Curtis Harnack, Writer and President of Yaddo, Dies at 86
Published: July 18, 2013
Curtis Harnack, a writer whose novels, nonfiction works and an acclaimed memoir were inspired by his experience growing up on an Iowa farm — and his mother’s insistence that he leave one day for a new life in the city — died on July 5 at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his granddaughter Katy May Spencer. No cause was given.
Mr. Harnack’s most admired memoir was titled “We Have All Gone Away,” and he did relocate as a young man and eventually move to a city. But he produced a substantial amount of work from a different rural setting, Yaddo, a haven for writers, artists and composers in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He and his wife, the novelist and short-story writer Hortense Calisher, were guests at the retreat several times before he became its president. He held that position from 1971 to 1987.
“For many artists, Yaddo is the fulfillment of a fantasy,” Mr. Harnack said in 1988 at a fund-raising dinner for the retreat. “It’s like having a patron and being the guest of some prince. Yaddo is dedicated to helping the best possible art be produced by providing a kind of psychological shoring-up for artists.”
In a country nostalgic for its rural past, critics often praised Mr. Harnack for having a cleareyed perspective.
“The lives he recounts are bleak in the extreme, and run their course in an isolation that reveals our image of close-knit, neighborly rural life as the wishful thinking that it is,” Katha Pollitt wrote in The New York Times in 1979 in a review of Mr. Harnack’s novel “Limits of the Land.”
“Nonetheless,” she wrote, “Mr. Harnack clearly loves the prairie he depicts so unsparingly, and conveys even to the most citified reader a vision of its enduring power to hold men and women to itself.”
“We Have All Gone Away” was published in 1973 and has rarely been out of print. He wrote another memoir, “The Attic,” in 1993.
Mr. Harnack wrote novels and short stories as well as memoirs and other nonfiction, including three novels about small-town life in Iowa: “The Work of an Ancient Hand” (1960) and “Love and Be Silent” (1962), as well as “Limits of the Land.” His nonfiction includes “Persian Lions, Persian Lambs” (1965), a well-received account of the year he spent teaching American literature in Iran on a Fulbright grant.
Curtis Arthur Harnack was born on June 27, 1927, in Le Mars, Iowa, and grew up on a farm in nearby Remsen that had been worked by his extended family since his grandfather, the son of a German immigrant, first erected barns on the land in the 1880s. Mr. Harnack’s father died when Curtis was a young boy, so he moved with his mother and three brothers onto the parcel run by his mother’s sister and her husband, his Uncle Jack.
Mr. Harnack received a bachelor’s degree in English from Grinnell College in Iowa and a master’s degree from Columbia. He taught English from 1952 to 1956 at Grinnell and throughout the 1960s at Sarah Lawrence College, where he was a founder of the American Studies department. He also taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
A lifelong dance enthusiast, he was president of the School of American Ballet in Manhattan from 1992 to 1997. Mr. Harnack and Ms. Calisher married in 1959, after having each been married once before. Ms. Calisher died in 2009. Among her best-known novels is “False Entry,” from 1961, and “In the Palace of the Movie King,” from 1993.
In addition to his granddaughter Ms. Spencer, Mr. Harnack is survived by his stepson, Peter Heffelfinger; two other grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Mr. Harnack’s mother, Caroline, who figured prominently in his writing, both for her commitment to raising her sons and for urging them to move away from the farm, died in a psychiatric ward not long after she turned 50. His Uncle Jack died in 1982. The farm, on which he raised corn and soybeans, remains in the family, including 80 acres that Mr. Harnack preserved.
“Many of us fled relatives and hometowns because life couldn’t be accepted in a pre-decided manner but had to be discovered,” Mr. Harnack wrote in The Times after attending his uncle’s funeral in 1982. “However, a time such as this may come when one is suddenly thrown back to origins, with witnesses all around saying: We know who you are, and you know who we are; let us examine, accept, and even embrace this moment before it too passes.”