Kent Haruf (1943–2014) was a novelist best known for Plainsong (1999). Set in the fictional town of Holt in northeast Colorado, Plainsong and Haruf’s other novels examine the lives of ordinary people on the high plains. Often praised for his unadorned style and humane outlook, Haruf is generally regarded as one of the great American novelists of his time.
Alan Kent Haruf was born in Pueblo on February 24, 1943, as the third of Eleanor and Louis Haruf’s four children. His father was a Methodist minister, and the family moved often. For the first twelve years of his life, Haruf’s family moved between the northeast Colorado towns of Wray, Holyoke, and Yuma. Haruf then spent his teens in Cañon City, where he attended high school.
In the early 1960s, Haruf left Colorado to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. Initially intending to study biology, he changed course when he read William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. “My life and my intentions were changed forever,” he later wrote. “I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading great writing and thinking about it.” The influence of Hemingway’s spare prose and Faulkner’s sense of place is evident in Haruf’s novels.
After graduating in 1965 with a degree in English, Haruf spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English to children in a small town in central Turkey. There he started to write short stories.
Upon his return to the United States, Haruf married his girlfriend, Virginia Koon. He also started a graduate program in English at the University of Kansas, but quit in his second semester. No longer shielded by a student deferment, he was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He obtained conscientious objector status and performed two years of alternative service in a rehabilitation hospital near Denver and an orphanage in Helena, Montana, where he and Virginia had their first daughter.
Haruf continued to write stories and send them to magazines, but they were all rejected. Undeterred, he applied to the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa and moved his family there even before he received a response. He was accepted—largely, he thought, because he had showed up in person to say he had moved to town—and received his MFA in 1973. It was at Iowa that Haruf began to set his stories in the fictional town of Holt, a composite of the northeast Colorado towns where he had grown up. “That was the part of the world that I knew best and that I cared about,” he later explained about his choice of setting. “I have a long-range, long-time, long-lived sense of place and a sense of home there.”
The novel that Haruf completed for his master’s degree was rejected by publishers, the start of a long decade of struggles. During these years, he taught high school English—first in Madison, Wisconsin, where the couple had two more daughters, and then in eastern Colorado. He also worked as a chicken farmer, construction worker, and railroad laborer to support his growing family. He wrote when he could during summers off from teaching.
In 1984, at age forty-one, Haruf finally sold his first short story to the literary magazine Puerto del Sol and also published his first novel, The Tie That Binds, about a woman who sacrifices herself to care for her family. Although it did not attract many readers, his first novel received critical praise and won both a PEN/Hemingway Foundation citation for first fiction and a Whiting Foundation Award.
The novel also helped Haruf get a teaching position at his alma mater, Nebraska Wesleyan, which provided him with a more stable working situation and more time to write. His second novel, Where You Once Belonged, about a former high school football star, was published in 1990. Like Haruf’s first book, this one received high praise—the Los Angeles Times called it “stirring and remarkable”—but did not sell well.
In the early 1990s, Haruf’s life entered a period of change. He moved from Nebraska Wesleyan to Southern Illinois University–Carbondale in 1991. Meanwhile, as his first marriage ended in divorce, he reconnected with a childhood friend, Cathy Dempsey, at their thirtieth high school reunion in Cañon City. They married in 1995.
For six years, Haruf worked on a new novel set in Holt. He started using a new writing method of pulling a wool cap over his eyes while typing to help him enter Holt in his mind and force him to get a full first draft of a scene before revising anything. The result, Plainsong (1999), which focuses on two schoolteachers, a pregnant teenager, and the two old farmer brothers who take her in, is generally considered the finest novel of his career. Lauded as “a moving look at our capacity for both pointless cruelty and simple decency,” it was a finalist for the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. It was also Haruf’s first best seller, enabling him to retire from teaching and move to the Salida area with his wife in 2001.
In the early 2000s, Haruf continued the story he started in Plainsong. A sequel, Eventide (2004), follows the old farmer brothers from the earlier book after the pregnant teenager they cared for has left with her baby. It was another bestseller, and many publications, including the Rocky Mountain News, named it one of the best books of the year. It also won the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction. Haruf completed his Plainsong trilogy with Benediction (2013), which deals with the arrival of a new, progressive minister in Holt and the death of a somewhat hard-edged hardware-store owner.
As Haruf’s work became more popular, it also started to be adapted into other formats. A television movie of Plainsong aired in 2004; Haruf disliked it. He was much more pleased with the Denver Center Theatre Company’s staged versions of Plainsong (2008), Eventide (2010), and Benediction (2015), the last of which premiered after his death. He also began to receive awards celebrating his full body of work. In 2006 he was awarded the Dos Passos Prize for underrecognized writers in the middle of their careers. In 2012 he received the Center of the American West’s Wallace Stegner Award for his contribution to the cultural identity of the West.
In early 2014, Haruf received a diagnosis of interstitial lung disease, for which there is no cure. Knowing that his time was limited, he started working on a new novel in May and finished a first draft just six weeks later—remarkably fast for a writer who usually spent closer to six years on a novel. He said that the book, which centers on a relationship between two older people in Holt, was basically about him and his wife. “In many ways,” he wrote, “it gave me an added reason to stay alive.” He died on November 30, soon after finishing revisions. Our Souls at Night was published posthumously in 2015. A movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda was filmed in Florence and Old Colorado City, and released in 2017.
Despite his late success and relatively small body of work, Haruf gained a reputation as one of the most powerful American writers of his generation. Shortly before his death, novelist and critic Ursula K. Le Guin declared him “a stunningly original writer” whose works “are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction.” New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s assessment of Eventide could apply to his work as a whole: “Mr. Haruf makes us care about these plainspoken small-town folks without ever resorting to sentimentality or cliches.”
In 2015 his widow, Cathy Haruf, helped establish the Kent Haruf Scholarship for high school writers in Chaffee and Fremont Counties. The biannual Kent Haruf Literary Celebration in Salida serves as a fundraiser for the scholarship. Haruf’s papers are archived at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.