Sources returnpage

Harrington, Alan

Category: Writer

 

Alan Harrington was an American author who took LSD with Timothy Leary, read poetry with Allen Ginsberg and later taught at the University of Arizona.  He is most well known for his books ”The Immortalist” (1969) and ”Psychopaths . . .” (1972).  Born in Newton, Mass., Mr. Harrington graduated from Harvard University and worked for a short time in advertising for Standard Oil in New Jersey – a lifestyle he skewered in his 1959 book, ”Life in the Crystal Palace.”

In 1990, he began to teach an undergraduate class in non-fiction at UA, passing on what he had learned about life and writing to students.  He had ”enormous generosity of spirit with students,” recalled Richard Shelton, poet and fellow UA teacher.

He died in 1997.

 

Alan was a firm believer in the power of the mind over the body, and I'll say this: I never knew him to suffer a cold. I sometimes wondered if he learned a few illness-eluding tricks from his stepfather, the Tohono O'odham shaman Juan Xavier, who reputedly could change himself into owl or wolf at will, and who also, Alan told me, didn't believe in getting sick. Alan's attraction to such shedding-the-body techniques as the use of psychoactive drugs and cryogenics--both of which led to a famous, if perhaps overstated, association with Timothy Leary--may well have owed to mysterious lessons learned close to home.

 

Illness eventually caught up with Alan, but not until he had reached the age of 79. It came in the form of a leukemia diagnosed early in April, and it came fast; Alan died just six weeks later, on May 23. I visited him as he lay ill, drifting into and out of consciousness. Although others comment on his timid approach to modern life, which is certainly a true enough characterization, I thought as I watched him sleep that he faced his impending death gracefully and even bravely, calling for ice cream, asking after the well-being of his friends, and thanking those whom he loved for their presence in his life. He may have been frightened, but he went gently and nobly all the same.

 

I'm not sure how literary history will remember Alan Harrington. Almost all of his books are out of print, and when he died he was something of a well-kept secret, recalled most often for having been the character Hal Hingham whom Jack Kerouac's and Neal Cassady's alter egos visit under "the snowy Catalinas" in the later pages of On the Road. He was not exactly of the Beat Generation, although he was certainly allied with the likes of Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg and Huncke, and, yes, Leary. They are all gone now, some very recently. Gone, too, is Alan Harrington's friend William Eastlake, the quiet bard of Bisbee, also 79, who died just a week after Alan.

 

Vance Bourjaily was right to point out how good Alan Harrington was as a writer: he succeeded remarkably as a picaresque novelist (in The Revelations of Dr. Modesto), as a social critic (in Life in the Crystal Palace), as a futurist (in The Immortalist), and as an essayist-journalist for magazines like Harper's. For all that, for being a fine writer and a much-respected teacher of the craft, he deserves to be remembered. He also deserves to be remembered as a good man, and as a good friend to many here in Tucson and elsewhere.

Alan's ashes are buried not far from here, on a gentle hillside outside Oracle. He did not escape death as he had so passionately hoped, but he ended well, I think: facing the northern slopes of the Santa Catalina Mountains under spreading mesquite trees, a granite cairn to mark his resting place. His books are a memorial, too, that deserve reading and rereading. He will be missed. But they will endure.

--Gregory McNamee

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.