Friday, March 30, 2012

On the Death of Harry Crews


by Stephen Corey

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. The Georgia Review has been with the Georgia-born Crews from the start, being the first to accept and the second to publish his work: under then-editor William Wallace Davidson, GR brought out the story “A Long Wail” in Summer 1964. (The Sewanee Review’s editor took a story after Davidson, but brought it out sooner.)

In 1985, Stanley W. Lindberg and this fledgling assistant editor—I’d come to GR in 1983—chose “A Long Wail” for reprinting in our forty-year fiction retrospective issue (Spring 1986), and this great little piece (it runs just seven pages) also made the cut for our just-released book, Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard: Selected Fiction from Six Decades of The Georgia Review (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

In the fall of 1994 we ran Tammy Lytal and Richard R. Russell’s “Some of Us Do It Anyway: An Interview with Harry Crews.” Harry holds forth on many topics, including how to write (and not write) dialect, the vital importance of his mother in his life—“See, much of the rest of the world seems to have a lot of trouble knowing what is right and what is wrong. My momma doesn’t have any trouble with that. She knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and she’ll be quick to tell you . . .”—and his view of his authorial responsibility: “See, if I do my job right when I’m writing, I will really get you turned back on yourself, and on your own code of ethics or morality or vision of the world or sense of self or whatever. If I get you turned back on yourself, then I done my job. I’ve done what I set out to do.”

About six years ago Harry placed his papers with the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia, and as soon as we learned this we began examining the archive in the hope of finding some previously unpublished Crews we might present to a world that hadn’t seen any such in a long time. We ended up publishing a seventy-five-page special feature in our Winter 2007 issue: forty pages from Harry’s (still) unpublished second volume of autobiography—the first, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), is generally considered to be his finest book—along with a selection of his letters and an essay by self-confessed Crews fanatic Larry Baker. (If you’ve been reading carefully here, you’ll recognize the first part of Baker’s title: “‘If I Do My Job Right’: Harry Crews and His Readers.”)

For Winter 2011 we returned to the Harry Crews archive and came out with “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” a personal essay from an unpublished collection called “Take 38,” and in Fall 2012—this plan predated Harry’s passing and had his blessing, as did our printing of the other archival material—we will feature “You’ll Like My Mother’s Grave,” an earlier, very different, and very interesting version of “A Long Wail.”

*

If you have gotten this far you are almost certainly that kind of attentive reader who will have noticed that sometimes above I call Harry Crews “Harry.” I don’t do so because I’m a believer in the “casually familiar” form of address—I emphatically am not—but because I had the privilege of getting to know Harry over the years—just a bit while I was in graduate school at his place, the University of Florida, and then a little better across the twenty years of our association while I’ve been with The Georgia Review.

I have what I think of as a pretty good story about my first “meeting” with Harry in Gainesville, but it’s a bit long and this post is already long, so I’ll save it for next week sometime—say, Tuesday the 3rd. For today I’ll close with a few more of Harry Crews’s own words, again drawn from that 1994 interview in The Georgia Review.

First, there’s Harry talking about some of the run-ins he’s had with women of the 1990s—particularly women in big cities like New York—who tend not to take to being addressed in the ways that Harry learned from his south Georgia mother in the 1940s and ’50s. Harry begins narrow but finishes broad, with the words we used to title the interview: “I don’t know what it is, but as soon as I say ‘lady’ they jump. Again too, I’m supposed to say ‘person,’ when what I wanted to say was ‘lady.’ But what I tell them is that where I come from, when a female reaches puberty, she is ‘ma’am’; that’s just the way it is. My momma told me that’s the way it is, and since I have seen or heard nothing to change my mind or prove me wrong, I still say ‘ma’am.’ There’s lots of things you used to could do, you can’t do anymore, except some of us do it anyway.”

And, from earlier on in the discussion, a comment that I think says enough and good about why those who dislike Harry Crews’s work dislike it, and about why those who like it like it: “I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”

Photo courtesy of John Zeuli Photography

1 comment:

Jeanne Cahill said...

Harry Crews and I grew up at the same time,in the same place, and to my great loss, I don't recall meeting him. Perhaps it is because as a 16-year-old high school senior, my father kept a tight rein on my social life and Harry would not have passed his scrutiny. Too bad we can only compare parallel lives by reading A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
In recent years I tried to locate the home he writes about but the current area residents couldn't remember exactly where the Crews place was but I found the "feel and sounds" of the area.
Jeanne Cahill
formerly of Alma, Georgia