Presentation: Sage and Osage: Donald Harington and the Long History of the Ozarks
In his 1986 nonfiction novel Let Us Build Us a City, Donald Harington deepens the failed dreams of European settlers who optimistically named their little communities "cities" by invoking the much older and more resonant artistic traditions of the first human inhabitants of the Mississippi basin:
That torrent and tide, commencing two thousand miles away in the lake country of Minnesota… has been captured in the art of the people who were creating it long before de Soto came. Etched or stamped or painted onto the sides of their ceramic ware are abstract representations of the behavior of the Grandfather [Missisippi], his endless, fickle meandering, his sudden dance into whirlpools, his spinning around within the vortex, his bending and doubling and occasional rising… around and about the contours of a vessel shaped by protecting hands from a mound of river clay into a bubble magically endowed with permanency… The result of this artisanry, dismissed as a bunch of pots by schoolchildren taken to the museums, is a more durable tribute to the Mississippi than anything from the hand of Sam Clemens. In a universal language of spirals and swastikate symbols used in Austria four thousand years before Christ, in neolithic China three thousand years before Christ, and in Ireland two thousand years before Christ, to mention only three examples of the widespread diffusion, artists have tried to convey these same feelings about water, its elusive illusion — the theme and function of art: to seize the fickle. (p. 298)
Emulating his great mentor Nabokov, Harington insists that time does not advance with mindless linearity, but instead moves in magically repeated patterns that pay tribute to the inspired human imagination from time immemorial. In this philosophically conservative view of time and history, Harington emphasizes the organic genius of Native Americans' allegedly "primitive" art, as he does throughout his novels, consistently honoring the profound work of their imaginations even when it appears only as ruins and remnants, vestiges of human cultures that his beloved Stay Morons replace but also (often unknowingly) renew.
Still, if his Nabokovian sense of gleefully recurrent time consistently roots Stay More in Native American culture, Harington also perpetuates numerous colonialist motifs in his treatment of the earliest human inhabitants of this continent. In fact, one could argue that Harington's work displaces some of the horrors of this country's treatment of blacks into his inextricably contradictory treatment of Native Americans. From the complicated "noble savage" portrait he draws of Fanshaw in The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks to Clifford Stone's attempts to imitate the cliff-dwellers in Farther Along to the eponymous heroine's composition of a nonfiction book about the Osage nation in Ekaterina to the selectively defiant Osage millionaire Juliana Heartstays in Thirteen Albatrosses, or Falling Off the Mountain, Harington could never add a chapter to the Stay More saga without, in some way or other, both honoring the native inhabitants and, yet, affixing them with some of the racist tropes so deeply embedded in U. S. traditions.
"Sage & Osage: Donald Harington and the Long History of the Ozarks" adapts some ideas from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination to illuminate Harington's tellingly complicated treatment of Native Americans. In short, the Faulkner of the Ozarks seems to have his colonialism and yet to undermine it too, especially to assert and fulfill his tragicomedic vision of incorrigible sociability as the antidote to inescapable human loneliness, the endless quest for a loving other that unifies all of his work.
Brian Walter, PhD, is Professor of English and Director of Convocations at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. His book The Guestroom Novelist: A Donald Harington Miscellany is expected in Spring 2019 from the University of Arkansas Press, which also distributes his two feature documentaries, Stay More: The World of Donald Harington (2013) and Farther Along: The World of Donald Harington, Pt. 2 (2015), which have screened at film and literary festivals. His work has also appeared in (among others) Boulevard, The Southern Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly and CineAction. His areas of scholarly interest include modern English and American literature, the novel, film and literature, children's film and literature and the Holocaust. He also appears as an 'old coot' interviewer with a magic camera in the final chapter of Donald Harington's final novel, Enduring. He lives a short walk from the St. Louis Zoo with his remarkably patient, loving wife and three quirky feline familiars.