Southern Cultures 8.3 (2002) 124-126
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Perspectives on Harry Crews
Perspectives on Harry Crews. Edited by Erik Bledsoer and Ann J. Abadie. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. 237 pp. Cloth $46.00, paper $18.00
In the late 1970s, when I was first beginning to study seriously the work of Harry Crews, I asked C. Hugh Holman of the University of North Carolina's English department to write a letter for me as part of a grant application to support my work. While he supported my effort, I learned later that he wondered why I would be interested in working on such a writer as Crews. His attitude toward Crews was perhaps representative of the attitude of the critical establishment of the time, but the appearance of Perspectives on Harry Crews reveals that much has changed in the intervening two decades.
In the mixture in his work of humor, violence, and extreme experiences of all kinds, Crews has often been seen in the context of earlier southern writers of the grotesque like Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor; currently, however, he is connected not so much with those he followed as with those who have followed him. For, as a writer from a poor white background who wrote about the experience of his class from within rather than above, as did most earlier writers, he is the precursor of such current novelists as Larry Brown, Tim McLaurin, and Dorothy Allison, and memoirists like McLaurin, Allison, Rick Bragg (All over but the Shoutin' and Ava's Man), and Barbara Robinette Moss (Change Me into Zeus's Daughter). One of the most important recent developments in southern letters has been the expansion of the canon to include voices previously ignored—and Harry Crews's voice is one of the strongest to be reckoned with. Critic Michael Kreyling predicts on the dust jacket of a recently published collection of Crews [End Page 124] interviews: "When the next renascence in southern writing comes, it will be a Grit Renascence and Harry Crews will be one of the gonzo fathers."
Now in his mid-sixties, Crews published his most recent novel Celebration in 1998. His career seems to have had two parts. Between 1968 and 1976 he published eight novels in rapid succession. His celebrated memoir A Childhood appeared in 1978, and then he was silent for almost a decade. In 1987 All We Need of Hell came out followed by another five novels through 1998. He has explained his long silence by saying that reliving the painful memories involved in writing A Childhood took a great deal out of him, and reading that book it is easy to see why. Still considered by many to be his masterpiece, A Childhood captures in unrelenting detail the brutal experience of growing up poor among sharecroppers in south Georgia. Though all are interesting, Crews's novels have been uneven in quality. To judge from the emphasis of the essays in this collection, his best books, in addition to A Childhood, are the novels A Feast of Snakes (1976) and Body (1990). That judgment seems absolutely right to me; in those three books Crews's strengths are most clearly manifest.
Perspectives on Harry Crews provides a variety of ways of looking at the author. Several contributors emphasize the significance of Crews giving voice to the previously voiceless poor white. Novelists Larry Brown and Tim McLaurin provide heartfelt accounts of how his example was personally important to them as they tried to find their own voices as writers. James Watkins focuses on how A Childhood expands the southern tradition of autobiography by portraying the humanity of a class often ignored. Matthew Guinn analyzes a character type he calls the "grit émigré," the dislocated agrarian poor white who finds himself in urban north Florida. Interestingly, Crews has attracted the attention of scholars outside literature. Two sociologists are included in the book, and a folklorist who has studied the Wiregrass region of Georgia uses Bahktin to show how Crews overthrows traditional hierarchies in his work. Several essays use literary and cultural theory...