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Novelist William Neal Harrison established the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) in 1966. As advisor to the university literary magazine, he actively opposed censorship and defended academic freedom. However, he is probably best known for writing the screenplay to the 1975 movie Rollerball, based upon his short story.
William Harrison was born on October 29, 1933, in Dallas, Texas, the son of Samuel Scott Harrison and Mary Etta (Cook) Harrison. He received a BA in 1955 from Texas Christian University and an MA in 1959 from Vanderbilt University. Harrison attended Iowa State University’s Creative Writing Program. He married Merlee Portland on February 2, 1957; the couple have three children.
Harrison joined the faculty at UA in 1964. He was appointed university professor in 1991 and retired as emeritus professor in 1998. In addition to his academic career, Harrison has produced a significant body of writing, including eight novels, some of which were translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese. His short stories appeared in most of the major magazines of the time, especially the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Playboy. He wrote the screenplays for Rollerball and Mountains of the Moon (1990), both based on his works of fiction. When Rollerball was filmed, the crowd scenes used the recorded sounds of fans at a Razorback basketball game.
Harrison’s best-known works are The Theologian (1965), In a Wild Sanctuary (1969), Rollerball Murder and Other Stories (1974), Africana (1977), Savannah Blue (1981), and Burton and Speke (1982). He once stated, “I write novels about characters who...come into pressure and erupt. It’s an old American tradition that goes back to Melville with his isolated characters.” Harrison’s work has been reviewed in major American publications, including the New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. He won the Porter Prize in 2011.
Harrison died on October 22, 2013.
Johnson, Paul. “Fayetteville Author Is on Hollywood Track.” Arkansas Gazette. March 11, 1990, p. 3G.
Lacy, Robert. “In Memoriam: Bill Harrison.” Sewanee Review 124 (Spring 2016): 330–332.
Lewis, Bill. “Story Written by UA Professor Creates Replacement for War.” Arkansas Gazette. September 7, 1975, p. 2A.
William Neal Harrison Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Ethel C. Simpson
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 3/15/2018
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