Russell Banks Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 He also completed his second unpublished novel during this time and cofounded (with poet William Matthews) Lillabulero Press, which published poetry and fiction by Banks and others.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...

(The entire section is 977 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Russell Earl Banks was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 28, 1940, and raised in New Hampshire. The first in his family to attend college, Banks found the atmosphere at Colgate University incompatible with his working-class background and relinquished his scholarship after eight weeks. He headed for Florida, fully intending to align himself with rebel Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but, lacking enough incentive and money, worked at odd jobs until his career path became clear. He was at various times a plumber (like his father), a shoe salesman, a department store window dresser, and an editor.

In 1964 he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1967. His sense of political and social injustice became more finely honed in this city, which is touted as the most northern of the southern states, the most dramatic incident being the disruption of an integrated party by gun-wielding members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

A John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1976 allowed him to move to Jamaica, where he immersed himself in the culture, trying to live as a native rather than as a tourist. The experience of living in an impoverished nation helped him professionally as well as personally and gave him a broad perspective on issues of race. Married four times and the father of four grown daughters, Banks has taught at major universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Princeton University. Critic Fred Pfeil called Banksthe most important living white male American on the official literary map, a writer we, as readers and writers, can actually learn from, whose books help and urge us to change.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Russell Earl Banks grew up in a working-class family, the oldest of four children. His alcoholic father left the family when Banks was twelve years old. The family then moved from Newton, Massachusetts, to Barnstead, New Hampshire. Angry and directionless, sixteen-year-old Banks stole a car, yet he was a good student and won a full scholarship to attend Colgate University. He soon dropped out, feeling uncomfortable among middle-class students, and went to work as a plumber (his father had been a pipe fitter). The twenty-year-old Banks tried to join Fidel Castro’s army in Cuba. Failing to do so, he married Darlene Bennett in June, 1962, and fathered the first of four daughters. The marriage failed and Banks moved on. He divorced Bennett and married Mary Gunst. This time, his mother-in-law, spotting his talent, supported his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1967. His second marriage ended in 1977.

Chapel Hill proved a turning point in the novelist’s life. Banks discovered the joys of writing (concentrating mainly on poetry and short fiction) and became engaged with politics. In 1982, he began teaching composition courses; he also married Kathy Walton, an editor. The couple divorced in 1988. He then married Chase Twichell, a poet, in 1989.

Banks’s early novels focus on characters living the kind of hard New England life that Banks himself had experienced. Critics describe his early stories and novels as bleak. His main characters are hard to like and rarely are successful. However, the dark energy of his work has been compared to that of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville.

Not until Continental Drift, Banks’s fifth novel, did he begin to receive attention as a major writer. This ambitious work features a complex social canvas of characters based on Banks’s New England experience. The novel also has a more accessible style—leaner and stronger—than earlier experimental novels such as Family Life and Trailerpark.


(Novels for Students)

Russell Banks Published by Gale Cengage

Russell Earl Banks was born March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, the eldest of Earl and Florence Banks' four children. They were a...

(The entire section is 372 words.)