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A Large & Startling Figure

The Harry Crews Online Bibliography


Brief Biography

By Damon Sauve


Harry Eugene Crews was born on June 7, 1935, in Bacon County, Georgia, to Ray and Myrtice, who worked a desperate and indigent living farming in dirt-poor southern Georgia. Ray died at 35 leaving a farm and a family Myrtice was incapable of sustaining by herself. She remarried shortly after, although that marriage carried hardship of its own. Crews wrote:

My daddy died of a heart attack when I was 21 months old and my brother was 5. Her second marriage was to a man who might have been a good husband had he not been a brutal drunk. ("Mama Pulled the Load Alone" 55) [1]

Young as he was when his mother remarried, Crews grew up calling and thinking of him as his daddy, however belligerent and hostile that home life became.

Crews suffered the first of two debilitating illnesses in 1940 at the age of 5. The first was a fever accompanied by a painful muscle contraction which caused the muscles in his legs to seize, drawing his heels up against the backs of his legs, forcing him to lie in bed for six weeks until the cramps in his legs subsided and he could be carried around the farm. Gradually, Crews's legs straightened enough so he could haul himself along a fence, working and strengthening the atrophied muscles. Later in life, Crews would ascribe the illness as a physiological manifestation of the psychological stress induced by the tumultuous home life.

It was not long after Crews was "well and whole again" (A Childhood 107) that he was strong enough to participate in games with his brother and cousins. In A Childhood, his autobiography, Crews recounts one game called "crack the whip" and one day in particular, told with the bright intensity of one purging, by fire, a memory. On that day, Myrtice had a boiler pot of water set at ground level in which pigs were momentarily dipped to blanch the hair from their skins. When the chain of linked hands was suddenly and forcefully let loose, Crews was pitched into the boiling pot of water, up to his neck. Pulled from the pot and set beside it, the children and on lookers stared at him. Crews wrote:

I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground. I could see my fingernails lying in the little puddle my flesh made on the ground in front of me. (A Childhood 113)

It would take several bed-ridden months for Crews to heal, for his skin to regrow.

Used to moving from one hopeless plot to the next barren patch of land, Myrtice took her family one night away from her husband who had taken to severe drinking and to indiscriminate blasting of his shotgun in the house at all hours. They headed south to Jacksonville, Florida, a burgeoning industrial town, where Crews spent his adolescent years, reading and writing what he could.

In 1953, with his brother already fighting in Korea, Crews, only 17, volunteered with the Marines:

Being good, southern, ignorant country boys, we did the good, southern, ignorant country thing: we volunteered as quickly as possible, anxious as we were to go and spill our blood in the good, southern, ignorant country way. (Introduction, Classic Crews 12)

There were other factors motivating Crews to enlist. In an interview with Rodney Elrod, Crews said that it was expected of him as a young man to move out and find his own way. "And I wanted to go. Going in the Marine Corps was the only way I knew to get out, to leave the state" (70). Joining the service brought him into contact with the larger world, one he had read about in the few books he had managed to obtain. "I'd been so damn isolated and knew it simply because I'd gone to some trouble to get books. I knew the world was out there, and I wanted to see it" (Elrod 70). It was during his three years of enlistment that Crews began reading, broadly and comprehensively, including all the novels by Mickey Spillane and Graham Greene: [2]

As far back as I could remember, I had longed and lusted for an unlimited supply of books . . . When I got to my first duty station and walked into the base library, it was like throwing a starving man a turkey. I did my time in the Corps with a book always at hand. (Introduction, Classic Crews 12).

Discharged from the Marines, Crews returned to Bacon County to visit his family. In A Childhood, Crews wrote that in July of 1956 he stood at the edge of a tobacco field, having worked with his four cousins since sun-up, cursing the Georgia summer heat. He wrote, "I stood there feeling how much I had left this place and these people, and at the same time knowing that it would be forever impossible to leave them completely." (A Childhood 171)

Some months later, Crews enrolled at the University of Florida:

With the G.I. Bill I went to the University, not because anyone there might teach me to write fiction, but because I thought someone there might teach me how to make a living while I taught myself how to write fiction. At the end of two years, however, choking and gasping from Truth and Beauty, I gave up on school for a Triumph motorcycle. (Classic Crews 12)

Crews's road trip lasted 18 months. The essay "The Violence that Finds Us" documents parts of the trip, as does the Introduction to Classic Crews. During the road trip, Crews worked as a bartender, a short order cook, [3] and a caller at a carnival sideshow attraction (Introduction, Classic Crews 13). [4] He was jailed in a small town in Wyoming and "beaten in a fair fight by a one-legged Blackfoot Indian" in Montana (Introduction, Classic Crews 14). [5]

Interviewing Crews in 1974, Al Burt noted that "the burden of writing ambitions brought him back [to the University of Florida] in 1958" (1974). About his return to higher education, Crews wrote:

But at least I still had the good government tit to suck on. If I carried a full load of courses and maintained a C average, I got three hots and a cot and more time than I needed to read and continue my efforts to learn to write. (Introduction, Classic Crews 14) [6]

Around this time, Crews took his first creative writing class with Andrew Lytle. Lytle was the author of The Velvet Horn, twice-editor of The Sewanee Review, teacher to Flannery O'Connor and Madison Jones, and a founder of the Agrarians, the socio-literary movement which attempted to hedge the insidious advancement of industrial culture in the South. [7] A Rolling Stone article highlights one of Crews's early experiences with the taskmaster Lytle:

When Crews handed him one of his early efforts, his cantankerous teacher—with barely a look at the story's first paragraph—flung it back at him. "Burn it, son," he said. "Fire's a great refiner." (Hedegaard 1982) [8]

Prior to leaving Gainesville for the road, Crews had met Sally Ellis, a sophomore at the university, and they were married on January 24, 1960 (Hargraves ix). Their first child, Patrick Scott, was born on September 4, 1960 ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 173). When Crews graduated from the university, the Crews family moved upstate to Jacksonville, where he taught a year of Junior High English (Burt 1974). [9]

Crews returned to Gainesville, where he entered the master's program for English Education. Absorbed by graduate studies and perpetually dedicated to the writer's muse, Crews admitted that, as a result, his family suffered:

I try to write when I'm rested, and do everything else when I'm tired. For instance, when I was married I tried to be a husband when I was tired. I got up in the morning and exhausted myself at writing, and I took care of being a husband, I took care of whatever job I had to have to feed my family while I was trying to teach myself to be a writer. (Bonetti 1983)

During graduate school, they were divorced, and Sally moved out of Florida ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 176).

Crews graduated, and, denied entrance on the basis of his expressed performance as a writer to the graduate program for Creative Writing at the University of Florida, he ventured south to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he taught English at Broward Community College. Finding himself settled in South Florida, Crews persuaded Sally, "out of love and longing for my son," to join him there and remarry ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 176). Their second child, Byron Jason, was born August 24, 1963 ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 174).

Shortly after their reconciliation, in July of 1964, Patrick Scott drowned in a neighbor's swimming pool ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 173). Crews was devastated by Patrick's death, burdened by guilt he attributed to inattention, both to the boy and to his family, and to preoccupation with learning to write. In "Fathers, Sons, Blood," an essay which deeply excavates his feelings, Crews wrote:

Being low-rent, though, doesn't keep guilt from being as real as an open wound. But in my case, it got worse, much worse. Part of me insisted that I had brought him to the place of death. (Classic Crews 175)

Eventually, Crews and Sally were divorced a second time:

I'm not interested in assigning blame about who was at fault in the collapse of our marriage, but I do know that I was obsessed to the point of desperation with becoming a writer and, further, I lived with the conviction that I had gotten a late start toward that difficult goal. ("Fathers, Sons, Blood" Classic Crews 176)

Crews realized, regretfully, that learning to write had cost him his family. It was equally painful, however, to realize what little reward—at what great cost—Crews had earned from his efforts. In an interview in 1974, Sterling Watson asked Crews about what it was like "between the time [he] began to write and the time [he] began to publish":

I used to dream when I was as old as twenty-five or twenty-six that one of my novels (of course I'd written four novels by that time which had been rejected), I used to dream while I was asleep this tremendous joy and celebration and the rest of it and then wake up literally humiliated, crushed, depressed, stricken that I was still where I was. (71)

In 1968, The Gospel Singer was published. Once again, Crews returned to Gainesville and the University of Florida, not as student of creative writing, but faculty, in the English department. 10

Reflecting on his marriage and family life, Crews said in interview with Rodney Elrod:

I came to peace with myself a long time ago about that and realized that a happy marriage and home and children and grandchildren and all the rest, that all was not meant for me. (66)

What was meant for Crews was to continue writing:

The bottom line on this for me is—you do whatever you have to do to get to where you need to go. You dig that? You do whatever you have to do to get where you need to go . . . the world doesn't want you to do anything. The world wants you to work the lawn or walk the dog or paint the house—anything but write, just so you bleed whatever energy you have away from writing, and if you're not careful that's exactly what you're going to end up doing. (Walsh 95)

Since The Gospel Singer, Crews has published continuously, and except for a spell of about 10 years between A Feast of Snakes and All We Need of Hell, a new novel has appeared nearly every year—as of 1995, The Mulching of America marks his thirteenth novel.

Crews has also written extensively for magazines, from stories and essays in Sport and Playboy, to a column at Esquire called "Grits," which ran uninterrupted for fourteen months. His non-fiction has been collected into two books, Blood and Grits (1979) and Florida Frenzy (1982), and as well in two limited editions, 2 by Crews (1984) and Madonna at Ringside (1991), from Lord John Press.

The lull in published novels during the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to writing non-fiction, screenplays of his novels as well as others', and an autobiography, much of which stemmed from, or despite, his work at Esquire (Nuwer 1988).

In 1978, Crews published A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. A Childhood chronicles the horrors of his upbringing, the traumas of his early adolescence, and the attempts of an older Crews to reconcile, as an adult, his past:

I thought if I wrote all that stuff down, in as great a detail as I possibly could, talking to as many people as I could and reliving it, it would be cathartic. I thought that it would in some sense relieve something. And it may have, but it didn't do what I thought it would do. It didn't work out that way. (Moore 1992)

In fact, said Crews, "Writing that book damn near killed me. It was a very, very, very, very hard book to write" (Moore 1992)

Considering that before A Childhood, Crews had published eight books in eight years, and except for the publication of his non-fiction, it would be several years until Crews published his next novel, attesting, perhaps, to the intensity and demands of that singular endeavor.

In 1993, a widely praised anthology, which included the full-text of two early out-of-print novels, A Childhood, several essays, and an introduction by Crews, was released by Poseidon Press in the U.S. and by Gorse in the U.K. Recently, in 1995, Gorse re-released a U.K.-only version of The Gospel Singer, along with a never-published novella titled, Where Does One Go When There's No Place Else to Go? According to the publisher, the first printing of that book was sold out. Gorse has future plans to reissue more of Crews's out-of-print novels.

In the early 1990s, Crews, now the department's senior faculty member, entered gradual retirement, teaching one class per semester. In the spring of 1997, Crews retired from the university to devote his time fully to writing.

Crews has been hard at work. In the fall of 1996, I visited Crews for an as yet unpublished interview. As he often does for guests, Crews read from what he was then in the midst of writing, a second autobiographical book, which he said was to be completed in a year's time. We also looked at the cover proof for his next book, Celebration, which was eventually published in January 1998. When I visited him in December 1997, Crews had been up three days working on his next novel.

Damon Sauve
December 1996
January 2003 (updated)

. . .

Notes

  1. All citations reference material included in this bibliography. [back]
  2. Crews often mentions Graham Greene as a major influence on the development of his narrative style—a narrative line like a piece of string tied to the first page of a story, drawn straight and held taught to the last. While it is Greene's novel The End of the Affair which Crews "dissected"—broke it down into "the number of characters, scenes, rooms, etc." (Walsh 94)—in order to reassemble and substitute with his own characters, scenes, and rooms, it is Greene's novel The Power and the Glory which Crews marks as his favorite. Crews's interview with William J. Walsh examines the dissection of Greene's book in detail [See also Watson 1974, p. 64].
    "The thing I loved about Graham Greene is that no matter what else he did, he always told a story and the story had that hard, clean narrative which I admire very much. It is the thing that is most central to the way I work. Those long, introspective, bemused wanderings over some sort of psychological landscape inside the character are alien to me, although there is some of that in Greene. There is some of that in any writer. Obviously, there are characters who think and wonder about the implications of who they are and what they've done, and where they're going and all that. But you take a book like The Power and the Glory and it's got this nice, clean, hard narrative sort of line that I admire."—Bellamy 1976 [back]
  3. In conversation, Crews has said, to paraphrase, "You can get a job anywhere in America if you can handle a grill." [back]
  4. In response to questions asking why he writes about "freaks," Crews frequently recalls waking one morning in a carnival trailer to see a bearded lady and a man with a cleft face—a married couple, who happened to be sideshow performers—discuss plans for dinner and then kiss. "And I," writes Crews, "lying at the back of the trailer, was never the same again" (Introduction, Classic Crews 13). [back]
  5. For the full story, see the essay "The Violence that Finds Us." [back]
  6. Crews has expressed, in conversation, a similar disdain for the traditional expectations of an academic career. He has, in fact, admitted to refusing to attend or to serve on academic committees at the University of Florida. [back]
  7. "From about 1928 to 1935, twelve writers united to challenge the foundations of modern American life . . . Their discussions at Vanderbilt University generated a set of culturally impious essays, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). It implored the South not to forsake 'moral, social, and economic autonomy' for the pervasive industrial model." [From Robert Gingher's study on Andrew Lytle, "An Agrarian for All Seasons" (1996 July). World & I, vol. 11, p. 258.]
    Considering Lytle's influence on his student, it is no coincidence that much of the mature critical attention given to Crews's novels centers on the individual's response to "outmoded lifestyles that conflict with postmodern urban values" (Robert Covel 1994). [back]
  8. Sterling Watson's novel The Calling is a revealing account of one young writer's encounters with an older, established author. Even more revealing is the fact that Watson was an apprentice to Crews in the early 1970s. [back]
  9. In print and interview, Crews only dimly explicates details of these highly personal events. It is likely, therefore, that I have misconstrued dates and facts in my effort to construct a biographical narrative. I apologize for all inaccuracies and hope that future biographical endeavors will correct my errors.

    Update (26 Jan 2003): Joseph Dewey's research for his entry on Crews in Scribner's American Writers series [volume XI. Jay Parini, editor. 2002: 99-117] helped to resolve a point of confusion in my original estimations for the birth dates of Crews's two sons, Patrick and Byron.

    In the Classic Crews reprint of "Fathers, Sons, Blood"—the text I used to infer the boys' birth dates—Crews wrote that Patrick died on July 31, 1961.

    However, as Dewey pointed out in correspondence with me, Crews dedicated This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven "To the memory of my boy / PATRICK SCOTT CREWS / 1960-1964," which, in fact, threw my dates off by at least three years.

    After struggling to resolve the conflicting dates, I gave up and instead returned, as any researcher knows comes first, to the original source. To my surprise, I immediately found the discrepancy attributable to a single-digit error of typography: a one for a four.

    In the January 1985 issue of Playboy, the first sentence of "Fathers, Sons, Blood" states: "On July 31, 1964, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I was sleeping late after writing all night when I heard my wife, Sally, scream above the yammering of children's voices." [back]

  10. The very same departmental faculty, Crews has said in conversation, who denied him entrance into the graduate program some years earlier. [back]

. . .


 
A Large & Startling Figure: The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
www.harrycrews.org/Personal/Biography/index.html
Page updated: January 15, 2010, 12:15 PM
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