The Death and Life of Elodia Harwinton

In hind­sight, they should have seen it com­ing. Elo­dia Har­win­ton, in her life­time, was not a recluse; she was a house­wife, sub­sti­tute teacher, and musi­cian, and just a small author, her books appeal­ing to a few thou­sand peo­ple. “I’m per­fect­ly hap­py with what I have,” she wrote to a friend in 1964, when she was fifty-nine years old. “I’m delight­ed to have been able to write, and to have writ­ten, and to have had any read­ers at all. If my books die with me, or even before me, it will be no great loss.”

Har­win­ton died in 1978. But her books didn’t. Her small audi­ence turned out to be enthu­si­as­tic and self-repli­cat­ing; those few thou­sand books print­ed while she was alive cir­cu­lat­ed and re-cir­cu­lat­ed until there was a steady mur­mur about her work in a bright cor­ner of the larg­er cul­ture, a sense that her books had to be saved from obliv­ion. A gen­er­a­tion after her death, Elo­dia Harwinton’s work under­went a small redis­cov­ery, first among oth­er writ­ers, artists, and musi­cians, and then among aca­d­e­mics. This led to reprint­ings of her works — first, just The Code of the Land, her sec­ond-to-last nov­el (still con­sid­ered her mas­ter­piece), but in time, all of them, from her first, slim novel­la, The Lep­er Colony, to her final, flawed, and unfin­ished nov­el, Hal­lelu­jah. With­in ten years, Har­win­ton had a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the great satirists of her era, a woman who, through her wit and insight, elu­ci­dat­ed more of the polit­i­cal and social dynam­ics of her time than many more well-known nov­el­ists, who, in aca­d­e­m­ic cir­cles, were already some­what in decline. As Harwinton’s star rose, the con­sen­sus sharp­ened around her, until she was not only a satirist, but an iro­nist. Every sen­tence could be read two ways, schol­ars found. Every turn was laced with mul­ti­ple mean­ings. The first aca­d­e­mics to parse the irony of her work achieved dozens of pub­li­ca­tions. They received tenure and were appoint­ed to dis­tin­guished chairs; one became an edi­tor of a book series for a promi­nent press. Elo­dia Harwinton’s work made the careers of at least a dozen pro­fes­sors.

That was when the edi­tor of the book series com­mis­sioned a biog­ra­phy of Elo­dia Har­win­ton. It wasn’t chal­leng­ing. Harwinton’s hus­band, con­vinced of her genius, had saved every­thing he could. Along with the hand­writ­ten first drafts of her nov­els and a cou­ple note­books filled with sketch­es for ideas to go into them, he’d kept post­cards that she’d sent to him when he’d been away on long busi­ness trips. Her chil­dren had con­vinced their cousins to part with the let­ters she had sent to their par­ents. An enter­pris­ing daugh­ter tracked down a ream of cor­re­spon­dence with friends, enough to fill a medi­um-sized card­board box.

It turned out that there wasn’t much of a sto­ry there. Elo­dia Har­win­ton worked, raised her kids, played music, wrote books, and died. That was all there was to it. She was a vibrant let­ter writer — the sar­casm that made her famous was effort­less for her — but there was no sur­pris­ing con­tent in the let­ters. There were no child­hood trau­mas, no affairs, no brush­es with death; no real heart­break, even, beyond the deaths of her par­ents, which, as the open­ing pas­sages to The Lep­er Colony made plain, were the impe­tus to her begin­ning to write in the first place, so know­ing the facts of the author’s life added no insight in this regard. Her biog­ra­phy checked in at 153 pages. She was, in sum, a very straight­for­ward per­son.

Which is where the first warn­ing bell should have gone off for the acad­e­my. But the full impor­tance wasn’t obvi­ous until anoth­er schol­ar, search­ing for more in Harwinton’s life than the pub­lished biog­ra­phy offered, paid a vis­it to the col­lec­tion of her notes, nes­tled in an archive at a uni­ver­si­ty library in Ohio. Among the note­books was a pad of sheet music, on which were writ­ten a few sim­ple com­po­si­tions, of no more than a few dozen mea­sures {Lis­ten to Harwinton’s piece}. What made them impor­tant was the para­graph, writ­ten in Harwinton’s clear, unmis­tak­able hand, below them:

I despise irony and strive to nev­er let it enter my work. Sar­casm, yes; irony, no. It is my fail­ing as a writer that I have not been able to employ the for­mer with­out exclud­ing the lat­ter. Music is so much clear­er in this regard. If it were pos­si­ble to do so, I would force the read­er to lis­ten to overt­ly sen­ti­men­tal music, like this lit­tle dit­ty above, to make my inten­tion more plain. But I can­not, and I sup­pose, there­fore, that I will have to suf­fer the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of my work in silence.

It was unclear who the note was intend­ed for; per­haps, the schol­ar guessed, it was for her edi­tor. The schol­ar pub­lished this note in an even-hand­ed arti­cle about the many things it could mean for Har­win­ton schol­ar­ship, con­clud­ing that, apart from open­ing up new ways of read­ing Harwinton’s work, it didn’t mat­ter very much. “Per­haps she changed her mind five min­utes lat­er,” she wrote, “and that is why the note was nev­er sent.”

The schol­ar was right, in that no Har­win­ton schol­ars lost their jobs or had their schol­ar­ship dis­cred­it­ed. Even the biog­ra­ph­er got a pass when he explained that he had seen the note, but felt it was too out of con­text to include in his book. It all came out instead in email exchanges, in gos­sip, in con­ver­sa­tions in hotel bars at aca­d­e­m­ic con­fer­ences after every­one had a lit­tle too much to drink.

Her books are still iron­ic, even if she isn’t,” a pro­fes­sor said once, his fourth beer in his hand. “And she can’t argue with us now, can she?” Every­one with­in earshot just stared. They were smart enough to see all the ugly impli­ca­tions, to feel them all crash­ing down around them at once. Smart enough, too, not to say any­thing about them, not there, not then. Some­one laughed; the con­fer­ence went on. The new read­ings of Har­win­ton, as an earnest satirist, will come in time. But they are still a gen­er­a­tion away.

 

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Bri­an Fran­cis Slat­tery is an edi­tor, writer, and musi­cian. He is the author of the nov­els, Lost Every­thing (win­ner of the 2013 Philip K. Dick award), Lib­er­a­tion: Being the Adven­tures of the Slick Six After the Col­lapse of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca, and Space­man Blues: A Love Song. His eth­no­mu­si­co­log­i­cal stud­ies were most recent­ly sup­port­ed by a grant from the Lester D. Marl­bor­ough Foun­da­tion for Archival Spelunk­ing and Exca­va­tion.