On 28 March 2012 the American and international literary communities lost one of their most unique citizens, Harry Crews-a man some no doubt would say the world is better off for having lost, and a man who would have thought that such an opinion showed he had been doing his job just the way he wanted to do it.
Crews didn't care what people thought of him or his writing-he cared about the writing itself, about finding and then being true to a distinctive way of honoring language, narrative, and character in his novels, essays, and autobiographical writings.
Harry Crews was a prolific novelist whose often freakish characters populate a strange, violent, and darkly humorous South. He was also the author of a widely lauded memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, about growing up poor in rural south Georgia. Crews has focused much of his work on the poor white South, influencing a growing number of younger writers to do the same, including Larry Brown and Tim McLaurin. Harry Eugene Crews was born in Bacon County on June 7, 1935, the second of two sons. His parents, Myrtice and Ray Crews, were poor farmers barely scratching out a living. In his memoir Crews describes the tenuous situation of his early family life: "The world that circumscribed the people I come from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it. It was a world in which survival depended on raw courage, a courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives."
Crews joined the marines when he was seventeen, while his brother was away fighting in the Korean War. During his time in the service, Crews began to read seriously. When his term ended, he enrolled at the University of Florida on the G.I. Bill, with the intention of becoming a writer. The Agrarian writer Andrew Lytle, who had once taught Flannery O'Connor and James Dickey, was Crews's undergraduate writing teacher. The years leading up to his first publication were hard both personally and professionally. In 1964 tragedy struck when his older son drowned. Crews began teaching in 1962, and after years of rejection his first novel, The Gospel Singer, was published in 1968 and garnered good reviews. Its publication earned Crews a new teaching job at the University of Florida and paved the way for the publication of seven more novels over the next eight years, including Naked in Garden Hills (1969); Car (1972); The Hawk Is Dying (1973), which was adapted into a film released in 2006; The Gypsy's Curse (1974); and the widely acclaimed A Feast of Snakes (1976).
Crews's reputation as a bold and daring new voice in southern writing grew during this time. The well-known writer Norman Mailer said, "Harry Crews has a talent all his own. He begins where James Dickey left off." His writing is rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition, but Crews has claimed other influences, notably the British novelist Graham Greene. Most of his books are set in modern-day Florida or Georgia and are often edgy in their exploration of such extremities as blood sports, the limits of sanity, and bizarre compulsions and obsessions.
In the 1970s Crews began compiling a body of journalism and nonfiction as well, churning out interviews, essays, and book reviews for Playboy and other magazines, as well as writing a monthly column, "Grits," as a contributing editor for Esquire. In 1978 Harper and Row published, to considerable acclaim, Crews' memoir of his youth, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. A Childhood tells of his growing up in rural southern Georgia and of coming to terms with that culture as an adult. Wrote a critic in the New York Times Book Review, "It's easy to despise poor folks. A Childhood makes it more difficult. It raises almost to a level of heroism these people who seem of a different century. A Childhood is not about a forgotten America, it is about a part of America that has rarely, except in books like this, been properly discovered." Two installments of a sequel-in-progress to A Childhood have appeared in print, in Southern Quarterly (Fall 1998) and The Georgia Review (Winter 2008).
Crews' voluminous body of nonfiction has been compiled in two collections, Blood and Grits (1979) and Florida Frenzy (1982), and another yet unpublished collection, Glimpses through a Keyhole. In 1987 Crews published his ninth novel, All We Need of Hell, then went on to publish The Knockout Artist (1988), Body (1990), Scar Lover (1992), The Mulching of America (1995), Celebration (1998), and An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006).
Several documentaries have been made of Crews' life and work, and one of his novels - The Hawk is Dying (1973) - was adapted as a movie that was selected for inclusion in the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. Published abroad in the U.K. since 1972, Crews' novels have been translated into Dutch, Italian, French, Basque, Hebrew, and German. In 2005, Crews appeared as one of the narrators whose testimonials about the South's unique culture of literature and music are central to the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.
Named Georgia Author of the Year for fiction in 1969 for The Gospel Singer, Crews had an NEA grant, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and also won the award from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines of America for the best nonfiction article of 1977. A longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Florida, Crews was invited to teach fiction at the annual Bread Loaf Writers Conference 1969 to1973, and he has lectured and read at numerous conferences and universities, in the United States and abroad.
Crews retired as a full professor from the University of Florida in 1997. Described as "a dark chronicler of human vanity and folly," an artist in depicting "the world of the misbegotten, the freaks and misfits and malcontents in whose strange doings Crews is able to locate a genuine if quirky humanity," he was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 2008, the Florida Arts Council voted him into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Until his death, he continued to live and write in Gainesville, Florida. He is survived by his son, Byron Crews and his grandson, Henry Crews.
Arrangements are under the care of WILLIAMS-THOMAS FUNERAL HOME DOWNTOWN, 404 North Main Street.
In lieu of flowers, Crews requested that any individual interested in honoring his memory please do so by making a donation to a children's
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Williams-Thomas Funeral Home Downtown
404 North Main Street
Gainesville, FL 32601
Published in Gainesville Sun from Apr. 3 to Apr. 4, 2012