March 30, 2012
RIP: Harry Crews
by Dennis Johnson
Novelist Harry Crews has died from complications from neuropathy. Crews, who died at his home in Gainesville, Florida, was 76. “He had been very ill,” his ex-wife, Sally Crews, tells the Associated Press in this report. “In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain.”
Crews was, as the AP report describes him, “A wild man and drunken sage in the tradition of Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson, he wrote bloodied, freakish stories drawn directly from his own experiences, including boxing and karate. Crews sported a tattoo with a line from an E.E. Cummings poem, ‘How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death,’ on his right bicep under the tattoo of a skull.”According to a brief, early obituary from the New York Times, “Though his books captivated many reviewers (they bewildered others and repelled still others), they attracted a cadre of readers so fiercely devoted that the phrase “cult following” seems inadequate to describe their level of ardor.”
Crews was the son of sharecroppers in Bacon County, Georgia. His father died when he was two, and, as the AP report details,
His childhood alone tested the imagination. His mother married his father’s brother, a violent drunk. Crews suffered from infantile paralysis and once fell into a vat of boiling water, confining him to his bed for months. Still, he managed to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school, after which he joined the Marine Corps. In the book “Getting Naked with Harry Crews,” he explained to interviewer Hank Nuwer that his military service was crucial.
“If I hadn’t gone in the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t be a professor in the university. I’d be in the state prison because I was a bad actor and a bad boy.”
After his stint in the Marines, the GI Bill allowed Crews to attend the University of Florida, where he studied with Andrew Lytle, and began writing novels, four of which were rejected before he published The Gospel Singer in 1968 to great praise. He went on to published 17 books in all, including Car, The Knockout Artist, Feast of Snakes, and a memoir, A Childhood. His publications eventually earned him a spot on the faculty of the University of Florida, where he taught from 1968 through 1997 and became renowned as mesmerizing on the topic of writing.
He told one interviewer what he told his students; “If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”
Crews was married to Sally Ellise Crews — twice, divorcing for the second and final time in 1972, but apparently remaining close friends. According to the AP report, they had two sons together, one of whom drowned in childhood.
Nonetheless, as Dwight Garner notes in an appreciation for the New York Times,
Mr. Crews learned to find strange beauty just about everyplace. “There is something beautiful about scars of whatever nature,” he wrote in his novel ‘Scar Lover’ (1992). “A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives