Requiem for a Novelist

The novelist Kent Haruf.

The novelist Kent Haruf.

One of the greatest rewards of my job as a literary manuscripts curator is meeting and becoming friends with the authors whose papers I collect, and one of the sweetest of these friendships has been with the American novelist Kent Haruf.

Kent passed away peacefully at his home in Salida, Colorado, on Nov. 30, 2014, at the age of 71. He is best known for his novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, which take place in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. According to his British publisher, Pan Macmillan, he created “beautifully restrained, profoundly felt novels” that reflect “a man of integrity, honesty and deep thoughtfulness.”

His fiction tells uncomplicated stories of small-town life. Much like the plainsong whose unadorned musical style suggested the title of his breakthrough novel, these stories build cumulative force, conveying profound truths in a seemingly simple, unadorned prose style that gradually culminates in a richly conceived melody of revelation.

In honing his craft, Kent looked to major writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, whose structure for Winesburg, Ohio inspired him to adopt shifting points of view to tell the stories in Plainsong.

Some of Kent Haruf’s notes for his novel Plainsong, ca. 1998-1999, in the collection of the Huntington Library.

Some of Kent Haruf’s notes for his novel Plainsong, ca. 1998-1999, in the collection of the Huntington Library.

Fellow authors and several literary prize committees have recognized Kent’s achievement. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote earlier this year in The Guardian that Haruf’s “courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love—the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection—are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.” His work has received numerous honors, including the following: Plainsong (1999) was a finalist for the National Book Award, The New Yorker Book Award, and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; his most recent novel, Benediction (2013), was short-listed for the Folio Prize.

The Huntington began acquiring Kent’s papers in 2008, and the collection has become one of the most important of our modern literary archives. Among other material, it contains drafts of the novels and stories, as well as correspondence, including a wonderful series of letters from the novelist John Irving, a great admirer of Kent’s work.

Kent has been taken from us before we are ready, and for me, along with his family and his many friends, the personal loss is deep. Fortunately we will always have the sublime pleasure of savoring his stories and graceful prose. We are fortunate that his new novel, Our Souls at Night, just written this past summer, will be published in the spring of 2015.

Closer at hand, a stage adaptation of Benediction will appear at the Denver Center for Performing Arts this winter. The playwright Eric Schmiedl also adapted Plainsong and Eventide in recent years, and Kent had looked forward to seeing the new play by a man whose work he greatly admired. I will be on hand for opening night, when I will join Kent’s family and friends for what will be a bittersweet time to enjoy the play, celebrate Kent’s life and works, and honor his memory. I will sorely miss him, but I will always carry him in my heart.

Related content on Verso:
“An Extraordinary Novel of Ordinary Lives” (March 12, 2013)

Sara S. “Sue” Hodson is curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington.

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