“Every novelist writes secondarily for money or movies or Mother. Every novelist writes primarily for approval, for praise, for honor, for love. But the world of readers is stingy with its esteem, fickle with its favor, and short with its memory.” —Donald Harington, “The Guestroom Novelist”
TO PARAPHRASE most anyone who’s written about Donald Harington, a multitudinous chorus which included the late author himself: He was an unknown writer, an unknown continent. He placed himself in the company of “guestroom writers” writers whose literary contributions proved their devotion to craft and original thought, but whose readership, in terms of sales rather than individual fervor, had not yet elevated them to that higher, rarified plain. What he desired was to be read.
Of course, any writer hopes for readers and hopes for love. But here Harington clearly realized that there was something special about his work—that his writing was not the sort whose embrace is so lightly untangled, that the world of his making, once real in the mind of his reader, could not be undone.
In his acceptance speech for the Oxford American Lifetime Award for Contributions to Southern Literature, he closed with the following: “There’s truth in the idea that Stay More is hard to find but even harder to leave … which is the real meaning of its name,” he said that night of his beloved fictional town. “If somehow I can get you there, you won’t ever want to leave.”
Now, 10 years after his death in November 2009, he is read and he is loved, something evidenced by this anthology assembled by one of his most dedicated supporters, Brian Walter. And hopefully this—the fact of this book, the fact of your attention—will be what carries him along, what keeps the light on the porch of the house in Stay More burning.
Searching for “Cities” That Didn’t Make It (1983)
LOST CITIES OF Arkansas. It sounds as if I’m digging for Troy, or Machu Picchu, or Chichen Itza. And indeed, there are times when the search for a shred of information about Buffalo City or Mound City is so frustrating that I’d rather be wearing a pith helmet in the hot sun, up to my elbows in ancient bones and shards.
I don’t wear a pith helmet, and I spend a lot of time in the air-conditioned comfort of Special Collections at the University of Arkansas Library. When it comes to fieldwork, I have to depend upon the excellent hearing and good tape recorder of my colleague Kim, who spends hours talking with octogenarians and nonagenarians (and thus far one centenarian).
What are we looking for? As one octogenarian in ex–Marble City (now Dogpatch) said to Kim at the conclusion of her interview, “I’m really glad you’re doing this. It’s really nice that someone is interested.”
We aren’t a Foxfire team searching for lost folkways, although the ones we find are incidentally interesting, incidental to the life of the Arkansawyers who founded and settled communities in ideal locations and named them this “City” or that “City,” and hoped, beyond all expectation and against all odds, that their little towns would become flourishing metropolises in time, given a chance and good weather.
The Oxford English Dictionary comments that “city” in “the newer states of the American West” is “often given in anticipation.” Anticipation is the key word, or rather one of them, and the other key word is dignity. The word “city,” derived from the French cite from the Latin civitas, was widely used in England as well as in America with considerable laxity as little more than a synonym for “town,” because there is a traditional feeling of dignity about it—inherent nobility and worth and the anticipation of honor.
Traveling in Texas as long ago as 1843, the British novelist Frederick Maryat complained that “every individual possessing three hundred acres of land calls his lot a city.”
Arkansawyers have never been as vainglorious and overoptimistic as Texans, but around 1843, quite a few of them were sprinkling “cities” in every corner of the map of the new state of Arkansas. There is no telling how many. At last count, we have located forty-one of them, but just when I think I’ve found them all, another one pops up in some remote area. All of the states west of the Mississippi have miniature municipalities which once aspired to the grandness of cityhood. Some of them achieved it: Kansas City, Oklahoma City, even Iowa City.
Arkansas City didn’t make it. Lord knows, it tried. Once, it had floating operas and Chinese laundries, and ladies and laughter. It had a past so colorful that Judy Bixler, the present mayor’s wife, has warned us before our researches have begun: “Arkansas City wasn’t historical; it was hysterical.”
Is Arkansas City “lost”? Yes, if you consider that it has been abandoned not only by most of its population but also by Old Man River himself; the Mississippi has up and gone a mile east, leaving the town forlorn behind its unneeded levee.
Some of the cities are lost because they almost qualify as ghost towns: Sulphur City, Cherokee City, Mound City. Some have a few good people still around but never were on the road to anywhere, let alone cityhood: Cave City, Lake City, Garland City, Webb City.
Some of them like Bear City once had a city-like census that shrank to almost nothing. Of Bear City’s 12,000 people in 1887, there are only one one-thousandth remaining today.
None of these places were named “city” as a joke. There is something mock heroic about all of them, but not in the sense of mockery, only in the way each of them reflects the puny individual’s yearning for fulfillment and dignity.
The Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities has generously funded the early stages of our research, which will culminate in a book exploring in depth twelve of these cities.
I am primarily a novelist, but several of my novels have been concerned with ghost towns, principally my own mythical Stay More of Newton County, which never actually aspired to cityhood but grew to considerable size at the turn of the century before the boom burst and the dreams died. I see the ghost town, or in this case, the ghost city, as a metaphor for the lost places in the human heart.
The title No Need of the Sun comes from the beautiful line toward the end of Revelation: “And the city had no need of the sun, either of the moon, to shine in it, for the glory of God did lighten it … ” The city that John the Divine had in mind, or in heart, was the celestial City of God, but all cities, however tiny, are His handiwork and need no more sunlight to keep them shining.
Comfort Me with Chicken and Dumplings (2005)
LET ME SEE your hands. How many of you would say your favorite food is chicken and dumplings? You’re in good company. The cook at Graceland reported that Elvis loved the dish more than any other. Try Googling the internet to see those thousands of lists of favorites, and under “favorite food,” you’ll find chicken and dumplings more than any other single dish.
Would a condemned man choose it as his last meal? In my novel The Choiring of the Trees, Nail Chism, an Ozarks mountaineer wrongly convicted of rape, escapes the electric chair not once but three times, and each time he has requested as his final feed a platter of chicken of dumplings. After his last escape, not just from the chair but from the prison, hiding out in the woods east of Stay More, the young woman bringing him his meals collects from the friendly neighbors twenty-five bowls of chicken and dumplings. He never tires of them.
I’ve told my mother-in-law, who makes the best I’ve eaten, that I could eat her chicken and dumplings for breakfast, although I never have … yet. Somehow they wouldn’t go well with coffee. They do go well with Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio, champagne or Dr. Pepper, milk or beer, or, the drink they complement best, iced tea.
Whenever my wife Kim and I visit her hometown, Beebe, Arkansas, her mother, Jacque Gunn, always makes up a big pot of chicken and dumplings, serves it once, and gives me all the leftovers to take home, where I can have another meal or two or three from them. It was needless of me to ask her for the recipe, because she’ll never let me run out long enough to want to make my own.
But she reported that she got the recipe many years ago from a black woman named Hettie working at the old Franke’s Cafeteria in downtown Little Rock, a fabled culinary establishment. Hettie noticed that Jacque brought her daughters there often, and the girls always had chicken and dumplings, so Hettie observed that in view of their fondness for the dish, Jacque ought to make it for them. And Hettie gave Jacque the recipe, which she used at home thereafter.
The recipe called for thin strips of dumplings, sometimes called “flat” or, in the mountains, “slick” dumplings. There are two rival camps of dumpling-fixers, just as there is a dichotomy in everything: red states and blue states, Christians and Jews, artists and scientists, males and females. The other camp, to which I belonged for many years before being converted by my mother-in-law, makes dumplings that are thick or blobbish or fluffy.
Long ago, when I was raising my own daughters in New England, I made chicken and dumplings at least once a month for Sunday night supper, and used a recipe that called for tablespooning the batter directly a blob at a time into the boiling stew. My daughters loved it … but I can only assume that when they moved out into the world they discovered the superiority of strip dumplings.
It’s sort of like the distinction between a stack of nice fluffy pancakes and Swedish pancakes, which get their appeal from their thinness. The eating of food calls into play four senses: vision, taste, smell, and touch. It is the touch of various foods as they come into contact with the lips, and then the teeth, and then the tongue, and then the throat that accounts for the fact that Italians have so many different shapes and sizes of pasta, and the fact that flat dumplings seem to slide right down the throat, which fact, in turn, accounts for the fact that so many eaters of chicken and dumplings must always go for second helpings … or third. It is the most second-helpinged of all foods.
It is also, in its origins, the most international of dishes, variations of which were imported to this country from all the countries of the world. Despite the charming southern insistence that chicken and dumplings are a distinctly southern dish unknown to Yankees, there are probably as many people in the north who love Sunday night suppers of chicken and dumplings. One of the best recipes I’ve seen for the dish is in the classic L. L. Bean Book of New England Cookery, which makes it sound like something that Vermonters and New Hampshirites all were raised on … except that it calls for adding various seasonings to the dumpling dough: parsley, dill, marjoram, and savory (and also preaches the blob method).
This brings up a second dichotomy of dumpling-fixers: the purists like my mother-in-law who don’t add anything to the dumpling dough (except salt and baking soda), and those who like to spice up the dough. Jack Butler, the great novelist and poet, gives in his cooking manual Jack’s Skillet a fine recipe that calls for dill in the dumplings, but I haven’t tried it, and I think I’ll save the dill for fish and pickles. Of course, the dumplings will absorb the flavors of whatever herbs or spices you put in the broth.
But whether you like ‘em in strips or blobs, seasoned or plain, served in bowls or on plates, or even from a can of Campbell’s Soup “Chicken ‘N Dumplings,” you know why it’s your favorite food: it feels good, it tastes delectable, it calls up an assortment of good memories, it makes the day seem prettier, and it comforts you like no other food can.
First Dates, Blind Dates, Fan Dates, Last Dates (2009)
BORROWING MY MOTHER’S car, I set off down Cantrell Road to have my first date with you. All I knew about you was that you had, a few months previously, written to me the only fan letter I had ever received from my native state. And that your voice on the telephone was sweet. You had told me how to find Cajun’s Wharf, but here I was, trying to make a left off Cantrell, waiting and waiting for a stalled freight train to move on.
I confess that I used up a good bit of that wait trying to imagine what you would look like. Tall enough to fit me, I hoped. Properly adoring without being fawning. Possibly blond. Possibly independently wealthy. A plantation owner’s daughter. You had to be a college graduate, because your fan letter had been so intelligent.
You had caught nuances and permutations in Some Other Place. The Right Place. which had escaped everybody else, including all the reviewers. You were such a novelist’s dream that I wondered seriously if you were just a product of my solipsism, a central theme in the novel. My mental image of you certainly was too close a match for the novel’s heroine, Diana, although her daddy owned not a plantation but an insurance company.
I began to wonder if the stalled freight train blocking my way was trying to tell me that you weren’t really there at all. After a while I began to consider the possibility of abandoning the car and trying to hoof it the rest of the way, if I could get under or over that damned string of boxcars. If you had already arrived, and you really existed in flesh and blood, you were probably getting impatient for me to show up. Quite possibly you were thinking that I may have been a product of your solipsism.
You were not my first blind date. As a teenager, a pal of mine who was a student at the Arkansas School for the Blind persuaded me to take him and his date, with another date for me, to the drive-in movies, where they necked in the back seat while I tried to get up my nerve to neck in the front seat. She was very pretty but her eyes were blank.
Your eyes, when finally that freight was pulled or shoved on down the track, turned out to be so sparkling blue that I scarcely noticed your green-and-fuchsia floral midcalf-length dress, your height, your blonde hair, and the copies of my books you had under your arm. Derek told us he was our “Cajun” for the evening, and he served a bottle of B & G Vouvray, which we consumed entirely. How do I remember these things? Because you kept souvenirs which are still in our files.
That dress is wrapped in plastic in our attic, and your hair is still blond, thirty years later. And if there is such a thing as solipsism, it is mighty convincing.
Excerpt courtesy of Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, and University of Arkansas Press. To order The Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany, visit uapress.com.