I always sensed in Harry Crews’ writing a fundamental insecurity. I guessed that it stemmed from his upbringing as a sharecropper’s son from Bacon County of South Georgia. Class insecurity left him prone to other insecurities—his biographer describes his resentment of people with PhDs, for example. He had been turned down by the University of Florida creative writing graduate program and completed an MA in education instead, which qualified him for college teaching jobs. He blamed himself for everything that went wrong in his life, including the drowning death of his four-year-old son and the failure of his marriage. He wrote for a decade before he was able to publish his first story. Crews must have seen his life as a continuing struggle, with the world pitted against him. It always seemed to me in his work that he was not only trying to prove himself but that he was also trying to shock, to put it all out there in your face--his embittered and alienated darkness and world view, freakish characters, grotesque violence and humor, and despairing sensibility. In his personal life, these insecurities took form in drug dependency, horrific alcoholism, and general dysfunction. Crews’ alcoholism was crippling.
In the biography Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, by Ted Geltner (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2016) offers up a number of reasons for the kind of writer Mr. Crews became. It is an amazing story, and Geltner has done a thorough job of tracing the life from Crews’ ancestors to his death. This is not a literary biography: it does not dwell in detail on the work, it does not offer extended interpretations of the fiction, though it does generally summarize plot details and gives information about how the novels came to be written. What it does do is provide a thorough account of the life of the man who wrote the work and of the circumstances that produced him. Geltner lays the facts out in fascinating and sometimes gruesome detail. His book is well written, insightful, intelligent, and a major contribution to literary studies of the 20th century South.
Geltner explains how Crews developed a considerable reputation in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s—such writers as Joseph Heller expressed admiration for his work. Elvis Presley wanted to portray a film version of the main character of Crews’ novel The Gypsy’s Curse (1974). He was befriended by Madonna and Sean Penn. Penn wanted to film Crews’ novel The Knockout-Out Artist (1988) but never managed to do so. By the end of the last century, however, with changes in the publishing industry and in the general cultural environment, he found himself without a commercial publisher. Today many of his novels are out of print.
Given the violence, the bizarre and often grotesque characters, the sexual excess, and the overall misanthropy of his work, it’s not surprising that Crews today is languishing. This biography suggests, by the mere fact of the anguished and incredible life it recounts, of the books that life produced, that we should revisit Crews’ writing.
As a college professor at the University of Florida, Crews frequently missed classes (especially later in his career) and slept with as many students and many women in general as he could manage. “Predator” doesn’t seem an inappropriate label. As Geltner notes, most of his faculty colleagues were willing to look the other way or to make excuses for him. He would not survive long in the current world of higher education. Geltner doesn’t make excuses for Crews and instead simply reports what were apparently the facts.