Blood, Bone and Marrow; A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press, 2016.
A fine biographer of Gainesville’s Harry Crews, Ted Geltner has also described the trials and tribulations of those who make their living “from their pen.” It is not an easy life, and Crews, given the other life choices he made, found parts of it very difficult.
Crews was born in rural Bacon County, Georgia, the son of a couple that scrambled to keep food on the table during the 1930s Depression. His was a ‘dysfunctional’ family. Harry, his mother, and brother moved to Jacksonville for work during World War II. Crews had polio as a child and an almost fatal accident. While playing a favorite children’s game “Crack the Whip,” he fell into a large caldron of boiling water and was severely burned. Geltner describes this difficult childhood, though Crews’ version in his autobiography is fonder of both Bacon County and Jacksonville.
The Crews household was not an environment that valued education, but Geltner contends that Harry did. Upon graduation from high school, he joined the marines, served during the Korean War, and took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act renewed during the War to give veterans an opportunity to go to college. He entered the University of Florida, eventually coming across its creative writing program. However, because he never liked mentorship or criticism, Crews did not take to its methodologies.
Geltner has given a detailed description of Harry’s writing life: how he wove his observations of the world of Georgia and north Florida into his novels, the pile of rejection letters that he received in the early days of his professional writing career, and the tenuous relationship that Crews had with his various agents and editors.
It may have seemed to Crews that success was long in coming. But, most authors wait much longer before they have the success that Crews had from his earliest novels, Cool Hand Luke and The Gospel Singer.
Crews had the good fortune to receive strong support from perhaps the most formidable quarter of the writing and publishing world, literary critics. These “gate keepers” were never as critical of his work as Harry often was of his own writing.
This biographer gives credit to Harry’s several wives and women friends who guided him through a life with his best friend, the bottle. Though Geltner makes it clear that Harry normally had to “dry out” before he could get any serious writing done and there were long “droughts” when writing wasn’t possible.
Moreover even though his “life style” consumed his income, Crews was fortunate to have had advances from his various publishers and then moderately good royalties. He was also fortunate in have a ‘real job’ that complemented his writing career, first at a community college in Broward County, Florida and then on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at his alma mater, the University of Florida.
Crews took his teaching seriously; his class was popular and there was always a waiting list to get in. But he was often absent. Geltner gives Melvin New credit for creating an environment that Harry respected. As head of the English Department, New was aware of the gap between the academics and the writers. He also appreciated the fact that as Harry’s fame grew, so did Florida’s ability to attract well-known writers to join the English faculty. However, Crews was a difficult colleague. Keeping peace amongst that faculty and finding continued support within the English Department for the program wasn’t easy.
There was a more accommodating environment for Harry – the local bars. Gainesvillians will recognize Harry’s favorites: the Rathskeller, Orange & Brew, the Windjammer, and Lillian’s. When he was in these settings, he was the ‘king of the hill,’ sure-footed, though not so sure-footed by the end of the evening.
In addition to being a novelist, Crews also tried out journalism, writing a regular column, “Grits,” in Playboy Magazine and then guest columns in Esquire. Hunter S. Thompson had fashioned a writing style, “gonzo journalism” for Harry and other writers to follow. In addition to magazine journalism Harry also dabbled with script-writing for Hollywood, the playwright’s art, and a short-lived acting career.
One of the best stories that Geltner tells is Harry’s trying out for the role of the American celebrity. It turns out that Madonna and Sean Penn had added our Harry Crews to Donald Trump’s guest list for the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks boxing match staged in July 1988 in Atlantic City, New Jersey near Trump’s hotel and casinos. Madonna had recently finished The Knockout Artist and been “blown away.” Trump showed his displeasure at her including this “unknown writer.” From Geltner’s account it was clear that the life of celebrity was not for Harry nor Harry for that celebrity world.
Most of Harry Crews’ titles are still in print. His continued reputation will, however, likely rest with his autobiographical A Childhood; The Biography of a Place, published to much acclaim in 1978. A second volume was on the way when Crews died in March 2012.