Harry Crews, who died Wednesday at the age of 76 after a battle with neuropathy, was the unofficial poet laureate of bare-knuckled, white-trash culture. Crews, who taught Creative Writing at the University of Florida from 1968 until 1997, wasn't your typical tenured academic writer, but a larger-than-life figure whose own rowdy, emotionally messy, kinetically charged fiction rewrote the book on Southern Gothic lit. As both an artist and a cult icon, he merged the images of the self-destructive, hard-drinking bruiser and the self-made man of letters. (Summing up that dichotomy, he had a line from an e. e. cummings poem—"How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mr. Death"—tattooed along with a skull on his right arm.)
Crews' heroes tend to be self-destructive, hyper-masculine types driven to test and define themselves through physical action, ranging from martial arts and boxing to eating a car one piece at a time. He was known for "researching" his books like a Method actor, practicing karate and training hawks before using his own experiences to plow into his descriptions of his characters' activities, Referring to his fascination with "blood sports", Crews once told an interviewer, "I like a lot of things that are really not fashionable and really not very nice and which finally, if you've got any sense at all, you know are totally indefensible."
As he made clear in his 1978 memoir A Childhood: A Biography Of A Place, Crews came by both his subject matter and his vision of life naturally. He was born in Bacon County, Georgia to a poor tenant farmer, Ray Crews, who died in his sleep while lying alongside young Harry when the boy was less than 2 years old. Harry's mother promptly married her brother-in-law, who turned out to a poor stepfather and a violent, ugly drunk. When Harry was 6 years old, an accident involving a cast-iron boiler left him with burns over two-thirds of his body. He escaped his home life by enlisting in the Marines when he was 17, a decision that he later credited with saving his life and setting him on the right career path. Although he had long fantasized about becoming a writer, it was only during his service that he began to read extensively, eventually enrolling at the University of Florida on the G.I. Bill.
Between 1968 and 1976, Crews turned out, in rapid succession, eight novels, including The Gospel Singer, This Thing Don't Lead To Heaven, Karate Is A Thing Of The Spirit, Car, The Gypsy's Curse, and A Feast Of Snakes. There was then a long downtime between novels until the 1987 publication of one of his finest books, All We Need Of Hell (whose title is derived from Emily Dickinson's "Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell.") In those 11 years in between, Crews built up an audience—and his own mythic reputation—through his nonfiction, which included not just A Childhood but also essays and journalism, such as a regular column for Esquire and articles on Charles Bronson, carny side shows, and the Alaska pipeline for Playboy. Much of it would eventually be collected in such books as Blood & Grits and Florida Frenzy.
Crews would continue to publish novels up through 2006's An American Family: The Baby With The Curious Markings, but at some point in the 1990s, his new fiction was increasingly obscured by his own image, which helped make him every punk rocker's favorite redneck novelist. (American Family was published with an admiring blurb from Thurston Moore, while Kim Gordon, Lydia Lunch, and Sadie Mae once formed a bad girl supergroup called Harry Crews, which recorded an album titled Naked In Garden Hills, after Crews' second book.) Inexplicably, not one of Crews' books has ever been made into a movie, except for a little-seen 2006 adaptation of The Hawk Is Dying. Although Crews himself sheepishly acknowledged in interviews that he'd spent plenty of time—and pocketed a lot of money—working on scripts for proposed film projects that never got off the ground.
He did, however, spend a fair amount of time in front of the camera, taking a small role in Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner and holding forth on his life and his corner of the world in such documentaries as The Rough South Of Harry Crews, Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and Survival Is Triumph Enough.
As he grew older and his books continued to drift in and out of print, he continued to enthrall interviewers by charting the decline of his body, pinpointing the ways in which he believed that the first six years of his life had dictated how the rest of it was going to go, and trying to puzzle out what his life and work meant. "I mean, first the reviewers got on the freak business, he told Jim Knipfel, “then they got on the gothic business. Then they began to use the word 'satirist.' Now, I never thought of myself as a satirist, but I guess, damn, I guess that's as close to what I do as anything else, is satirize things. The reason I dislike it so much is, y'know, I just want to be a novelist."