Why revive Harry Crews, author who bridged the new and old South

“My uncle gave me a copy of ‘A Feast of Snakes’ in exchange for cleaning his shed,” says SA Cosby, author of “Razorblade Tears,” recalling his first encounter with the late Southern author Harry Crews. Tennessee writer Kevin Wilson came across Crews’ paperbacks while reading between classes in an office in the English department at Vanderbilt University. Novelist Ryan Chapman chose Crews when his now wife declared “A Feast of Snakes” his favorite novel. Only later did she reassure him that she didn’t share the cult author’s nihilistic view of true love.

Reviews and awards enshrine some authors as legends. Others depend on word of mouth and prose that stands the test of time. “The primary purpose of art was to provide pleasure and to crush the human heart with living memory,” writes Byron Crews, of his father’s central purpose, in an email. “Dad often judged the writing by how honest it is and how it resonates and is memorable – over time – over the years.

This week, Penguin Classics will reissue Crews’ memoir “A Childhood: A Biography of a Place” (1978) and her first novel, “The Gospel Singer” (1968). Imprint publisher and publisher Elda Rotor recalls being “intrigued by his influence as an author and teacher and curious about the art of storytelling”. Struck by Crews’ ‘larger than life’ mark on literature, she hopes the reissues will allow a new, wider readership to grapple with her works and ‘revisit them through the lens of the classics’.

Crews was a thoroughly Southern novelist, but there’s nothing folksy, let alone pastoral or genteel, about his writing.

(Domain of Harry Crews)

For several years, Penguin Classics has been committed to republishing little-known works by marginalized authors. So what prompted them to revisit a straight, white man whose work is laced with racism and a masculinity so toxic that it sometimes transcends misogyny and turns straight into aggression? The answer is as complicated as the man himself.

Sometimes best known as a tattooed provocateur who sported a mohawk long into his later years, Crews was the bizarre and dazzling author of some twenty works. Between his birth into a family of Georgian sharecroppers in 1935 and his death in 2012 in Florida as a retired professor and former Marine, he witnessed the South’s shift from a rural society to an increasingly industrial region. and cosmopolitan marked by the civil rights movement and its aftermath.

The conception of the typical Southern writer evolved just as dramatically during these decades. The one constant across the generations has been the paradoxical place of Southern literature: recognized as perhaps the country’s most dynamic regional writing, but often dismissed as too idiosyncratic to represent American literature as a whole. His bestsellers, from “Where the Crawdads Sing” to John Grisham’s thrillers, are rarely associated with him; “Gone with the Wind” surely is, but it sounded wrong when it was new.

The canonical mid-century Southern writers – Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty – were often seen as eccentric white outsiders. Today, the estate reflects the diversity and modernity of the region (Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon, Cosby and many others). They represent all of America – but also their ancestors, because, as Imani Perry has recently argued, the South East America. It is a farce to isolate past or present racism, classism and misogyny in a region.

Crews, whose work serves as a bridge between Southern writers past and present, was among those who fought against such practical parlor tales. Richard Howorth, the owner of legendary Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, notes that while Crews’ voice was “distinctly Southern,” he was also “unmistakably unaffected, genuine.” There was no one like him back then. »

American novelist, short story writer and essayist Harry Crews.

Harry Crews in his later years. Penguin is reissuing his memoir, “A Childhood,” and his novel, “The Gospel Singer.”

(Domain of Harry Crews)

There’s nothing folksy, let alone pastoral or genteel, about Crews. With caustic, fabulistic writing, he unearthed the ghosts of America’s original sin.

Crews’ memoirs are littered with shocking events: after losing his father at age 2, he was raised as his uncle’s child until that uncle nearly murdered Crews’ mother; he survived untreated poliomyelitis and an accidental throwing into a tub of boiling water with a pig; he closes the book with a gospel revival that inspires the disturbing sexual assault of another child.

It is the story of a life devoid of options or landmarks except for ritual and faith. His novels, too, are set in a lawless South, their characters so surreal and disturbed they could only be found in dead-end towns marked by dirt roads and moonlight. In ‘The Gospel Singer’, the main character returns to perform in his hometown, as his old acquaintance, black preacher Willalee, who shares a name with Crews’ childhood friend, is framed for the rape and murder of the singer’s childhood sweetheart. The singer is followed, meanwhile, by a freak show as Katherine Dunn could not have imagined.

Wilson, a teacher at Sewanee, wrote the introduction to “The Gospel Singer”. The novel is “horrible”, he notes in an interview – and yet “the sentences are sometimes incredibly beautiful”. Drawing on this contrast, Wilson debunks any rumors of sentimentality in the work: “Crews doesn’t have nuance regarding race or gender or religion or really anything, but the only place it’s nuanced is his language.” By being “extremely precise and violent”, Crews’ style captures a society struggling unsuccessfully to overcome its complicity in the horrors of slavery.

“You are involved every minute of your life here, aren’t you?” Wilson adds. “For example, if it’s a broken place that’s haunted by the specter of all this violence and cruelty, then just existing there makes you guilty.” Even the shocking conclusion to “The Gospel Singer” leaves Wilson with the impression that “Crews doesn’t necessarily comment on race. For him, there is simply no escaping the cruelty and violence of this world.

Cosby, a native and resident of Virginia, also expanded in an interview on his relationship to Crews’ work. “I grew up in a small town where there’s a giant Confederate statue in front of the courthouse that sends a message to you as a black person,” he says. “Do not seek redress for grievances. I always like to read his stuff, because even though [Crews’] the characters will embrace the Confederacy or the lost cause, he will not embrace it. He does not care. »

For Crews, it’s ultimately about class: stoking racism keeps poor whites from organizing against elites. His grim observations avoid judgment, but the carnage in his writing speaks for itself. Without moral judgment, there isn’t enough money, drugs, or religion to save a community from itself.

Byron Crews (right) with his father, writer Harry Crews.

“Dad often judged the writing by how honest it is and how it resonates and is memorable“, says Byron Crews (right) of his father, Harry.

(Domain of Harry Crews)

Cosby and Wilson have explained at length how Crews surpasses even Faulkner and O’Connor in portraying a grotesque anti-pastoral that spares no one. “When I read him,” Cosby says, “I always felt like he was a person who realized that racism, sexism, misogyny were all bad, but instead of running away [these horrors]Crews opts for “sensory overload.” He imagines Crews saying, “I’m not going to give you moral proclamations. But I’m going to show you how bad it can get.

Ultimately, the emotions and conflicts represented by the crews were not limited by geography. He wrote nothing less than the most extreme extremes of human nature.

In “A Childhood”, he asks who would tell his son about him. He surmises: “A few bikers, bartenders, editors, half-mad karatekas, drunks and writers. They are scattered all over the country, but even if he could find them, they could speak to him without a common voice. … For half my life I went to college, but never. Never of anywhere really. Except the place I left, and that one necessarily only in memory. He concludes the thought by explaining why he turned to memoirs. “Only the use of Ilovely and terrifying word, would lead me to where I need to go.

Self-mockery aside, Crews has captured the raw essence of humanity in both fiction and non-fiction. Side by side, these reissues form the complete portrait of an imperfect man who goes to extremes to escape his cultural heritage. Leaving the South was not an answer; his demons belong to all of us. His trip was a nightmare that we all have to face before we wake up.

LeBlanc is a book columnist for The Observer. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Lola R. McClure