with my students for 50 years, and I think I’ve not only helped them to see but also kept them entertained in a sometimes dull and boring academic environment,” he said.
Nomination for PEN-Faulkner Award for best first novel for The Cherry PitRockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1966-67)National Endowment of the Arts Award (1980)
Porter Fund Award, American Association for State and Local History for Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns (1987)
Heasley Prize, Lyon College (1998)
Inducted into the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame (1999)
Arkansas Fiction Award, Arkansas Library Association (1999)
Robert Penn Warren Award for fiction (2003)
Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature (2006)
- The Cherry Pit (1965)
- Lightning Bug (1970)
- Some Other Place. The Right Place. (1972)
- The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (1975)
- Let Us Build Us a City: Eleven Lost Towns (1986, nonfiction)
- The Cockroaches of Stay More (1989)
- The Choiring of the Trees (1991)
- Ekaterina (1993)
- Butterfly Weed (1996)
- When Angels Rest (1998)
- Thirteen Albatrosses, or Falling Off the Mountain (2002)
- With (2004)
- The Pitcher Shower (2005)
- Farther Along (2008)
Edwin T. Arnold, “An Interview with Donald Harington,” Appalachian Journal, 21 (Summer 1994): 432-445.
“Donald Harington.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series. (Gale Group, 1995): 82-91.
Martha Duffy, “Review of Lightening Bug,” Time, August 17, 1970.
Tom D’Evelyn, “‘Words are all the ghosts we need’: The Fiction of Donald Harington,” Bostonia (Fall 1993): 78-80.
However, his fiction almost seems to belong in another world. His Web site at http://www.donaldharington.com/ declares that Harington’s “academic career was in art and art history because, although determined to become a novelist—he wrote his first one at six—he felt that his ultimate teaching vocation should not interfere with his writing.” Harington, a nationally-acclaimed writer with 14 novels to his credit, was awarded the Robert Penn Warren award for fiction in 2003 and the Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature in 2006. The winter 2002 Southern Quarterly is a dedicated “Donald Harington Special Issue.” Critics write glowingly of his novels: Martha Duffy, writing a review of Lightning Bug for Time, said, “He reveres the most ordinary aspects of the lives of unexceptional people, and with lyrical comedy and irony, he makes his joy infectious,” Edwin T. Arnold, in a review of Some Other Place. The Right Place. for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, called Harington’s novel “an astonishing celebration of the mystery of fiction.” Tom D’Evelyn wrote for Bostonia, “Like Astiare dancing with a chair, Harington’s grace and wit are such that he can turn the bare furniture of the form—the narrative voice, the sense of time passing, the imitation of unique individuality—into a dancing partner of exquisite grace.”
Such a balance between careers cannot be easy. Harington said, in a 1994 interview with Edwin T. Arnold for the Appalachian Journal, “I generally write during the summer months, when I’m not teaching. I research during the school year. Then I try to write the book during the off-months. I usually finish before I have to begin teaching, although with KAT [Ekaterina] I continued into the fall. It was very hard on me, and I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
When asked if his writing and teaching careers were actually this compartmentalized and separate in reality, Harington responded, “With rare exceptions. There have been a few times when I have been so caught up in finishing a novel, have gained such momentum, that I cannot set it aside when the fall semester begins. But for the most part I have had to view my teaching career as a dedicated effort to liberate my summers for writing, and the great majority of all my novels have been produced in June, July and August.”
Harington has managed to maintain a clear delineation between his careers.
“I think I possess two distinct voices: the one that gives lectures on art history and the one that narrates my novels. The voices are not schizophrenic, but they are distinctly different. I hang in the closet my cap and gown in order to don my clown suit,” he said.
However, upon reflection, Harington acknowledged that there has been some interplay between the two.
“My dual careers have been symbiotic in the sense that I have been largely concerned with teaching students how to put the visual experience into words, which is what the novelist does,” he said. “Teaching students how to SEE requires the experience of having SEEN clearly and vigilantly. And that experience has helped me be a better writer. In every class session I have learned something new from the students about the ways of looking at art and at the world.”
Conversely, readers of his fiction will see that Harington’s training in the arts has also infiltrated his writing.
“There are frequent allusions to works of art” in his novels, he said. “There are several instances where my artistic self has figured directly into the making of a novel,” he added. “I did all the illustrations for the novel, The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, and did all the photographs for the novel, Let Us Build Us a City.”
Several characters in his books also are art historians, such as his most recent novel Farther Along (Toby Press, 2008), in which the protagonist is a former curator of American antiquities at a Boston museum and an expert on vernacular furniture.
Though the University of Arkansas community would have been happy to hold onto him for as long as it could, Harington seems ready for his retirement to begin.
“I am seven years beyond the ‘traditional’ retirement age,” he said. When asked if he felt the structure provided by spending the school years teaching and the summers writing would be missed now that he has finished his last term, Harington mused, “That remains to be seen” but quickly added, “I am not nervous.” Harington is confident that the change in his schedule will not interrupt his writing process, and that he will not miss the pressure of trying to complete a novel before the fall term begins again.
“There have been at least two semesters when I have been on sabbatical leave and could keep writing during the fall, and those have been good periods of production without any pressure from the class bell,” he said.
In characteristic imaginative fashion, however, Harington sketched a possible future scenario: “mornings when I absent-mindedly get into my car, drive to the visual resources library, put my color slides into their carousels, and then discover that somebody else is using my lectern.” If that happens, Harington said, “It will be painful.”
Harington summed up his assessment of the dichotomy of his writing and teaching careers with the declaration: “I don’t think my ‘novelizing’ has ever made any of my students feel slighted. In fact, I can count on the fingers of my hands the number of students who have ever read a novel of mine.”