New biography of writer Harry Crews reveals the pain he carried.
Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press, 360 pp.
People yearn simply to be good. But that’s a hard wish because most people are good but they sure aren’t simple. Take the late Harry Crews (1935–2012), a prolific novelist and nonfiction writer who became infamous for his drinking, brawling, infidelity, and outrageous public behavior. Even when at last long-successful and revered, Crews consciously strove to alienate others. He wore grungy clothes, drove junker cars, sported a Mohawk hairstyle, and tattooed on his arm alarming words from a poem by E.E. Cummings:
How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?
What kind of man believes himself to be a freak, declares writers freaks, writes solely about freaks and misfits—including, in his journalism, Hollywood celebrities, prostitutes, and dog fighters—and makes being a freakish outsider the core of his personal and aesthetic ethos?
Ted Geltner answers this conundrum in his absorbing Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews. I hadn’t read a literary biography in a long time, and read this one because I’m writing a review of Crews’s classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place for River Teeth; A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative in the fall.
My interest also was kindled because I recently wrote a 15-page essay about my time at University of Florida when Harry Crews was there as the famous writing teacher. I’d had a near miss with a bad man when I was 19, working on a farm in Melbourne, and my essay is about that and my writing apprenticeship at UF and how the two connect. How I really needed Crews to teach me how to use the incident properly instead of writing around it in fiction and nonfiction as I did. At last I’ve written that story of my close call and included Crews.Oh, the appeal and fear Harry Crews held for me. My father having sold our Georgia farm when I was a boy, I’d grown up in a Florida beach town and felt Crews, a true Georgia grit, would smell it on me. He was authentic; I wasn’t. I did take a fiction-writing class from one of his graduate students, a burly fellow with a shaved head, fairly intimidating itself in the mid-70s.
Geltner’s book made we want to read Crews’s darkly comic novels, and I was able to read a key part of his unfinished second memoir, Assault of Memory. The excerpt was published as the essay “Leaving Home for Home,” in the Winter 2007 issue of Georgia Review (you can access the essay here by clicking on Read Online Free and setting up a temporary JSTOR account). I was spurred by Geltner’s revelations about the abuse Crews suffered as a boy. Crews writes in this essay that he and his young friends were molested by male and female motorists when they hitchhiked.
And he also reveals that his much-older brother abused him emotionally, physically, and apparently sexually. The essay is set when Crews was ten and flees a Greyhound bus because of a racist who is threatening him for being friendly toward the black people seated behind them. Crews wanders across a landscape beset by thugs and sexual predators, trying to get home, but must also avoid his brother waiting there. A kindly prostitute gives him shelter for the night.
My God, I thought, the man suffered enough trauma for ten lifetimes. I don’t mean to reduce him to this—he was gifted, and pursued that gift. He wrote his 500 words daily. He’d never see himself as a victim, it was clear from Geltner’s study, or even as a “survivor” probably. But one can’t help but think his brother’s cruelties along with incidental abuses scarred him. I also thought of such a different writer, Virginia Woolf, who likewise late in life began to write about being sexually abused by her stepbrothers.
In truth, Crews’s masterpiece, his memoir A Childhood: The Autobiography of a Place, cannot be understood, at least it wasn’t by me, in the traumatic terms Crews spoke of his childhood without knowing what he was reluctant to reveal. Even allowing for the way I romanticize agrarian life, despite the poverty and illness and accidents he depicts in A Childhood, he also conveys a world that seemed cohesive and possessed magical elements. So I was shocked several months ago after my most recent rereading by his comments. I figured I’d missed something. Really there was so much beneath the surface he hadn’t yet addressed. As an apparent indicator of the psychic pain A Childhood stirred up, afterward Crews didn’t complete another book for eleven years. Before the memoir, he’d published eight novels in eight years,
As I begin another reading of A Childhood for my review, I hope to focus on the precise reasons why I and others revere this unusual memoir. But Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow and Crews’s “Leaving Home for Home” have imparted knowledge that inescapably casts its own shadow.