Featuring: Harry Crews

Today I’m featuring a man, an American writer and philosopher, a very peculiar individual who always had a good story to tell. He often made use of violent, grotesque characters and set them in regions of the Deep South. I first spotted him in one of my favorite documentaries: Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus. Sometimes in life you come across people who alter your way of thinking or add freedom to it. This Bard of Bacon County is such a man.

Harry Crews was born June 7, 1935, during the Great Depression to two poor tenant farmers in Bacon County, Georgia. His father died while he was still a baby, and his mother soon remarried to his father’s brother. Crews was unaware that this man was not his biological father until years later.

As a child, he suffered two near-death experiences. When he was just five he contracted polio, causing his legs to fold up into the back of his thighs. He was originally told by doctors that he would not be able to walk again. After about a year of being immobile, except crawling with his hands, his legs straightened again and he was able to walk. Soon after this experience, he then fell into a vat of nearly boiling water, which was being used for soaking dead hogs before they were further prepared. His head did not go under the water, which saved his life, according to doctors. He suffered extreme burns on most of the rest of his body. He once again was unable to leave the bed when he was healing. Crews wrote in A Childhood: The Biography of a Place: “Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks.” These experiences later influenced the freakish characters he wrote about, although he did not like to use the term “freak” to describe them.

While Crews was still a child, his mother left his stepfather, and he and his brother went with her to live in the Springfield section of Jacksonville, Florida. Crews finished high school there as a below average student. After graduation, he joined the Marines during the Korean War. After his service, he attended the University of Florida on the G.I. Bill. Here, Crews became a student of Andrew Nelson Lytle, who had also taught Flannery O’Connor, and James Dickey. Crews and Lytle kept in contact for years afterwards, and Lytle provided criticism of Crews’s early work.

After an unplanned pregnancy, Crews married Sally Ellis, who gave birth to his first son, Patrick Scott. Sally soon wanted a divorce due to his infidelity and obsessiveness with writing. “I was obsessed to the point of desperation with becoming a writer,” he wrote, “and, further, I lived with the conviction that I had gotten a late start toward that difficult goal…Consequently, perhaps I was impatient, irritable, and inattentive toward Sally as a young woman and mother.” However, he soon convinced Sally to remarry, and they had a second son, Byron Jason.

Crews graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in English, and eventually received a graduate degree of education. Crews then began teaching English, which he continued to do for the rest of his career, along with his career as a writer. In 1963, he had his first story published: “The Unattached Smile”. In 1964, he published another short story, “A Long Wail”.

In 1964 his first son, Patrick, drowned in a neighbor’s pool. Crews tried to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but this proved ineffectual. After the death of his son, Crews continued writing his first novel, The Gospel Singer, which appeared in 1968. Just after this publication, another came for his second novel, Naked in Garden Hills. Both were well received by critics at the time. In 1972, Sally asked for a second and final divorce. Crews did not marry again.

After Crews’s first two novels, he wrote prolifically, including novels, screenplays and essays, for journals including Esquire. He often set precise due times to finish whatever he was working on, and so had quick turnaround between writings. Once he published The Gospel Singer, he began to write eight novels, publishing one almost every year. Much of Crews’s work is now out of print.

His works were known to feature “freaks”, and “outcasts”, usually from rural areas. In Car, a man consumes an entire car by slowly eating piece by piece. In The Knockout Artist, a poor, Georgia-born boxer with a glass jaw knocks himself out at parties for money. A Feast of Snakes, one of his best known, and most provocative novels, has been banned in South Africa.

Crews felt strongly that authors should write about experiences that they have actually had. In his personal life, he often moved from obsession to obsession, and became knowledgeable on many subjects. Crews and Sally learned karate together, which then influenced Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit. In addition, The Hawk is Dying features an amateur hawk trainer who deals with condescension from college professors, and features a son-figure who drowns. Crews himself had a fascination with hawks for a period of time, and even trapped and trained them so they would sit on his arm. Body is a story about a competitive female body builder, her trainer, and her lower-class family from Waycross, Georgia. Crews himself trained his girlfriend, Maggie Powell, who would become a Southeast bodybuilding champion.

During his time writing for Esquire, he wrote a column called “Grits” for fourteen months in the 1970s that covered such topics as cockfighting and dog fighting. Filled with rough experiences he had outside of urban life, “grits” became a term he used to describe the tough southern characters featured in his writing.

Crews continued writing and publishing his entire life. As his reputation grew, he became a favorite of Madonna, Sean Penn, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore. Madonna and Penn discussed making film adaptations of his novels, but these never came to fruition. Crews’s final novel, An American Family, featured a blurb on the cover from Moore, saying, “God bless Harry Crews, America’s best writer. He’ll break your heart but he’ll always bring you love.”

Harry Crews’s work has become synonymous with the genre Grit Lit. Crews is considered a major influence, alongside Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah, along with later writers in the genre including Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, and Donald Ray Pollock. Grit Lit is usually set in rural areas and often in what has been called the “Rough South”. Larry Brown, one of the most celebrated writers in the genre, objected to the term “Grit Lit”, but he dedicated his novel, Fay, to Crews, calling him “my uncle in all ways but blood.” He and Crews remained friends until Brown’s death in 2004.

Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, defines the genre as “as typically blue collar or working class, mostly small town, sometimes rural, occasionally but not always violent, usually but not necessarily Southern.” The subjects of the stories often have to deal with extreme circumstances for survival. The characters usually use their roughness, depravity, and violence as a means of living. Crews’s work has become synonymous with the “Rough South,” though he did not like the label “Southern writer”. Grit Lit itself can become an “acquired taste”, for those not from the South.

Harry Crews’s experiences as a poor boy from Bacon County, Georgia, have made a major impact on his own stories. Many other Grit Lit writers are from working-class backgrounds as well, and use their experiences as a tool for writing their stories with accuracy. Crews has said, “A writer’s job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it. To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get to where the blood is, where the bone is.”

Crews died on March 28, 2012, from complications of neuropathy. His sole surviving son, Byron J. Crews, is professor of English and Dramatic Writing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. and is the personal representative and acting executor of the Harry Crews Literary Estate.

I love this man and his way of thinking, raw honesty!

Check him out (or not):

A brilliant thing he says about the process writing:

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, poetpas©️

Dear Bill

unable to cope
you hang yourself
with rope
you turn on
the gas
and let things
come to pass
or jump
in front of a train
as you can’t handle
the pain
you drive
off a cliff

but what if
you just chill
and take a pill
and make sure
you put me
in your will
or won’t
my dear Bill
I was kidding
cause I love you
in spite
of the money
you owe me
still…

Writers tears

His heart danced upon her movements like a cork upon a tide. He heard what her eyes said to him from beneath their cowl and knew that in some dim past, whether in life or revery, he had heard their tale before.

~James Joyce

Death

death is part of life
the end bit
for your husband
or your wife

your father
your mother
your sister
your brother

your friends
your fiends
and those
that do not bother