"When I was a boy," Harry Crews wrote of growing up in the 1930s in rural Bacon County, Georgia, "stories were conversation, and conversation was stories."
For Crews these stories led to the ones he would create himself, a refuge he discovered during his childhood "in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia," a difficult land of tenant farms where "survival was triumph enough." The stories and images that peopled his upbringing and subsequent travels would become the inspiration for Crews' many novels, as well as one of the finest memoirs ever written, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
After service in the Marine Corps Crews earned an English degree (and, so he could teach to support his writing, a Master's degree in education) at the University of Florida. There Crews studied with novelist Andrew Lytle, who had co-founded Florida's creative writing program. Under Lytle's tutelage, Crews broke into literary publication with short stories in The Sewanee Review and The Georgia Review in the early 1960s while teaching high-school and junior-college English in Florida.
During this period Crews wrote several novels yet did not publish one until 1968. Years later Crews said he often burned those early unpublished manuscripts to move forward, quoting Lytle, who he said had told him, "Son, fire is a great refiner." After William Morrow and Company published The Gospel Singer, one critic praised the novel as "a Christian tragedy set in a world deprived of the old certainties of Christianity, where gospel singing and religion have turned into a lucrative business." Crews published seven more novels in rapid succession, nearly one every year, and he would set most of them in Florida, where he had settled. The other novel that Crews set in Georgia was A Feast of Snakes (1976), an explosive tale of tragedy and mythic violence that takes place during an annual rattlesnake round-up, which its author imagined in a fictionalized version of Mystic, Georgia.
In the 1970s Crews also took on journalism and nonfiction assignments, as well as an occasional screenplay adaptation, for hire. He wrote interviews, essays, and book reviews for Playboy and other magazines, and was recruited to be a contributing editor for Esquire, which publishe a monthly Crews column called "Grits."
In 1978 Harper and Row published Crews' acclaimed memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, which tells of his growing up in rural southern Georgia and of coming to terms with that culture as an adult. The New York Times Book Review wrote of Crews' book, "It's easy to despise poor folks. A Childhood makes it more difficult. It raises almost to a level of heroism these people who seem of a different century. A Childhood is not about a forgotten America, it is about a part of America that has rarely, except in books like this, been properly discovered." Two installments of an incomplete, unpublished sequel to A Childhood later appeared in Southern Quarterly (Fall 1998) and The Georgia Review (Winter 2008).
Two collections of Crews' extensive body of nonfiction have been published: Blood and Grits (1979) and Florida Frenzy (1982). An additional collection, yet unpublished, can be found in Crews' manuscript archive at the University of Georgia, under the author's working title Glimpses through a Keyhole. In 1987 Crews published his ninth novel, All We Need of Hell, which he followed during the next decade with The Knockout Artist (1988), Body (1990), Scar Lover (1992), The Mulching of America (1995),and Celebration (1998). In 2006 he published his last book, a short novel entitled An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006).
Several documentaries have been made of Crews' life and work, and his novel The Hawk is Dying (1973) was adapted as a feature film starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams in 2006. Published abroad in U.K. editions since 1972, Crews' novels have also been translated into various languages, including Dutch, Italian, French, Basque, Hebrew, and German. In 2005, Crews appeared as one of the on-screen narrators in the documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, about the South's unique culture of literature and music
The recipient of numerous literary honors, Crews was named Georgia Author of the Year for fiction in 1969 for The Gospel Singer and he won the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines of America's award for the best nonfiction article of 1977. Crews also received an NEA grant and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Florida, Crews taught fiction at the annual Bread Loaf Writers Conference 1969 to 1973, and during his career he lectured and read at numerous conferences and universities in the United States and abroad.
After he retired as a full professor from the University of Florida in 1997, Crews was awarded the 1998 "Hemingway Days" festival's Conch Republic Prize for Literature, for a career demonstrating "devotion to the art and craft of literature, the willingness to take creative risks, and the maverick spirit of Key West." In 2008 the Florida Arts Council voted him into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
Harry Crews died at age 76 in Gainesville, Florida, on March 28, 2012. A biography of the writer, Blood, Bone, and Marrow, by Ted Geltner (University of Georgia Press) appeared in 2016.
Photo courtesy Harry Crews.
The following titles are a selection* of the many works by Harry Crews that are held by the Hall of Fame Library:
2 by Crews. Northridge, CA: Lord John Press, 1984.
All We Need of Hell. New York: Perennial Library, 1988.
All We Need of Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
All We Need of Hell (Uncorrected proof). New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Blood and grits. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.
Blood and grits. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Body. New York: Poseidon Press, 1990.
Car; a novel. New York: Morrow, 1972.
Car. London: Secker & Warburg, 1973.
Celebration: a novel. New York : Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Celebration: a novel (Uncorrected proof). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
A Childhood, The Biography of a Place. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.
A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. London: Secker and Warburg, 1979.
A Childhood, The Biography of a Place. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Classic Crews: a Harry Crews Reader. New York: Poseidon Press, 1993.
The Enthusiast. Palaemon Press, 1981.
A Feast of Snakes. New York: Atheneum, 1976.
A Feast of Snakes. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.
Florida Frenzy. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1982.
Getting Naked with Harry Crews: Interviews / edited by Erik Bledsoe. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
The Gospel Singer. New York: Morrow, 1968.
The Gospel Singer; and, Where Does One Go When There's No Place Left to Go? London: Gorse, 1995.
The Gospel Singer. New York: Perennial Library, 1988.
The Gospel Singer. New York: Dell Pub. Co., 1969.
The Gypsy's Curse: a novel. New York: Knopf; [distributed by Random House] 1974.
The Gypsy's Curse: a novel. New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
The Hawk is Dying. New York: Knopf, 1973.
The Hawk is Dying. London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.
Karate is a Thing of the Spirit; a novel. New York: Morrow, 1971.
The Knockout Artist: a novel (Uncorrected proof). New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
The Knockout Artist. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Madonna at Ringside. Northridge: Lord John Press, 1991.
The Mulching of America: a novel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
The Mulching of America: a novel (Uncorrected proof). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Naked in Garden Hills. New York: Morrow, 1969.
Scar Lover. New York: Poseidon Press, c1992.
Scar Lover. Advance uncorrected proofs. New York: Poseidon Press, 1992.
This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven. New York: Morrow, 1970.
Where Does One Go When There's No Place Left to Go? Los Angeles: Graham: Blood & Guts Press, 1998.
An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings. Los Angeles: Graham Press, 2006.
*The University of Georgia Library also holds numerous variant editions and foreign language translations of Harry Crews' works, as well as uncorrected proof copies of various novels by him, and recordings of interviews and readings. For a full listing of Harry Crews' works in the UGA Libraries, contact the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library staff for assistance.
- Harry Crews' personal archive of manuscripts, correspondence, and personal and business papers are held by the University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.