Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

Article excerpt

Ted Geltner. Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews. Foreword by Michael Connelly. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2016. xii + 414 pp. [$32.50] cloth.

Nearly two decades ago I made a list of writers who might contribute to a kind of festschrift to honor Flannery O'Connor on what would have been her seventy-fifth birthday in 2000. One of the writers on that list, Harry Crews, I approached in fear and trembling. I had met Harry briefly at a rambling and boozy talk he gave in Madison, Georgia, on a panel with Sally Fitzgerald, who talked about O'Connor's life and the forthcoming biography. Crews gave O'Connor high praise; I remembered that, and because I had read several of Crews's novels by that time, I believed, as did others, that O'Connor had clearly been an influence on Crews's foray into the grotesque and bizarre. In fact, I had presented a lecture at Oberlin College nearly a decade earlier about "decadence" in southern writing, using as my subjects O'Connor, Truman Capote, and Harry Crews.

To my surprise and delight, Crews was kind and receptive to my request, even though I was a bit embarrassed to say that there would be no payment for the piece: all of the writers eventually included in Flannery O'Connor: A Celebration of Genius had agreed to donate their tributes, the royalties to benefit the O'Connor Collection at the Georgia College Library. The solicited writers had a year in which to complete the assignment. All of them easily reached the deadline except for one. Harry Crews.

Thus, once again I bucked up my courage to get in touch with the author. When he answered the phone and I reminded him of the deadline, now past, he suddenly began to rant against O'Connor. He couldn't write in praise of her, he said, because he had decided that she was "hateful," that she despised and made fun of her characters, and that she was (heralding today's parlance) "nasty" in her superiority to them. (Crews added that he imagined I was a "nice lady" and that perhaps we could have lunch sometime.) I was stung, disappointed, and angry.

Ted Geltner's biography of the nearly feral and defiantly iconoclastic Crews captures well the writer's contrary nature, as well as chronicles his famed belligerence, womanizing, and substance abuse. Harry Crews was outspoken and, it has to be said, defensively anti-intellectual. His tenure at the University of Florida was marked by binges, undisguised rudeness (To demonstrate his boredom at faculty meetings, he would open his wallet and repeatedly rearrange the bills.), and sheer bravado. The students loved him, according to Geltner, and returned again and again to his classes, which relied on drama, showmanship, and-maybe surprisingly-his great love of literature.

Born in 1935 in one of Georgia's poorest counties, Bacon in southeast Georgia, Harry Crews, the son of a tenant farmer, endured an agonizing boyhood, as he so compellingly recounted in his 1979 memoir, A Childhood. Crews was a victim of polio in his early years and shortly thereafter experienced a terrible fall into the vat of boiling water used to process the hog on hog-killing day. He was forced to remain in bed, initially immobile, for months; it was then that his love of reading began, though books were scarce. He and his African-American childhood playmate Willalee Bookatee made up stories based on images in the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and passed many hours in their own imaginative realm. Theirs was a sweet friendship that, unfortunately, did not last beyond their early years.

Because of polio, Crews walked with a decided limp all of his life, and near the end could hardly use his legs. Thus it is not surprising that he later became addicted to stringent exercise and even coached one of his girlfriends, Maggie Powell, as she became a prize-winning bodybuilder. Indeed, one could argue that Crews's entire life was an extreme quest for completeness, wholeness-to redeem his scarred body and his uncertain identity, for he was, in fact, never sure of the identity of his real father, remaining obsessed with this question until his death in 2012. …

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