Donald Heiney was born on September 7, 1921, in South Pasadena California. He grew up there and in the nearby town of San Gabriel, where his family moved when he was nine. The family on his mother's side were California pioneers, and his father came to Los Angeles shortly after the turn of the century. Heiney was educated in California schools, and originally intended to study science or engineering in college. His interests soon turned in the direction of literature, however, and he was publishing stories in local newspapers while he was still in college. Doing poorly at an engineering major, he left college after the second year and took a job as a title searcher for an escrow company. This brief career in business was ended by the outbreak of the Second World War.
In 1942 Heiney joined the merchant marine as a cadet, and sailed on a Liberty ship to New Zealand, Australia, and islands of the South Pacific. He was then assigned to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Great Neck, New York, and was awarded a Third Mate's license and a B.S. degree in 1943. He spent the rest of the war as a naval officer, taking part in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean campaigns and then going to the Pacific for the Philippines campaign and the Okinawa landing, and achieving the rank of Lieutenant J.G. After the end of the war he visited Japan briefly.
Meanwhile his fiction-writing had continued. In 1946 he enrolled in the University of Redlands, where he received his B.A. degree in 1948. In 1947 he had his first publication in a national magazine, a story in Esquire. Over the next twenty years he published over fifty stories, sketches, and articles in periodicals ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to popular magazines and literary quarterlies. Most of these stories appeared under the pseudonym MacDonald Harris. One of his stories during this period was reprinted in Prize Short Stories (The O. Henry Collection) and another in The Best American Short Stories.
After the University of Redlands, Heiney went on to graduate work in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, where he received an M.A. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1952, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He continued at USC as a post-doctoral lecturer until 1953, teaching world literature courses and continuing to write both fiction and scholarship. He was married to the former Ann Borgman, a philosophy student and later a teacher, in 1948.
In 1953 Heiney accepted a position at the University of Utah and moved with his wife to Salt Lake City. He held this position for twelve years, rising from Lecturer to Full Professor. During this period in the fifties and early sixties, he wrote and published scholarly material in the field of comparative literature, including two university press books on Italian fiction. A number of textbooks also date from this period. The authors he dealt with included Proust, Camus, Giuseppe Berto, Melville, Bellow, and Ionesco. During his University of Utah tenure he was away for a year (1959-60) as a Fulbright Lecturer at Bologna and Venice, and another year (1962-63) on an American Council of Learned Societies grant for Research in Rome. During this period he also published translations, including, among others, work by Rilke and Italo Calvino.
At this time in his career Heiney continued to write and publish fiction under the pseudonym MacDonald Harris. His first novel, Private Demons, appeared in 1961, and was followed by 15 others from 1961 to 1993. The Balloonist, published in 1976 in the United States and in 1977 in Britain, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977, and appeared in American and British paperbacks in addition to being translated into six foreign languages. Several novels of this period were book club selections, and one, Screenplay, had a film rights sale. His last novel, A Portrait of My Desire, was published in 1993. He also published a non-fiction book on long-distance navigators, They Sailed Alone.
The fiction of MacDonald Harris has been characterized by critics as an effort to break out of the limits of conventional realism and to establish fictional worlds of the imagination which may be inhabited by readers; Publisher's Weekly has described his work as "known for...metaphysics, hints of magic and the absurd, and a profound preoccupation with the duality of human nature," and the Chicago Tribune Book World called him "a gifted craftsman, a meticulous writer whose powers as a story teller are as compelling as the sexual tensions he imagines." In 1982 he received the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Sciences for the sum of his work, and in 1985 he received a Special Achievement Award from the PEN Los Angeles Center for his novel Tenth.
In 1965 Heiney joined the faculty of the University of California, Irvine, as Full Professor. Along with Hazard Adams and James B. Hall, he was instrumental in establishing the Department of English and Comparative Literature in the pioneer years of the campus, and served as first Director of the Program in Comparative Literature (1965-70). At this time he still divided his interests between scholarly writing and fiction. His family was augmented by two sons, born in 1954 (Paul) and 1964 (Conrad), respectively. With his family he traveled frequently in Europe, and 1972-73 he served as Visiting Professor at the Universite de Paris III (La Sorbonne), lecturing in American literature and also demonstrating the teaching of creative writing to the Sorbonne faculty. During this year he guided the first creative writing theses ("themes de Matrise") to be approved in the French university system.
Following his return from Paris, Heiney made the decision to devote himself exclusively to fiction writing, encouraged by the support and recognition his creative work received at UCI. In 1986 he received The Distinguished Faculty Lectureship Award, which is the highest award University of California faculty members can receive from their colleagues. Twelve of his sixteen novels, including the award-winning The Balloonist, were published in this prolific period beginning in 1973. Until his retirement from UCI in 1991, his teaching was almost exclusively in the Program in Writing, a wing of the Department of English and Comparative Literature which offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in the writing of fiction and poetry. During the early 1980's he served as Director of the Program in Writing, and a number of his students have gone on to careers as successful publishing writers. He was a member of the Authors Guild, the London PEN Centre and the PEN Los Angeles Center.
Writing was always Heiney's central interest. Over the years he developed many other interests, including for example sailing, arctic exploration, and music, which he usually managed to eventually incorporate into his writing.
Donald Heiney died unexpectedly of a heart attack in his home in Newport Beach, California, on July 24, 1993. At the time of his death he had completed The Carp Castle and was working actively on his latest novel, which would have been a departure from his previous work.
Starting in 2011 there has been a revival of interest in the fiction of MacDonald Harris. The Balloonist , Screenplay , Yukiko, and Herma have all been republished in both the United Kingdomand America. Most importantly, his final novel, The Carp Castle, was published for the first time in October 2012, by Galileo Publishers and then in the US in 2013 by by The Overlook Press. MacDonald Harris' second novel, Mortal Leap, out of print for many years, will be republished in May of 2024 as part of the Recovered Book series from Boiler House Press. In 2012, a tribute at UC Irvine gave former students and fellow writers an opportunity to offer their appreciations of his work and the effect he had on their personal and professional lives
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