Saturday, March 20, 2010

Who is "America's Greatest Unknown Writer?"

As a kid, I read everything in my path: books, comics, newspapers, newspaper inserts, cereal boxes, billboards, etc.

I'm one of those guys who accepts flyers from people on street corners. Never know when I might get a story out of some religious tract or political broadside or a come-on for aluminum siding. I also read my junk mail for the same reason. And for curiosity's sake.

Now I spend untold hours jumping from web link to web link to discover interesting and potentially useless information.

Combing through Daily Kos this morning, I came across a link to today's U.S. House floor schedule. The link took me to The Daily Leader on House Majority leader Steny Hoyer's home page. I figured that it would be loaded with items about health care reform legislation.

Instead, I got a reading tip about a writer I've never heard of.

Here are details about House Resolution 1040: "Honoring the life and accomplishments of Donald Harington for his contributions to literature in the United States."

The text (from

Whereas Donald Douglas Harington was born on December 22, 1935, in Little Rock, Arkansas;
Whereas at age 6, he attempted to write his first novel, `The Adventures of Duke Doolittle';
Whereas at age 12, Harington contracted meningococcal meningitis and as a result lost most of his hearing;
Whereas Harington graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor's degree in art in 1956, a master's degree in printmaking in 1959, and from Boston University with a master's degree in art history in 1959;
Whereas Harington taught art history at Bennett College in Millbrook, New York, from 1960 to 1962, and at Windham College in Putney, Vermont, from 1964 to 1978;
Whereas Harington had short-term teaching appointments at the University of Missouri Rolla, the University of Pittsburg, and South Dakota State, and taught art history at the University of Arkansas from 1986 until he retired in 2008;
Whereas Harington's first novel, `The Cherry Pit', was published in 1965 and over the course of his literary career he also published `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), `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' (2003), `The Pitcher Shower' (2005), `Farther Along' (2008), and `Enduring' (2009);
Whereas in 1999, Harington was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame;
Whereas in 2003, Harington won the Robert Penn Award for Fiction, and in 2006 received the first lifetime achievement award for Southern literature from Oxford American magazine;
Whereas writer Kevin Brockmeier expressed that `the signal feature of Donald Harington's novels is their tremendous liveliness. His books are not blind to suffering, featuring as they do murder, poverty, kidnapping, loss, and betrayal. Yet the mood of his stories is overwhelmingly one of celebration. He extends his sympathies so widely that even the trees and the hills, the insects and the animals, the criminals and the ghosts seem to sing with the joy of existence. He brings a tenderness and a brio to the page that prevents his characters from sinking beneath the weight of their troubles, and one finishes his books above all else with an impression of a robust, loving comic energy. You feel as if you have been immersed in life, both your own life and the particular lives of his characters, and that life, for all its misfortunes, is a pretty good place to be';
Whereas Entertainment Weekly called Harington `America's greatest unknown writer';
Whereas Harington was described in the Washington Post as `one of the most powerful, subtle, and inventive novelists in America';
Whereas Harington once said that his philosophy of writing was that literature, that all art, is an escape from the world that makes the world itself, when you return to it, more magical, bearable, or understandable; and
Whereas, on November 7, 2009, at age 73, Harington died in Springdale, Arkansas, from complications of pneumonia: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the House of Representatives honors the life and accomplishments of Donald Harington for his contributions to literature in the United States.

It's difficult to know who should get the honors for "America's greatest unknown writer." There are so many good writers in every corner of the country. Many are known locally or even regionally. Not sure if they all deserve renown. But I do know that they deserve a larger readership.

A modest proposal: Next time you're at the local library, seek out a book by an "unknown writer." This works for bookstores, too, especially those where you can grab a few titles and read the first chapter over a latte in the cafe. Take a crack at the book. It may not be your cup of coffee, but you won't know until you absorb a few pages. I've read some cool novels this way. Here are a few whose titles I remember: "Q Road" by Bonnie Jo Campbell; "When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man" by David Boudinot; and "Gil's All Fright Diner" by A. Lee Martinez (just heard that it's being turned into an animated film). I may have been attracted by the titles or covers -- or both. I probably said to myself "This looks interesting." I know that I read a bit before I checked them out of the library or plucked down money at the bookstore.

It's a crap shoot, isn't it? Writers write the books, publishers publish the books and bookstores and libraries stock the books. New books don't get much shelf life at the stores these days. But almost all bookstores feature work by regional writers. Just sidle up to one of the clerks and ask "Who is Wyoming's (or Utah's or Mississippi's) greatest unknown writer?" And then: "Do you have any of his/her/its books?" This may stump the bookstore employee, as not all of them are as curious about literature as you are. But keep asking -- one of them will take the bait, maybe even view it as a challenge.

Then read, and keep on reading until you find that book that speaks to you.

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