Arkansas Writer-Educator Don Harington Dead at 73


Arkansas writers, editors and educators reacted with dismay Monday as word spread that Donald Harington died late Saturday night after a long illness.

The Fayetteville novelist and University of Arkansas art professor had been hospitalized for months and spent the last six weeks of his life in hospice care in Springdale, his family said. He was 73.

"Nobody wrote more good books about Arkansas than he did," said Donald Hays, a University of Arkansas creative writing professor who knew Harington for 35 years. "He defined his territory and he made a special kind of Arkansas his own as a fiction writer. He knew Arkansas history and folklore and art history as well as anyone I knew."

Born and raised in Little Rock, Harington published his first novel, The Cherry Pit, in 1965. He went on to publish a dozen more novels, most of them set in fictional Stay More, an Ozark town inspired by Drakes Creek, the Madison County hamlet where he spent summers as a boy.

His colleagues marveled at the ear for language Harington's writing displayed, despite his near-total loss of hearing suffered after a bout of meningitis at age 12. As a professor in the University of Arkansas' art department, where he held emeritus status since retiring in 2008, Harington was known to have students submit questions in writing during lectures.

"He was a gracious and generous man, a gentleman of the old school, and enormously funny and fun to be around," said novelist Ellen Gilchrist, of Fayetteville. "The fact that he was deaf never seemed to hinder having a conversation with him. We just chatted away. How, I never knew."

In 1987 Harington won a Porter Prize, awarded to Arkansas writers. He was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 1999, the same year the Arkansas Library Association presented him with the Arkansas Fiction Award. He won the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction in 2003. The Oxford American recognized him with a lifetime award for contributions to Southern literature in 2006.

"Because Don's artistry was so abundantly and colorfully alive, it's hard to imagine that he's actually gone," Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff wrote in an e-mail. "He was also tireless in helping other writers. This was a great man who not only preached culture but practiced it."

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Harington received his bachelor's degree in art from the University of Arkansas in 1956, an MFA in 1958 and a master's in art from Boston University in 1959. For an author and professor, he wasn't sanguine about the potential of a formal writing education. He once told Ghoti magazine that he taught a semester of creative writing "at a low ebb" in his life. "But I didn't feel - I still don't - that writing can be taught," he continued. "It can only be learned."

Moore's Chapel, in Fayetteville, will handle funeral arrangements, which as of Monday morning had not been finalized.