Monday, July 22, 2013

Curtis Harnack, writer with "cleareyed perspective" on the rural, dies at 86

Curtis Harnack, a writer whose name I'd never heard until I saw his obituary this week-end, died a few weeks ago.  His obit in the New York Times caught my eye because of several references to rurality, including this paragraph, which followed a mention of Harnick's upbringing on a farm in Iowa:
In a country nostalgic for its rural past, critics often praised Mr. Harnack for having a cleareyed perspective. 
By way of illustration, Katha Pollitt wrote in a 1979 review of Harnick's novel, Limits of the Land:
The lives he recounts are bleak in the extreme, and run their course in an isolation that reveals our image of close-knit, neighborly rural life as the wishful thinking that it is.  
Nonetheless, Mr. Harnack clearly loves the prairie he depicts so unsparingly, and conveys even to the most citified reader a vision of its enduring power to hold men and women to itself.
The obituary author, William Yardley, observes:
Mr. Harnack’s most admired memoir was titled “We Have All Gone Away,” and he did relocate as a young man and eventually move to a city. But he produced a substantial amount of work from a different rural setting, Yaddo, a haven for writers, artists and composers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.  
Harnack was president of the retreat from 1971 'til 1987.   

I found this final paragraph of the obituary, a quote from Harnick about attending his Uncle Jack's funeral in 1982, especially moving and evocative of rural community, with its lack of anonymity and attachment to place:
Many of us fled relatives and hometowns because life couldn’t be accepted in a pre-decided manner but had to be discovered.  However, a time such as this may come when one is suddenly thrown back to origins, with witnesses all around saying: We know who you are, and you know who we are; let us examine, accept, and even embrace this moment before it too passes.
Harnick's uncle Jack helped raise Harnick and his two brothers after the boys' father died. The farm on which the uncle "raised corn and soybeans remains in the family, including 80 acres that Mr. Harnack preserved."  Harnick's mother died at the age of 50, but she figured prominently in his work.  Interestingly, she had encouraged her sons to leave the farm and make their lives in the city.

Oh, and just let me say I felt a little less bad about not having heard of him after I went to borrow one of his books from the Sacramento Public Library.  It doesn't have any of them!  

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