A southerner who draws inevitable comparison to his predecessors William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah emerged in the last half of the twentieth century as one of the most prominent and idiosyncratic voices in American literature. He grew up in the small town of Clinton, Mississippi, where his father, William Hannah, was an insurance agent and his mother, Elizabeth King Hannah, a homemaker.
Hannah’s experience as a trumpet player in his public high school’s all-state band became a major influence on both his subject matter and his style as a writer. He remained in Clinton through his undergraduate years, attending Mississippi College as a premedical student (B.A., 1964) and working in nearby Jackson as a research assistant in pharmacology at the University of Mississippi Medical School. While the latter experience provided medical knowledge for several of his fictional works, Hannah rejected medicine as a career and chose instead to follow his interest in literature and writing.
At the University of Arkansas he completed an M.A. in literature (1966) followed by an M.F.A. in creative writing (1967). Hannah then accepted a full-time position teaching writing and literature at Clemson University in South Carolina (1967-1973) as a way to support his family (wife Meridith, sons Barry, Jr., and Ted, and daughter Lee). He also found time to continue his own writing, which, from the beginning, attracted favorable critical attention, including the Bellaman Foundation Award in Fiction in 1970 and a Bread Loaf Fellowship for Writing in 1971.
His first novel, Geronimo Rex, begun while he was a student at Arkansas and published in 1972, was nominated for the National Book Award and awarded the William Faulkner Prize. An initiation novel, it evoked high praise for its eccentric, violent, and grotesquely humorous characters and for Hannah’s skillful handling of language. Reaction to Hannah’s second novel, Nighwatchmen, a murder mystery published only a year later, was generally unfavorable, with most critics providing negative reviews or, even worse, ignoring it.
After spending a year as writer-in-residence at Middlebury College (1974-1975), Hannah moved to the University of Alabama (1975-1980), where his reputation as a writer rebounded. Working primarily with Esquire editor Gordon Lish, whom Hannah later proclaimed his most influential editor, he published a number of highly acclaimed stories. These were included in Airships, a collection which established Hannah’s reputation as a significant short-story writer and made him the winner of the first Arnold Gringrich Award for short fiction.
As Hannah’s reputation as an artist grew (American Institute of Arts and Letters Award for literature in 1979), so did the accounts of his life as a hedonistic heavy drinker who was careless with guns. His personal life in disarray—he divorced his first wife and married Patricia Busch, only to have that marriage also end in divorce—Hannah acknowledged that alcohol had become a serious problem for him. His autobiographical third novel, Ray, provides some insight into his suffering.
In 1980 he moved to Hollywood, where he sought and received treatment for alcoholism. Except for limited work on film scripts for Robert Altman, he found himself unable to write in California, but his experiences there provided material for his later novel Boomerang. Meanwhile, Ray achieved both critical and financial success, and Hannah accepted invitations to serve as writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa (1981), the University of Mississippi (1982), and the University of Montana, Missoula (1983). He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1983). Hannah’s peripatetic days came to an end when he settled into a long-term professional relationship with the University of Mississippi (1983) and a personal relationship with Susan Varas, whom he married in 1986.
Hannah’s battle with alcoholism continued through the 1980’s, as did his...
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