Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Place and Imagination in Harry Crews's A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Place and Imagination in Harry Crews's A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

Article excerpt

When Harry Crews was asked if he saw his writing as taking place in the literary tradition of the South, he answered:

   I've never really been comfortable with schools of writing or ... the idea
   of myself as part of some tradition. The tradition I'm part of is that of
   storytelling. I don't think of myself as a Southern novelist.... As a
   matter of fact, if anything, I think of myself as a very traditional
   storyteller.... Obviously, I live in the South, and I am from the South....
   I work out of the conditions of the South, primarily Georgia and North
   Florida--those cadences of speech, that weather, that whole thing.
   (Bellamy, 84)

Yet while Crews evades the label "Southern writer," he suggests that place has been important to him, as it is to every traditional storyteller. "It's true," he admits, "that I come out of the South, and because of that, ... I have some sense of place--of a certain, particular place" (Watson, 64).

Place for Harry Crews, unlike a writer such as Eudora Welty, did not, however, mean a single house that stood as the home place. (1) Crews himself recognized this difference in his own experience, a difference that set him apart even from many of his neighbors in Bacon County, Georgia. If you lived in Bacon County, he remembers, one house, a kind of homestead, "where you were born, where you lived out your childhood, where you grew into" adulthood, provided "your anchor in the world." To most of the people of Bacon County, such a center provided a tangible certainty that existed and "would always exist, if nowhere but in memory" (A Childhood, 14). (2)

But as Crews notes at the end of the first chapter, since he was "driven from pillar to post when ... a child, there is nowhere he can think of as the home-place," nowhere, that is, except the whole of Bacon County, with "its people and its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness"(14). For Harry Crews, because there is no more clearly defined center, there is only "that swamp, all those goddamn mules, all those screwworms that I'd dug out of pigs and all the other beautiful and dreadful and sorry circumstances that had made me the Grit that I am and always will be." It is just such experiences in a particular place by which, so he saw, "the world and man's condition in it would always be exactly and inevitably shaped" (Crews, "Junkyard Dog" 145).

As literal as Crews's descriptions of his home place seem, this view is shaped essentially by the imagination. The rural landscape of A Childhood is altered and contoured by the mind of the story teller just as surely as the sandy soil is turned and lined and furrowed by the labor of mules and men. Though Bacon County is a harsh, sometimes bitter land, it is a land that her people respect and even stand in awe of. The land is uninterruptedly flat, sandy, and patched over by pine scrub and weeds. "The timber in the country was of no consequence," Crews writes, "and there was very little rich bottomland. Most of the soil was poor and leached out ..." (13). The weather was usually hot and dry, and the air often smelled of dust and sweat, and swarmed with black clouds of flies. The "Big Harrikin" Swamp, the most memorable geographic feature of Bacon County was "`the damnedest wall of brambles and briers you ever seen in your life ... some of 'm as big as a scrub oak.'" The Swamp was, as well, a "suckhole" of a marsh, "waist-deep," and "full of moccasins" (19). Yet for all of its wildness and threat, Bacon County is not condemned as is the Jacksonville of Crews's youth, a place where men and women and children are crammed atop one another in flimsy shotgun houses. Even though Jacksonville provided more ready sources of income than did Bacon County, Crews cannot respect a place where people lived "forever cheek to jowl," where they felt liked penned animals, and where worst of all, "everything ... was tainted, however faintly, with the odor of combustion. …

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