Russell Earl Banks was the son of working-class parents. His father, Earl Banks, was a plumber who shuffled his family around eastern New England in a futile quest for the American Dream. After Earl ran off to Florida with a girlfriend in 1952, Florence Taylor Banks divorced him and worked as a bookkeeper to support her young family. Russell entered high school as the oldest male in a household of marginal means.
Banks won a full scholarship to Colgate University in 1958, but he could not adjust to the elitist academic environment and dropped out during his first semester. In January, 1959, he left for Cuba, intending to join Fidel Castro’s revolution, but he never made it past Florida. Drifting from Miami to St. Petersburg, he worked first in a hotel and then in a department store, where he met his first wife, Darlene Bennett. Banks became disillusioned by Florida life, and he and Bennett eventually moved to Boston, where their daughter, Leona Banks, was born in May, 1960. Banks found work in a bookstore and embarked upon his writing career, however fitfully.
Banks’s marriage broke up later in 1960, and Bennett returned to Florida with Leona. The next summer Banks was again off to Florida but not to join his family. Instead, he lived in a trailer in the Keys, pumped gas, and continued to write. After a lengthy road trip through the Southwest and Mexico and visiting his mother at her new home in San Diego, he returned to New England in 1962 and followed his father into pipe fitting in Concord, New Hampshire. In October he married Mary Gunst, a woman he knew from his Boston days. He did not stop writing; in 1963 he attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. There, he met Nelson Algren, who became his mentor.
In 1964, after Gunst gave birth in July to a daughter, Caerthan, Banks headed south again, this time to attend the University of North Carolina on a “scholarship” from his wife’s family. His sojourn in Chapel Hill, where he earned his B.A. in 1967, was crucially formative: He was introduced to the ferment of radical politics and to the reality of the United States’ racial landscape. He also completed his second unpublished novel during this time and cofounded (with poet William Matthews) Lillabulero Press, which published poetry and fiction by Banks and others. Another daughter, Maia, was born in 1968, and Banks’s...
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