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Book Review: Evans Harrington's Biography "Living in Mississippi," By Robert Hamblin

Living In Mississippi Book Cover (Left). Author Robert Hamblin (Right)

Here is Evans Harrington, the handsome, courtly, distinguished Faulkner scholar, reporting on the worst night in the history of the University of Mississippi:
“Things started whizzing by my head and hitting that car, and I realized people were throwing rocks and concrete at it, and I hit the ground as quick as I could because I was scared I would be hit, and watched that crowd of marshals. . . .   Then General Walker stood up on the Confederate statute and talked crazy[,] because he said things like ‘You have been betrayed!’”

It was the night of the riot, September 30, 1962.  Harrington was on campus to watch the students rush the Lyceum, to watch the marshals fire tear gas, to rescue a minister friend who had futilely tried to discourage violence, to see the mob set cars afire and hear gunshots.  He had been teaching at the University of Mississippi for seven years, and he would teach there for thirty-two years more.   He saw the university at its nadir, and he witnessed and soldiered on.
“Living in Mississippi,” a biography by Robert Hamblin, a scholar of Southern literature, succinctly outlines Harrington’s hard work and his achievements.  “Unlike many Mississippi liberals and moderates of his day, white as well as black,” Hamblin writes, “Harrington did not leave the state for a freer environment or better opportunities elsewhere . . . .   Except for his military service, he lived in Mississippi his entire life, and he made a difference. “
If Ole Miss has prospered in recent decades, if life and art in the town of Oxford have flowered more brightly, some of the credit – and an amount much more than inconsiderable – is due to Evans Harrington.  
Hamblin’s first chapter, “The Life,” is a straightforward biography, although most episodes have a touch of Faulkner.  Evan Harrington’s father was a Baptist preacher, called to a succession of churches across southern Mississippi, and eventually a chaplain at Parchman prison farm.  Harrington first distinguished himself as a soloist in the church choir.  At Mississippi College, which he attended on the GI Bill, Harrington began writing.  Throughout the 1950’s, while teaching high school, he wrote short stories, placing some with the Saturday Evening Post and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  In 1956, he published his first novel, The Prisoners.

The Prisoners, which centers on Parchman, drew attention for its existential stance.  For money, in these early years, Harrington drew on three paperback novels issued by Dell Publishing – pseudonymously, under the name of Gilbert Terrell.   They had oblique, one-word, flirtatious titles:  Willa, Missy, and Lily.   They had suggestive blurbs on their back covers:  “Beautiful, defiant, taunting, Lily played the game of love with every man who caught her fancy.”  They sold for thirty-five cents to sixty cents each, and they sold like wildfire  (Willa sold 137,000 copies in a few weeks).
Harrington kept secret his career as Gilbert Terrell. (He showed one friend his book contract only after he had blacked out the title of the novel).  Fellow faculty members knew that he was writing paperbacks, heard his royalties equaled his salary, could learn nothing more, and concluded that Harrington must be writing pornography.
On this, Hamblin sets the record straight.  Harrington’s paperbacks were entertainments, boiling over with fistfights, shootings, nymphomania, and car wrecks – and, in Willa, a college football team battling its way to the Sugar Bowl.  They have the shock value of pulp fiction, but the writing is better.  They are set in Southern college towns, not far from the godforsaken country of other sensational literature:  the novels of Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner, and the young Cormac McCarthy.
covers of two of the sensational paperbacks he wrote under the name of Gilbert Terrell, “Willa” and “Missy”

In 1974, with Ann Abadie, Harrington inaugurated the first “Faulkner and Yoknapawpha” conference.  In 1980, as head of the English department, he hired Willie Morris as the University of Mississippi’s first writer-in-residence; no hiring decision has ever unfolded more lasting benefit to the college, the town, or the state.  He brought Ellen Douglas to the campus, and, more controversially, Barry Hannah.  Harrington himself was a fine teacher, firm but courteous in running classes and critiquing student work (as generations of students, the present writer included, can attest).

Harrington’s letters, which Hamblin quotes, are perceptive and funny.  He could do a devilish parody of Faulkner, and on Stark Young he could be both considerate and savage:
“GAWD, I’m finishing So Red The Rose, and at last most of Young’s favorite characters are being killed by the Yankees, so I’m enjoying it at least a little . . . .  No work I’ve ever read has made me understand Northerners’ hatred of Southern aristocrats as well as his two or three loving portraits of those aristocrats.”
Harrington’s gift to Southern literature was service, not novels, yet he wrote more than he published.  His comments on Mississippi history and literature are remarkable and quotable.  “Living in Mississippi” makes clear how tirelessly Harrington served, surveys how much he wrote, and raises hope that he will be quoted much in years to come.  

Allen Boyer is Book Editor for HottyToddy.com.  He was privileged to attend the first Faulkner and Yoknapatwpha Conference and to have Evans Harrington for a creative-writing teacher.  During the last week of July, he will be signing his fifth book, “Rocky Boyer’s War,” at Square Books, TurnRow Book Company, and Lemuria Book Store.

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