October 6, 2016
Drawings by Michael McCurdy.
Harry Crews begins his classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by conjuring in intimate detail someone he doesn't remember. Here’s his defiant opening sentence: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.”
He’s highlighting memory, of course, the basis not only of memoir but of the storytelling culture in the place where he came to consciousness. He’s emphasizing the absence of his father, whom he can imagine only through others’ stories. He’s underscoring how a particular setting might be fused with his loss. Crews devotes the first three chapters, Part One, of this concise twelve-chapter book to extending his risky imaginative and reflective opening. In this way, he shows overtly, implicitly, and spatially how his father’s death reverberated in his life in backwoods Georgia.
His father died at age thirty-five, when Crews was not yet two, from overworking a heart weakened by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. As a result, his widow, Myrtice, eventually lost their home and land. She and their two children were “driven from pillar to post,” the ancient phrase Crews uses for their harried flights from one tenant farm to another. Their dire poverty was extreme even in the sandy, farmed-out landscape of southeast Georgia in the mid-1930s. For Crews, his father’s death was the “rotten spot at the center of my life.”
Crews’s Uncle Pascal, his father’s older brother, quickly divorced his own wife and married Myrtice. Pascal was loving to his adopted sons, and especially to Harry, the baby. But Pascal was also an abject alcoholic. To the toilsome lot of a poor farmer’s life, Pascal added emotional turmoil—raging fights with Myrtice, long absences, seething resentments.
Opening his story as an adult writer who is dramatizing and grappling with others’ memories, Crew then portrays his return to the remote region in 1956, at age 21, after a hitch in the Marines. He hears more stories about his father from his father’s friends idling in a country store. Crews shifts into his writer’s perspective to reflect bleakly that his own son couldn’t make such a pilgrimage—because Crews had no similarly close friends after decades spent as a writing teacher at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.
As Ted Geltner makes clear in his recent, absorbing study, Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, the writer felt himself a freak outside his eroded provincial region and hopelessly alien to his unlettered people within it. His writing about this in A Childhood, Geltner indicates, was psychically disruptive. At least Crews thought so. He had published eight novels in eight years before writing A Childhood; afterward, he didn’t publish another book for nine years. He finally broke his drought with six more novels and a novella.
In his long career, Crews became known for darkly comic, violent fiction, and developed a cult following. His first novel, The Gospel Singer (1968), is about a gifted evangelist who comes to grief in south Georgia. His novel Car (1972) epitomizes his outrageous plots, as it concerns a Jacksonville man who slowly eats, a few ounces at a time, an entire 1971 Ford Maverick. In The Hawk is Dying (1973), a disaffected Gainesville suburbanite tries to train a large bird of prey; it was made into a moody film starring Paul Giamatti. Other notable titles include A Feast of Snakes (1976); The Knockout Artist (1988); and Scar Lover (1992).
But his memoir in the middle, first published in 1978, is what’s hailed as his lifetime achievement, a masterpiece. In A Childhood, Crews is able, in strong, rhythmical syntax, to convey a lost world from two equally strong perspectives—the suffering or wonder-struck child’s and the wiser, rueful adult’s—and to move the reader through time with unusual skill and confidence. He portrays a mule-powered world that’s as magical and horrific as any fairy tale.
The bulk of the 182-page book, Part Two, mostly depicts Crews from ages five to six. As young Harry’s memory dawns, shortly before he turns five, his closest friends are a beloved hound and a black boy, Willalee, whose family are tenants on the Crews’ home farm before its loss. While their elders and older siblings toil in the fields, Harry and Willalee play. Often they trap birds and release them in a spare room in the Crews house that Myrtice has given Harry as an aviary.
Harry and Willalee love to sit on Willalee’s porch and make up stories about the people pictured in a precious copy of the Sears Roebuck catalog. Unlike everyone they know, these sharply dressed creatures are unscarred and in possession of all their digits and limbs. Soon, however, in the boys’ narratives they are feuding, maiming each other, and fornicating. Their clean, creased clothes conceal swellings and boils. Crews observes: “Making up stories, it seems to me now, was not only a way for us to understand the way we lived but also a defense against it.”
Mirroring their region and times, whites in A Childhood are casual racists, though not Harry, who “escaped the racism virus,” as he elaborates in a late essay, “Leaving Home for Home,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of The Georgia Review. Part of an unpublished second memoir, that book’s title—Assault of Memory—explains the difficulty he had writing it and encapsulates his view of his past. “Leaving Home for Home” opens with Crews, at age ten, fleeing a Greyhound bus because an older man had begun menacing him after Harry was friendly toward the black passengers seated behind them.
A Childhood depicts Harry’s close ties with his black neighbors, especially Willalee but also Willalee’s father and his grandmother, Auntie. Born into slavery, Auntie is “too strange—weird even—for the big people.” She joins Harry and Willalee’s storytelling, adding a terrifying dimension by giving the Sears catalog characters sinister powers, physical ailments, or burdensome curses.
When Harry contracts polio, three months after his fifth birthday, Auntie walks to the Crews’ house every night to care for him so his mother can rest. Doctors, a passing gypsy, and a faith healer all fail to cure Harry, whose heels have contracted to his buttocks. Auntie tells him a bird must have spit in his mouth—birds, like snakes, possess mysterious evil powers in her mythology—and convinces Harry to free his birds. Still ill, however, he attracts a parade of gaping locals as he lingers.
While bedridden, he reflects upon his plight in the plainspoken King James diction, poetic emphases, and colloquial rhythms of his region’s people that infuse his memoir:
Right there, as a child, I got to the bottom of what it meant to be lost, what it means to be rejected by everybody (if they had not rejected me, why was I smothered in shame every time they looked at me?) and everything you ever thought would save you. And there were long days when I wondered why I did not die, how I could go on mindlessly living like a mule or a cow when God had obviously forsaken me. But if I was never able to accept my affliction, I was able to bear it and finally to accept the good-natured brutality and savagery in the eyes of those who came to wish me well. Mainly because of Auntie’s sheer wisdom and terror. She made me see that in this world there was much more to worry about than merely being crippled. . . .
It all made perfect sense to me. Fantasy might not be truth as the world counts it, but what was truth when fantasy meant survival?
Somehow Harry recovers. Yet just when he’s able to limp about on his atrophied legs, while playing with other children at a hog butchering, he falls into a trough of scalding water. Yanked out, Harry watches the skin slip off one of his steaming hands like a glove, finger nails and all. So does the rest of his skin when he’s stripped and wrapped in a sheet. Taken shrieking to town, Harry sees a doctor who says he’s alive only because his head wasn’t also immersed. Once again, he’s confined to bed. Lying under a wooden rack that keeps a quilt from touching him, Harry stares into a light bulb left burning above that dries and scabs his weeping, agonized flesh. Auntie comes again to care for him through the long nights.
The start of Chapter 10 finds him almost healed. Because of the strife between his parents, however, Harry, by then almost six, concludes that being alive is like “being awake in a nightmare.” In fact, he sometimes awakens outdoors, standing in a field, his roiled emotions causing him to sleepwalk. Looking back, the writer is thankful that he thought parental yells, curses, broken crockery, and blows were universal.
When a brawl with her husband, Pascal, culminates in a shotgun blast, Myrtice flees into the night with her boys. Briefly they live in Jacksonville, Florida, the historic refuge of the diaspora from Bacon County, Georgia. Myrtice works in a factory rolling cigars and soon saves enough money for them to return to their impoverished region, just north of the Okefenokee Swamp. She ekes out a living as a sharecropper. In his muscular prose, Crews brings to life their aged, eccentric hired man and their likewise aged, eccentric mule. Their house is so dilapidated that at night Harry counts stars through its roof.
He’s only seven years old, in this foreground story, as A Childhood ends. By then, he has had experiences that would scar him physically and emotionally for life. He has absorbed the influences that would turn him toward literary art and shape his efforts. He has become peculiar, or feels himself so, already the one who sees differently, an embryonic writer.
Crews sweeps forward in a few brief passages, looking back from the future, and returns the narrative to his homecoming after three years in the Marines. He depicts himself helping his cousins harvest tobacco. While working beside them, Crews utters something that, inadvertently, flouts local mores. He sees them flinch, and instantly he views his transgression as unforgivable and unbridgeable. By going into the wider world, he has unwittingly but inevitably become an outsider.
In his ensuing self-banishment from his people and region, we understand that he’s also estranged from his deepest self. This, he shows us, is what his exile and his partial salvation through literature have cost.
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About the Reviewer:
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, which concerns dreams, loss, fatherhood, and farming in the remote hill country of Appalachian Ohio. His essays have appeared in a range of journals, including Brevity, Orion, River Teeth, and Utne Reader. He blogs about storytelling and creative nonfiction at Draft No. 4.