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Archive for March, 2012

Remembering Harry Crews

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

I knew Harry Crews about as slightly as you could get away with claiming to know someone. I did two interviews with him, the last one on the phone, pretty cursory in hindsight. The in-person talk went on for a few hours and involved some alcohol — the disabling drink of choice for Crews for much of his life — along with occasional posturing and some alternately frightening and revealing glimpses of Harry Crews. It was, to say the least, a memorable conversation. For me. It’s doubtful Crews remembered it thirty minutes after I left, and I wouldn’t blame him.

My memory about the occasion is pretty good even though it was a king time ago. He was in what turned out to be a good mood (in the way that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” passes for family entertainment). It wasn’t too long after his finest book, the autobiographical memoir “A Childhood” had been published, a searing look back at growing up in tough, poor, rural South Georgia. It was a place where everyone young Harry knew was maimed either emotionally or physically, missing eyes, fingers or limbs or good sense, and where the models in the Sears catalog offered the only picture of human perfection.

Crews sat and drank while I ran some things by him to get a reaction. Did he once walk from Georgia to New England to get to a writers conference in spite of bad legs, showing up  smelling and behaving about as you might guess? Yep, that’s sort of right. Once when he leaned in to respond to a question, he seemed to sneer at me, almost as if he wanted to chew my nose off, and I recoiled, honestly just a bit scared. Then he backed off, laughed, took a drink, and our conversation continued.

I wasn’t the only one who could get scared by him. AS lot of students, even friends, reported the same from time to time. But they — and I, in the lesser way of a mere acquaintance — knew that whatever he was, he was real. And what he wrote about in his books, his characters, were real. They were the people he knew who had been broken by life, a lot of them freaks, a lot of them losers. He could empathize with them and mean it. His books weren’t pretty. He wrote a lot of pieces including 15 novels, most of them dammed good ones. He was always a careful, thoughtful and precise writer. And if critics liked to call him an over-the-top Southern gothic writer, I suspect he didn’t mind. Or care. Remember Flannery O’Connor? She and Crews had a heck of a lot more in common than some people were comfortable accepting.

So, did I get some gems of insight from my small interview? No, I’m afraid not much. I didn’t know him well enough then, I had too little time with him, and I wasn’t fully up to the occasion. I wish I’d had the opportunity more recently, but life interferes with our best plans. He taught writing at the University of Florida until he retired in 1998 — not long after our phone chat — and suffered worsening health for the rest of his life. He died just a few days ago. His papers are at the University of Georgia, and here’s a biography of him in the works. I’ll be eager to read it. He’s not for everyone, to be sure. But I doubt you can read one of his books — and try “A Childhood” before the novels — and come away without a sense of the transformative power and hurt and compassion in his work.

Honoring the Best

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

In case you missed it, some of the nation’s most important — and idiosyncratic — literary awards were just announced. The National Book Critics Circle has given annual awards for over three decades now, and having once been a member of that notable organization, I’m always pleased to be able to report their latest choices (for which I had no vote, I hasten to add).

The 2011 fiction winner was Edith Pearlman’s collection “Secular Vision,” a very fine book to be sure, but a bit of a curious choice since it contains a number of stories that appeared in her previously published books. The general nonfiction category winner was Maya Jasanoff for “Liberty Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World,” a riveting, revealing history that tracks the lives of some 60,000 Americans loyal to the British crown who fled this country after the Revolutionary War.

The poetry winner was Laura Kaischke for “Space, in Chains;” the autobiography category award went to Mira Bartok for “The Memory Palace;” and the choice for biography was the highly acclaimed “George F. Kennan: A Life” by historian John Lewis Gaddis. Those would seem very good, solid awards, although I’ll refrain from comment since I haven’t read them.

The NBCC is the premier group of book reviewers in this country, a genre that has been dwindling as major newspapers have trimmed or eliminated arts writers and editors. Of course, anyone with a blog now becomes a de facto reviewer — hmmm, that seems a tad self-referencing, doesn’t it? — but I don’t find that, in general, standards have gotten any higher with the shift. Nonetheless, these awards reflect a serious comment on serious writing, and it;s good to still have them as a measuring stick for all of us.

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On a completely unrelated topic, I finally got around to seeing the Academy Award-winning Best Film of 2011, “The Artist.” It was a favorite of critics and a non-starter with audiences; it’s been out nearly four months, and its box office has just barely scrapped past $40 million. In other words, in spite of the Oscar, hardly anyone is going to see it. I wondered how it could possibly be better than “The Descendants” (my favorite) or “Hugo.” The answer turns out be be simple: it isn’t, by almost any way you have of defining “better.”

“The Artist” is a one-trick pony, albeit a well-done one. No doubting the skill and artistry involved, but it’s essentially a novelty film. There’s nothing bad to say about it, but when it comes to the highest levels of writing, direction, acting and impact, either of the two films I mentioned above far surpass “The Artist.” And having seen it once, my viewing needs are completely satisfied. With “The Descendants,” there’s so much more to be learned and understood about relationships in additional screenings.

So how did “The Artist” win all those honors? Well, most of the critics liked it, that’s why. That doesn’t make them wrong or me right, but it surely doesn’t foreclose second thoughts about the award, either. I think a lot of people got it wrong. Maybe you agree. Or not. And maybe you don’t care for the NBCC choices either. Feel free to share your thoughts here. After all, it’s just a blog.

 

Reading biographies…

Monday, March 5th, 2012

I love reading biographies. They have become over the years my favorite genre, and my reading now seems concentrated primarily in the areas of literary history and American history. A list of the biographies I have most enjoyed and learned from would run for pages and pages and test anyone’s stamina and interest.

But because you asked — you did, didn’t you? — these are among the favorites that leap to mind immediately (in no particular order): David MCullough’s bio of Harry Truman; Samuel Eliot Morrison’s bio of John Paul Jones; Jean Strouse’s bio of J.P. Morgan; David Donald’s  two biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Wolfe; Ron Chernow’s two bios of John D. Rockefeller and George Washington; Robert Morgan’s bio of Daniel Boone; Willilam Manchester’s bio of Douglas MacArthur; R.W.B. Lewis’ bio of Edith Wharton; Frank Freidel’s bio of Franklin D. Roosevelt; David Garrow’s bio of Martin Luther King Jr.; Virginia Carr’s bio of Carson Mccullers; Robert Creamer’s bio of Babe Ruth; Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James; Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson; and Blake Bailey’s bio of John Cheever.

That’s a lot of good if sometimes hefty reading. And it’s a very incomplete list. It does not, for instance, include probably the best biography ever written: James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson, an 18th century classic that remains fresh, vital, engrossing and entertaining into our 21st century. 

This little blog was prompted by finishing up Willard Sterne Randall’s new biography of our little-remembered frontier Founding Father, Ethan Allen. Many of us recall him as the leader of the Green Mountain boys and the hero of Ticonderoga in the American Revolution. That he was, but he was much more, as Randall’s book reminds us. He was an outspoken advocate for personal and national  independence, a skilled military leader (who captured the British-held Fort Ticonderoga without any loss of life in what was the first offensive for patriots in the Revolution), a writer of serious thought, and the man who paved the way for Vermont’s statehood. He was a most complex figure, as Randall’s biography makes abundantly clear, who suffered (nearly 1,000 days as a maltreated British prisoner of war) and survived.

His story is fascinating, and I only wish Randall’s full life and times book was completely up to the task of making him so. Unfortunately, Randall’s writing is  turgid at points — dependent clauses loaded one upon another — and too often disgressive to distraction. And there are a few rather sloppy errors of geography and copyediting that mar the final result.

In other words, as much as I discovered about Ethan Allen from this biography — and Randall’s book would seem the best comprehensive study of Allen available  — it is lacking too much to grab a slot on my list of memorable biographies. But if you’re casting about for a biography, I’d highly recommend any of the ones mentioned above. And I’d be pleased to hear about your favorites, too.