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.