- Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner
"Most people can't deal with chaos. They can't deal with blood and bone and pain. They think that once you're hurt, you're hurt forever. And of course, you are if you're a wimp. Immodest as it is of me to say so, I ain't a wimp. I get down sometimes, but I always get up again" (p. 232). These words were spoken by famed writer and University of Florida professor Harry Crews during one of his frequent periods of personal turmoil. With their mixture of gritty resolve, macho posturing, and resigned fatalism, they offer a fitting microcosm of the particular worldview and gift for language that made Crews such an important and controversial figure in southern literature in the twentieth century. The quotation also captures the central thesis of Ted Geltner's engaging and well-researched biography, which offers a detailed look at Crews's journey from deep poverty to worldwide renown. With its evocative and unflinching narrative, Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews is an important addition to our understanding of a crucial and complex figure.
Framed by conversations that the author had with Crews during the final years of his life, Blood, Bone, and Marrow feels simultaneously epic and intimate. Geltner—a veteran journalist and journalism professor—blends a crisply drawn narrative with illuminating context. Geltner is particularly skilled at addressing the many intersections between Crews's life and written work without resorting to lazy, tortured-artist tropes or the essentialist clichés that often taint presentations of the South's artists. For example, Crews's difficult upbringing in Bacon County, Georgia, is an important touchstone for Geltner, just as it was for Crews himself, and the biographer returns to this motif throughout the book. But Geltner also resists simplified or exotic presentations of southern deprivation by describing the various ways that these early years [End Page 480] inspired Crews's stories and memoirs. Geltner follows a similar tone throughout the biography, demonstrating the varied life experiences (from military service to palling around with Madonna and Sean Penn) that Crews incorporated into the creation of his deeply ambivalent characters.
No character was more ambivalent than Crews himself, and Geltner admirably avoids hagiography by presenting his subject as a difficult, alienating, and even harmful man. Within many of the stories of Crews's self-destructive and violent behavior, one of the most powerful topics is Crews's highly problematic relationships with women. Particularly deplorable were his multiple sexual relationships with female students at the University of Florida; Geltner notes that Crews targeted women "whom he felt he could seduce, and whom he didn't believe to be the type to broadcast the realities of his existence" (p. 238). Crews even held "bacchanals" at his apartment where he would "goad his young lovers to have sex with his friends" and other tasks designed to "see how far they would go" (p. 239). One of these so-called conquests, Teresa Burns, says that Crews's exploits "destroyed the lives, psychologically, of a lot of people," while Crews himself remained unpunished (p. 239). Geltner does not justify this behavior, although he places it among Crews's other excesses in a way that sometimes feels excusatory. These episodes instead stand as one of the most unseemly components of an often troubling life.
Unsurprisingly, Crews comes off best as a literary figure who believed in the heroic significance of the written word. Geltner devotes significant attention to the contents and contexts of Crews's books and significant essays; the chapter about his Playboy essay about Valdez, Alaska, is particularly engrossing. Geltner only gestures toward close reading and thus leaves some topics underanalyzed, like Crews's presentations of masculinity and his widespread use of disabled "freak" characters (p. 126). But that can be the work of other scholars. Geltner also includes excellent passages about Crews's teaching...