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Harry (Eugene) Crews Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Alma, Georgia, 1935. Education: The University of Florida, Gainesville, B.A. 1960, M.S.Ed. 1962. Military Service: Served in the United States Marine Corps, 1953-56: Sergeant. Career: English teacher, Broward Junior College, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1962-68. Associate professor, 1968-74, and since 1974 professor of English, University of Florida. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference Atherton fellowship, 1968; American Academy award, 1972; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Gospel Singer. New York, Morrow, 1968.

Naked in Garden Hills. New York, Morrow, 1969.

This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven. New York, Morrow, 1970.

Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit. New York, Morrow, 1971; London, Secker and Warburg, 1972.

Car. New York, Morrow, 1972; London, Secker and Warburg, 1973.

The Hawk Is Dying. New York, Knopf, 1973; London, Secker andWarburg, 1974.

The Gypsy's Curse. New York, Knopf, 1974; London, Secker andWarburg, 1975.

A Feast of Snakes. New York, Atheneum, 1976; London, Secker andWarburg, 1977.

All We Need of Hell. New York, Harper, 1987.

The Knockout Artist. New York, Harper, 1988.

Body. New York, Poseidon Press, 1990.

Scar Lover. New York, Poseidon Press, 1992.

The Mulching of America. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Celebration. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Short Stories

The Enthusiast. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.

Two. Northridge, Lord John Press, 1984.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Player Piano," in Florida Quarterly (Gainesville), Fall 1967.

"The Unattached Smile," in Craft and Vision, edited by AndrewLytle. New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.

"A Long Wail," in Necessary Fictions, edited by Stanley W. Lindberg and Stephen Corey. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Play

Blood Issue (produced Louisville, Kentucky, 1989).

Other

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (on Bacon County, Georgia).New York, Harper, 1978; London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.

Blood and Grits. New York, Harper, 1979.

Florida Frenzy. Gainesville, University Presses of Florida, 1982.

Classic Crews (non-fiction pieces and previously published novels).New York, Poseidon Press, 1993; London, Gorse, 1994.

*

Critical Studies:

A Grit's Triumph: Essays on the Works of Harry Crews edited by David K. Jeffrey, Port Washington, New York, Associated Faculty Press, 1983; Getting Naked with Harry Crews: Interviews, edited by Erik Bledsoe. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1999.

* * *

Harry Crews's novels establish him as the most astringent observer of contemporary good-old-boy culture, the grass roots of the South. An outrageous satirist of U.S. lies in general, Crews pits the empty materialism of our mainstream society against deep-South grotesques and misfits with results at once comic and horrific.

Beginning with The Gospel Singer, which probes the psychology of show-biz fundamentalism, Crews has inverted a gallery of social, sexual, and spiritual outcasts who seek salvation in a civilization that offers them only things. The theme is expanded in Naked in Garden Hills. Fat Man, the 600-pound protagonist, lives in an abandoned phosphorous mine, where the earth has been eaten away, and he tries to eat the world itself. This is echoed in Car, in which Herman Mack vows to eat an entire 1971 Ford Maverick. A refugee from a junkyard, Mack revenges himself on the world by trying to consume it and defecate it. This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven caricatures the old-folks industry, in which people are the used-up detritus of our society. In this novel, Jefferson Davis Munroe, a midget who works for a "graveyard chain," competes with Axel's Senior Club for the bodies (if not the souls) of the dying.

In Karate Is a Thing of Spirit, Crews deals with the fads and obsessions of contemporary trendy culture. John Kaimon, its central character, wears a tee-shirt stenciled with William Faulkner's face and tries to find himself through a karate group. The story develops our sick fascination with sex and violence and the fear of love and belief that Crews sees as being the focus of our lives. The Hawk Is Dying portrays a more positive, even heroic, obsession, George Gattling's desire to "man" (train) a hawk in the prescribed medieval ritual. His attempt to fuse his soul with the raptor's is another way out of the stylized hell of a technologically focused world. George's need for belief is satisfied by the vitality of the hawk, its innate freedom and dignity.

The Gypsy's Curse returns to the world of physical violence and action with Marvin Molar, born with stunted legs, who walks on his hands and develops his upper body through exercise. In his upside-down world, he becomes sexually obsessed with Hester, a normal woman. The connection between possessiveness, "normality," sexuality, and strength is a basic Crews theme. It appears also in the savage burlesque of A Feast of Snakes, in which high school football, baton-twirling, weight-lifting, moonshine selling and rattlesnake hunting are intermixed as American rituals. The story ends, like The Gospel Singer, in an explosion of mortal violence, as Joe Lon Mackey, ex-state-champ quarterback, loses his slender grip on his own life.

All We Need of Hell is a gentler satire examining the folkways of modern marriage. It is a lighter "screwball comedy" of marriage and divorce. The Knockout Artist and Body re-imagine the body-soul dichotomy that haunts Crews. The Knockout Artist centers on Eugene Talmadge Biggs, a failed glass-jaw boxer whose "occupation" is to fight himself in the ring and ultimately knock himself out. This caricatures phony "sports" like professional wrestling and boxing and defines guilt and masochism as motive forces in our culture. Body lampoons the already surreal world of bodybuilding and physical-culture narcissism. In the novel, Russell "Muscle" Morgan tries to re-live and better his bodybuilding success by transforming "white trash" Dorothy Turnipseed into hardbody and Ms. Cosmos-phenom "Shereel Dupont."

Crews's most recent work explores the effects of love and human kindness upon his typically afflicted characters. In Scar Lover, accident-survivor Pete Butcher is pulled from a life of mourning and solitude by cancer-stricken Sarah Leemer, who helps him locate moments of solace in an otherwise sad world. In The Mulching of America, company-man Hickurn Looney, who initially peddles "cureall" soaps to the elderly and ill, re-discovers human honor (though not exactly happiness) through his relationship with a prostitute. Celebration, set in a retirement community, pits the deformed Stump, a man with one hand who owns the community, against a vivacious, youthful woman named Too Much; Stump callously rejects the individuality of his elderly (and dying) patrons while Too Much tries to revitalize them by providing meaning and joy in their waning years.

Crews's satire is directed toward the triviality and rootlessness of our culture, its lack of belief. His characters search frantically for salvation through money, sex, social status, physical strength, mystical rites—through sheer acquisitiveness. Crews shows how these are false paths, failures. John Kaimon, in Karate Is a Thing of Spirit thinks,

… he also knew he did not believe. The breath of little children would leave his flesh only flesh. Belief could see through glass eyes, could turn flesh to stone or stone to flesh. But not for him. He could walk through the world naked. He would bruise and bleed. He saw it clearly.

Crews sees clearly, through his scathing satire, that the absence of faith leads to violence, madness, death. His creatures search through a world of junkyards and abandoned mines and prisons for their authenticity through belief, and our world fails and maims them in savage ways. Human kindness, love, provides some relief, but in Crews's fiction, such relief is contextualized within suffering.

—William J. Schafer

, updated by

Ryan Lankford

Nina Crews (1963-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings [next] [back] Spencer R. Crew Biography - Studied Black American History, Joined the NMAH, Promoted to NMAH Director

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