“What has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old.”
— Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place
Harry Crews never wrote a full memoir; his only attempt was A Childhood, which ends in July 1956 in a sharecropper's field in Bacon County, Ga., where he stands visiting among kinfolk who are harvesting tobacco stalks in the fierce early-afternoon sun. The month before, Crews had been honorably discharged from the Marines. (His service might seem unlikely, as he had been struck with polio at age 5 and walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.)
Even after serving three years in the Marines, Crews was not prepared to suffer the rigors of a Georgia summer. He looked up at the burning disk and said, “Goddamn sun.” When his four companions flinched, he knew he had sinned.
But there was nothing I could say. I had already done what, in Bacon County, was unthinkable. I had cursed the sun. And in Bacon County you don’t curse the sun or the rain or the land or God. They are all the same thing. To curse any of them is an ultimate blasphemy. I had known that three years ago, but in three years I had somehow managed to forget it. 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. Wherever I might go in the world, they would go with me.
There the memoir ends, years before Crews would become a published novelist. But the voices heard during his childhood, under summer night skies and in front of winter’s crackling hearth, the stories told among friends and family, the characters drawn out of local history (part anecdotal, part pure storytelling) — as well as the bruised and battered boy’s body with its broken and “jagged” edges — did not merely form the writer-to-be, but embedded their hard-won truths into his "blood, bone and marrow," the phrase which became the title of the first in-depth biography of this “Grit-Lit” writer of the Deep South.
Crews had a lifelong aversion to institutional authority; in that respect, it’s amazing that he survived boot camp. Following his honorable discharge, he took advantage of the updated G.I. Bill to enter the University of Florida in Gainesville, but that didn’t go well. He described the teachers as “granite men riding granite horses.” It was not where he wanted to be.
Crews bought a beat-up motorcycle and set forth on an “on the road” odyssey, even as Kerouac’s novel became the anthem of the Beat Generation. After traveling the American West and picking up odd jobs along the way, he landed in San Francisco, working in a Hunt’s Foods factory in Heyward during tomato season and savoring the nightlife (especially its female denizens) of North Beach. After a few months, a circuitous trip through the Southwest and into Mexico brought him back to Florida, and he took another shot at the university in Gainesville. He eventually earned a master’s degree in education, but only after getting two coeds pregnant at the same time. One miscarried. He married the other, Sally Ellis, but they divorced several months after the baby was born. (They later remarried.) At the university, embracing an iron-willed discipline, Crews wrote for hours every day. The legendary writer/teacher Andrew Lytle became not only his mentor, but also the surrogate father he so desperately needed after a childhood of misfortune and abuse.
Looking for his own literary voice, he later reflected:
One night it occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back in there in Bacon County, Ga., with all that sickness and hookworm and rickets and ignorance and beauty and loveliness. But that's where it was. It wasn't somewhere else.
For the rest of his life, Crews maintained an uneasy détente with the teaching profession. It was a source of reliable income, helping maintain the rickety structure of his family life, and also fueled his iconoclastic behavior and erratic alcoholism. His first novel, The Gospel Singer, was published in 1968 to great acclaim. Dell's "torrid" mass-market paperback edition was aimed squarely at a bodice-ripper readership.
Increasingly sure of his voice and his subject matter, Crews never looked back.
In 1990, Gary Hawkins, a young filmmaker in Chapel Hill, N.C., decided to make a series of documentary portraits about Southern writers. Flannery O’Connor was an obvious choice, but she had died in 1964. One of his interviewees suggested Crews as a subject who “could really light up a camera.”
Hawkins and his small crew made the nine-hour drive to Gainesville. Ripping open his front door, Crews greeted them with, “We’ve got a pisser at each end of the house. You can set up in the back. Let’s go!”
In Blood, Bone and Marrow, Ted Geltner recounts the two-hour filming session:
Harry hypothesized, preached and moralized on his favorite subjects for Hawkins’ cameras: writing, sports, violence. He was, as Hawkins recalled, lucid and completely on point, and he delivered Grade A footage, every minute of it interesting and sharp. Hawkins would pose a question; Harry would briefly acknowledge it and then answer his own question instead.
After a little less than two hours had passed, Harry brought down the curtain.
“I don’t know when I’ve had a more pleasant afternoon,” he said. “The interview’s over?” Hawkins asked.
“It sure is, Bud.”
Eight months later, when Hawkins returned for a follow-up, he found a very different man: erratic, unfocused and meandering. Crews was also sporting a Mohawk and a pierced ear because, he said, he got tired of looking "normal."
Also, by that time, Crews’ stories and self-mythologizing had become somewhat rote, and in interviews he tended to recount the same anecdotes in slightly different guises. Crews was not just a writer; he was a storyteller in the great oral tradition of any semi-literate culture. He would recall how his family had neither electricity nor radio in their part of Bacon County. In his memoir, Crews writes about the origins of his innate need to tell stories. Like many homes in his community, his childhood home had only two books: the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
I first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect. 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. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful.
Hawkins’ film, The Rough South of Harry Crews, embraces the “recreation” technique that had been pioneered by Errol Morris a few years earlier in The Thin Blue Line, and evokes Chris Marker’s use of still photographs in La Jeteé.
In a first-person article published 20 years later in the May 24, 2012, issue of The Paris Review, Hawkins describes the details of casting and shooting scenes of the surreal narrative of Crews reading from his memoir. It illustrates a story of the young Crews holding captured birds in a room of his house against the advice of an old slave woman, Auntie, who often tended the infirm boy. Hawkins writes:
I found an old, abandoned farmhouse in a rural township called New Hope (dubbed No Hope by the locals). Our first big shot there was an image of Auntie gazing into the bird room. Around noon, we released about a hundred grackles into the bird room and waited for our Auntie to arrive, but she didn’t show. An hour later, we were beset with gale-force winds, a storm so intense we were forced to remove the interior doors from their hinges and nail them to the window frames to keep the panes from blowing out. The winds died down. Still no Auntie. So at sunset, we released the grackles and drove home. I learned that night that my actress had suffered a stroke on her way to the shoot. Her granddaughter called from the hospital and left a very nasty message: “If anything happens to my grandmother,” she said, “I’ll own your butt and your television station’s butt, and …” I began to wonder if maybe the original Auntie wasn’t right. Maybe there is something fundamentally, metaphysically wrong with keeping blackbirds in your house.
The Rough South of Harry Crews was broadcast on PBS in North Carolina. Hawkins's film not only offered a compelling insight into Crews as an on-camera (if offbeat) raconteur, but also showed the darkly poetic tone of his prose in images of pure cinema. His accent, cadence and confidence place him in that great tradition of the Southern Gothic storyteller. (Had he chosen a different path, he could have been one of those mythic Southern senators like North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, hero of the Watergate hearings, or held an audience in rapt attention for a Ted Talk or the Moth Radio Hour.)
Just before this blog was published, UNC-TV decided to disable the YouTube posting of the full documentary — a rather startling gesture, it seems to me, since they have done so little to make it available elsewhere. But you can see courtesy of The Paris Review an excerpt on Vimeo:
The year after the Hawkins film, documentary filmmaker/biographer Tom Thurman made a film about Crews titled Guilty As Charged. It incorporates many interviews and musical performances, but these episodes often distract from the focus on Crews; the segments about him are patched together by blogger English Bob into four black-and-white segments. Crews had noticeably aged by then, and his lined and bloated face (his hair partly grown back from the severe Mohawk) limns the effect of his hard-lived life.
In part one, Crews discusses why and how he came to be the Bard of Bacon County.
In part two, the author, bobbing and weaving like a manic prize fighter, delivers an impassioned defense of the writer as a “jagged” human person, all sharp corners and edges. He rails against the “door stop” literature of Irving Wallace and his ilk and addresses a literary love letter to his Georgia neighbor Flannery O’Connor, who lived on a farm in Milledgeville about an hour away. (I visited her farm, Andalusia, while on location in Georgia several years ago, an experience I wrote about here. Some pictures I took on this visit were recently published in the Flannery O’Connor Review.)
Crews also extols the Yankee poet Robert Frost, the fellow Georgian James Dickey (who wrote Deliverance) and, as unlikely as it may seem, the gentlemanly English novelist Graham Greene, who spun great plot webs while disguising his deep moral purposes. Like Greene, Crews says, “I just tell stories.”
In part three, he talks about his fixation on “freaks,” explaining how his childhood physical traumas created for him empathy for “people with special considerations under God.”
And in part four, a brief epilogue, Crews discusses the consequences of a lifetime of drinking. Friends had to admit to themselves, “It’s death time for him. He’s gone.”
But Crews survived until March 28, 2012. In many ways, his macho ethos had been on life support for years. But since his death, his reputation has not only endured, but also thrived. There is something heroic about his full-throttle, bare-knuckled passion for literature and for the maligned and denigrated characters he created as a window into the margins of the human condition.
We may call it sin or guilt, but its contours are no stranger to our so-called civilized selves. Crews spent a writing life as a seer, even a sacrificial lamb, and, like other alpha males (including Norman Mailer, whom I was privileged to work with for several months on the film of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance), Crews “abided,” accepting even the worst imaginings of our species as simply “human.”