Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977
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 He also completed his second unpublished novel during this time and cofounded (with poet William Matthews) Lillabulero Press, which published poetry and fiction by Banks and others.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 family moved back to New Hampshire.
Banks began to teach college writing, and his continued association with the Lillabulero Press led to the 1969 publication of his first solo book of poems, Waiting to Freeze. His fourth daughter, Danis, was born in 1970, and Banks’s short stories began to appear regularly. In 1974 he won the O. Henry Award for short fiction and published another volume of poetry, Snow. The next year saw the publication of his first novel, the goofy Family Life, as well as his first short-story collection, Searching for Survivors.
In 1976-1977, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed Banks to spend sixteen months in Jamaica, where he worked full time on his writing and gathered material later used in his fiction. The fellowship led to the publication of Hamilton Stark and The New World in 1978 and The Book of Jamaica in 1980, but it also precipitated the 1977 breakup of Banks’s marriage to Gunst. In 1979, Earl Banks died, freeing Russell to confront the ghosts of his childhood directly in his fiction. (Earl is the model for the elusive Hamilton Stark as well as for several other characters appearing in Banks’s fiction.) Meanwhile, Banks took up a new teaching post at New England College.
In 1982, Banks married for the third time, to colleague and book editor Kathy Walton, and moved with her to Brooklyn. Once in New York, Banks shuttled between teaching duties at Columbia and Princeton Universities, a track which led eventually to his appointment as Clark University Professor at Princeton. The final novel of Banks’s early period, the experimental and quirky The Relation of My Imprisonment, appeared in 1983. Like its predecessors, its seventeenth century form (that of the deviant Puritan’s confession) called attention to itself as written document and literary artifice, as if Banks were still writing academic exercises.
The novel that brought Banks to the attention of a much wider audience of critics and readers, 1985’s award-winning Continental Drift, reveals him to be in full control of his materials and his powers. The novel relates the parallel stories of Bob DuBois, a New Hampshire plumber who moves his family south to pursue his fortune, and Vanise Dorsonville, a poor Haitian who endures rape and imprisonment while emigrating to the United States. The stories unite explosively for the ending, as Bob is stabbed to death during a robbery, apparently with Vanise’s approval. The collection Success Stories expands Continental Drift’s intersection of gender and class issues, using both fable and quasi-autobiographical narrative.
In 1988 Banks divorced Walton and married his Princeton colleague poet Chase Twichell, as if to punctuate his own extraordinary success story. In 1989 the disturbing novel Affliction appeared, with its chilling portrayal of the intergenerational transmission of alcoholism and male violence. Then came The Sweet Hereafter in 1991, a grim examination of how a small town deals with the loss of its children. Both novels were made into successful small-budget movies; it is a measure of their depressing narratives that Rule of the Bone, with its stoned youth, sexual abuse, and violence, seems an almost lighthearted remake of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Banks closed out the decade with the massive Cloudsplitter, a meticulously researched historical novel that compels the reader to take a fresh look at the abolitionist rebel John Brown. In the year of its publication, 1998, he retired from his Princeton professorship to devote himself to writing, securely positioned as a leading American novelist and literary intellectual.