Russell Banks

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Russell Banks 1940-

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Banks's career through 2001. See also Russell Banks Short Story Criticism.

Banks is best known as a naturalistic writer whose works address the psychological effects of poverty, child abuse, and alcoholism on working-class individuals. He has earned praise for his candid prose and trenchant evocations of the anxiety and hopelessness associated with life in economically depressed regions of the United States. Attempting to circumvent what he considers the artifice and didacticism of omniscient narration, Banks employs narrators who speak directly and intimately to the reader. Primarily known for his novels Continental Drift (1985) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Banks has developed a firm literary reputation for his vivid ruminations on the insidious effects of alcoholism, the tenuous relationships between fathers and sons, the changing patterns of community life, and how racism affects modern American identity.

Biographical Information

Banks was born on March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, the first of four children to Earl and Florence Banks. His father was a plumber who left school at sixteen to help support his family during the Great Depression. In 1952, when Banks was twelve, his father took up with a girlfriend in Florida, abandoning the family. His mother found work as a bookkeeper, and Banks assumed his absent father's role as male head of household. A strong student throughout his life, Banks obtained a full scholarship to Colgate College in 1958, but left after only eight weeks. After spending several months at home, Banks decided to travel to Cuba to join Fidel Castro's revolution against the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar. However, his funds only took him as far as St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived in a trailer park, worked a variety of odd jobs, and began writing poetry and short fiction. In August 1963 Banks attended the Breadloaf Writers' Conference near Middlebury, Vermont, where he worked under the tutelage of the noted proletarian writer Nelson Algren. Banks left Florida in the mid-1960s and traveled to the Yucatán and Jamaica, experiences he would later incorporate into several of his works. Deciding to continue his education, Banks enrolled at the University of North Carolina, earning a B.A. in English in 1967. During this period, Banks and William Matthews cofounded Lillabulero Press, a publishing group devoted to releasing poetry chapbooks and a literary magazine called Lillabulero. Contributors to Lillabulero included Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Nelson Algren, Malcolm Cowley, Diane Wakoski, Margaret Randall, and Andre Codrescu. After graduating, Banks began teaching literature at such institutions as Emerson College, the University of New Hampshire, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Princeton University, among others. Two of Banks's novels—The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction (1989)—were both adapted into award-winning films in 1997, by directors Atom Egoyan and Paul Schrader, respectively. Banks has received numerous awards for his body of work, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1976, the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1982 for The Book of Jamaica (1980), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for work of distinction in 1986, and the John Dos Passos Award in 1986. He was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter (1998).

Major Works

Banks began his literary career as a poet, publishing early selections of his verse in 15 Poems (1967), Waiting to Freeze (1969), and Snow: Meditations of a Cautious Man in Winter (1974). In his first prose works, Banks experimented with a variety of literary forms and techniques, revealing a talent for blending fantasy into realistically detailed stories. His first novel, Family Life (1975), is constructed as a fable and satirizes conventional family histories...

(The entire section is 56,591 words.)