(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harry Crews 1935–

American novelist and essayist.

Crews writes about the nature of human faith; his changing attitudes toward religion can be traced through each of his novels. Although he is a Southern writer, Crews's themes are universal and he sets his stories in the South because he knows it best. Like many Southern writers, Crews uses scenes of violence and characters who are imperfect and grotesque to illuminate the spiritual deficiencies of most individuals.

Crews is best known for his first novel, The Gospel Singer, although A Childhood, his stirring account of growing up in the South, is gaining him wider recognition as a talented writer.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)

Martin Levin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Gospel Singer"] cultivates God's Little Acre once again, and reaps a predictably rich harvest of Southern sinfulness. The protagonist in this visit to the Erskine Caldwell country is a silver-larynxed evangelist who is symbolically shadowed by an itinerant sideshow which exhibits geeks in action before the selfsame audiences…. A superstitious man but not a godly one, the Gospel Singer keeps his franchise on the "right to sin" by corrupting a girl from his hometown of Enigma, Georgia, to which he returns once too often for his transfusion of evil. Metaphysics aside, Mr. Crews's novel has a nice wild flavor and a dash of Grand Guignol strong enough to meet the severe standards of Southern decadence. (pp. 46-7)...

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Walter Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Gospel Singer, by Harry Crews, and Do, Lord, Remember Me, by George Garrett, develop the same general material, if not the same theme: both are concerned with modern manifestations of the old-time religion, with the crassness and grotesqueness of man's nature, and with sex. Crews's book has all the hallmarks of a first novel: it is energetic but uneven, competent but clumsy, not finally satisfactory but memorable nonetheless. The narrative is framed by the Gospel Singer's return to his home town of Enigma, Georgia, whence he departed not very long ago on his way to great fame and greater fortune. (p. 159)

First novelists are the Quixotes of the writing trade. Young and as yet...

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Jean Stafford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Naked in Garden Hills" is a novel about absolutes and inequities—Webster says this word is rare; so is the book. One of the fattest men in fiction or in the world, Mayhugh Aaron (but known simply and pictorially as Fat Man) has as his gentleman's gentleman one of the smallest, neatest, most exquisitely wrought Negroes that ever was, John Henry Williams, called Jester. They admire and cherish their contrast. (p. 4)

These two and a handful of other souls, who are no slouches themselves when it comes to the bizarre, live in the rank yellow shadows of a played-out phosphate mine in Florida; the hills of Garden Hills are the creation of a real estate developer and the garden, mass-produced in Peoria,...

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James Boatwright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven" covers a day at the old folks home in Cumseh, Ga., "just a regular old Sunday in the Senior Club," as one character remarks….

It's a preposterous novel, but there is something more seriously wrong. The offensive element is an all too common one—the irresponsible establishment of distance between the narrator and his subject, a willed distance, that allows the cheapest kind of god-playing, the setting up of these quaint, oddly named characters, who frenziedly work out the destiny invented for them by a none-too-clever puppeteer.

The characters are all as devastatingly trapped as they are boorish. The author tries to provide them with a past, with...

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Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harry Crews is … a comic novelist of magnificent gifts. His first novel, The Gospel Singer, was a frenetic sideshow of Georgia poor white trash and their Hochkultur—the faith-healer, the electronic guitar, the lavender, tail-finned Buick with all its windows busted out, a theology that makes a hippie out of St. Thomas Aquinas, an addiction to patent medicines, catatonic sermons and knife fights.

His second novel, Naked in Garden Hills, amplified the matter of the first, searching out stranger perversions and darker roots in the heart. The impact of these two studies of the monstrosity of things has either dulled our response, or Mr. Crews is writing too fast. Were This...

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The New Yorker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In A Feast of Snakes] Mr. Crews takes us down to the backwoods hamlet of Mystic, Georgia, for the annual nightmare festival that begins with the crowning of the high-school Rattlesnake Queen, continues with a pit-bull championship fight, and ends with a Rattlesnake Roundup…. Mr. Crews is a writer of extraordinary power. Joe Lon is a monster, but we are forced to accept him as human, and even as sympathetic. Mr. Crews' story makes us gag, but he holds us, in awe and admiration, to the sickening end.

"Briefly Noted: 'A Feast of Snakes'," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 23, July 26, 1976, p. 83.


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Ferdinand Mount

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Feast of Snakes is all the things it was meant to be—fast, horrifying, funny. The snake round-up is rich swampland. And the vim and style of the telling are not much impaired by an uneasy shifting of narrative stance. Joe Lon's reflections on his life seem too portentiously elegiac for a dumb football star. Rentafreak have supplied one or two characters: the one-legged sheriff, the crazy sister in the back room. Readers will also note that phantasmagoric condoms and chopper-chopping are rather fashionable this year…. Nevertheless, Mr. Crews can more than hold his own in the blacker-than-thou arts.

What pulls the book down is the weight of its morality. The wickedness of the competitive...

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Allen Shepherd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harry Crews's novels … are fast, mean, dangerous, extraordinarily violent, and often horrifyingly funny…. In terms of fictional techniques, Crews is what he says he is, "a very traditional story teller," yet the essence of his art and vision is experiential and aesthetic risk-taking; excess is his mean.

Bizarre and grotesque as his conceptions often are, they are usually surprisingly plausible and consistent: given these people in this situation (large givens), it all follows logically. He possesses his misshapen imaginative world in complete self-confidence, apparently undeterred by pity or compassion. In the skewed intensity of his fiction, much of the known world is excluded, but his obsessive...

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Dawson Gaillard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harry Crews experienced cruelty, violence, pain, terror, love, wonder and mercy—all before he was 10 years old. His book, A Childhood, recreates those experiences, which for a time had found no words except in his fiction….

He needed to go back to the one place of which, not just in which, he had lived. His subtitle, The Biography of a Place, refers not to the geography but to the community of human beings from which he became I, the community of Bacon County, Ga., of the late 1930's and early 1940's.

From this community, he learned how cruel humans, including himself, can be to each other. At the same time, he learned codes of ethics and...

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Shaun O'Connell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Crew's] works, seen together, testify to his leaping imagination, his mission to make us see.

We must see first that his books are imps of the perverse. The Gospel Singer [features a Freak Fair]…. In a way these tent shows are like Harry Crews's novels, each more freakish than the last. Yet his escalation of perversion is balanced by a deepening of compassionate wonder at all that can be contained in the human. As he said in a recent Times interview, "I can say more about what the world out there calls normal by writing about what it calls abnormal." Crews writes about the abnormal without relief, though finally with hope. One of his characters tells her depressed lover:...

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Ted Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Crews, already known as a novelist of flamboyantly Gothic imagination, began to appear in Playboy and had a column in Esquire, where he wrote pieces that were Southern in tone but not always in subject: on the L. L. Bean store in Maine, the Texas tower and the Shenandoah national park, among others.

I read most of his stuff when it first came out, and I thought it was wonderful. Mr. Crews got away from the formula writing of most magazine pieces and managed to turn every assignment into a picaresque adventure….

Reading him, I thought, was sheer delight, even if every article did turn out to be a fragment of his autobiography. On reading him over between hard covers [in "Blood...

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Mark Abley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harry Crews is a novelist whose finest invention is called Harry Crews, or "I" for short…. His creation, I, travels with sordid carnivals, adores motorbikes and lives on vodka, avoiding tranquillity like a plague of milk. I thrives on danger, I seeks out pain, and Harry Crews translates the feeling into words.

His last book, A Childhood, was sustained and unabashed autobiography. Blood and Grits … continues the portrait of a battered survivor, adding scars to a face already torn, adding feathers to a motley cap….

His writing is an act of laceration. Like so many American thinkers, Harry Crews is uneasy with comfort, appalled by suburbia, exhausted with ease....

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Allen Lacy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] essential Harry Crews is contained in his two latest books. One is a lovely and loving memoir about his early life. The other is a collection of 17 essays in which he reveals a great deal about himself while treating such topics as carnival hands, hustlers, and the city folks who deck themselves out in flannel and corduroy from L. L. Bean and drive about the countryside in $70,000 recreational vehicles complete with television sets and indoor plumbing.

In A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, Crews measures the distance between his present life as a successful writer and that dirt-poor time and place where he was born—the middle of the Great Depression, in rural Bacon County, Ga. The...

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Frank W. Shelton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Crews is a very powerful, at times even outlandish, and uneven novelist. In the tradition of Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor in his use of the grotesque, Crews has faced directly the problem of encroachment of modernism on the traditional Southern ways of life. He shows in compelling, and often bizarre and violent detail the consequences for modern Southerners of living lives stripped of sustaining tradition and meaning. Crews is ambivalent toward his Southernness…. Crews, interesting as a novelist himself, is also a suggestive instance of a Southerner writing at a time when regional distinctiveness is on the wane, making use of certain traditional Southern concepts, especially the idea of ritual, but dealing...

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