Harry Crews and the Death of Southern Literature

April 3, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 12 4 min read

covercoverThe first words of Harry Crews’ first book, The Gospel Singer, are:

Enigma, Georgia was a dead end. The courthouse had been built square in the middle of highway 229 where it stopped abruptly on the edge of Big Harrikan Swamp like a cut ribbon.

This is geography as metaphysics, and I can never read about the Big Harrikan Swamp without thinking of it. William Gay’s horrifying Twilight followed Crews into the literary Harrikan. Now Crews, who died on March 28 at age 76, has followed Gay all too closely into that bigger, scarier Harrikan that eats us all.

Before that was Barry Hannah, and before that Larry Brown. It’s hard not to notice the way the obituaries make all of these writers sound the same, when they don’t in their own prose. An excessive journalistic focus on their hard-scrabble lives creates the illusion of a school: the rough-and-tumble “Southern Writers.” It’s true enough that the manners described by Hannah, Brown, Gay, and Crews were those of the mid-to-late twentieth century South. However, the mystery each grasps at in his own way extends beyond any real-life coordinates. In Crews’ case, when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy.

I first heard about Crews when I was trying to write a novel about people I’d known when I was living in South Carolina with a stripper several years my senior. I was embarrassed of my novel and of South Carolina. I’d tried my hardest to get the hell out of there — to become unSouthern. But as any Southerner who is a writer and an exile knows, it only really gets in your blood once you’re gone. I wasn’t  trying to convince myself I didn’t hate it, like Quentin Compson; I was trying to convince myself I did. A friend, seeing my struggle, suggested I try Harry Crews.

cover I picked up A Feast of Snakes and was astounded by how radically unSouthern its South was. The book had all the tropes of a “Southern Novel,” sure — alliterative names, bootleg whiskey, dog-fights — but it pushed them so far as to blow them to kingdom come. Which was what I’d been waiting for. I’d read a ton of Faulkner and all of Flannery O’Connor, but, with apologies to Faulkner, the past is, after a certain point, past. (Today, it’s hard to believe that when O’Connor went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, nobody could understand what she was saying. Southern kids text “OMG” like everyone else.) Crews’ book had come out the year I was born, and yet, as I read it at the turn of the millennium, I saw an old coot way out-doing what I thought was new; this wasn’t past at all. Joe Lon, Berenice, and all the snake freaks, dog-fighters, and castrated cops pushed the real South I knew into an ecstatic, rhapsodic space. It was right next door and out of this world.

In a lot of ways, Crews’ irreverence toward regional tradition is to be expected. With World War I, generation displaced region as the primary literary category, Malcolm Cowley once argued. This seems pretty sound today. We don’t really talk about “Midwestern literature” post-Sherwood Anderson (or maybe Saul Bellow). “New England literature” sends us all the way back to Emerson and Thoreau. Yet you still hear “Southern Literature” all the time. It resounds like the drone-string of a banjo every time one of these old white rebel novelists dies.

cover There is still plenty of debate about the implications of the term. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, recently wrote a controversial essay attacking an upstart, upscale rival, Garden and Gun, for “white washing” the South. I like Garden and Gun, but I loved Smirnoff’s attack — except that much of his criticism applies equally well to his own pages. Why does the Oxford American have to be a magazine of “good Southern Writing?” It might not fetishize the South in precisely the same way as Garden and Gun (or Southern Living, to which Smirnoff compares G&G), but it still fetishizes it. There are amazing writers in the South — Suzanne Hudson is the best, in my opinion; seriously check out In A Temple of Trees — but they aren’t good because they’re Southern. So maybe the most fitting tribute we could pay to Harry Crews’ achievement is to bury the term “Southern Literature” alongside him.

But we need Southern Lit, you might say. The South is different — they’re crazy down there — and we require a certain quota of drunk, hard-living scribblers in order to understand them. I’d reply that that’s precisely the reason Southern Literature should be kicked to death like the dog, Tuffy, in Feast of Snakes — with a vicious brutal love. Because it is not the job of Harry Crews to school you on the quaint anthropology of a foreign region or to make you feel better about living there. It is his job to take you to a different Georgia, Enigma and Mystic, a Georgia of the mind. Crews is not a romantic writer, but his works are now being romanticized — and civilized. The Southern Lit industry tells us what to expect when we read these dead gritty Southern white dudes. But the only way to do justice to the  sledgehammer prose of Crews — to allow it to do its work — is to kill off the genre, sacrificing the adjective “Southern” for the sake of what really matters here, which is Literature.

is the author of Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff, and is the online Arts and Culture editor for Urbanite Magazine in Baltimore. Woods’ work has also appeared in the Georgia Review, Style, City Paper, and other publications. He is from South Carolina, but is no longer a Southern Writer.


  1. Good luck with that

    The rubric was employed to ghettoize writing by Southern literary gents and thus looked upon as a negative. But readers in the South don’t feel that way

    And I am not sure that it bothers Brad Watson, Silas House, Tom Franklin, Tony Early Lee Smith,Alan Gurganis to be identified as part of a Southern literary tradition

  2. Anything labeled “Southern writing” always gets my attention, and in a good way, so I am not necessarily in favor of doing away with the label, but I do get your point.

  3. I think part of the point, as Robert points out, is that the label has been and still is used to ghettoize Southern writing. I have heard of New York agents responding to good writing set in the South: “Oh, I love that… but I don’t do Southern.”

  4. Faulkner killed Southern literature via his intractable texts and mindless subterfuge.

  5. I disagree. Southern Literature is needed. It’s needed as long as the South is separated from the rest of the country by others (media, movies, politicians), and sadly, by itself. Southern Literature is needed for outsiders to understand us, and for Southerners to better understand this world. In every bookstore you’ll find a selection of books for African Americans. These books are needed because of separation that still exists. Southern Lit is needed, and even if we remove the genre it will still be sought out. Southerners read Conroy and Terry Kay because they can relate to the stories, and maybe because it makes the Southern world a better place. Maybe because we learn as we look on from the outside. Maybe because it deals with real problems we face and seeks solutions, or at least brings the issues to the forefront. Good writing teaches us, and the South still has much to learn and needs Southern Lit for this reason if no other.

  6. Wonderful sentiments Baynard Woods and I appreciate your articulation. You make many solid points but to me when the struggles of the South and it’s identity are dead, then and only then will Southern Literature be dead. Outkast, Guccie Mane, Big K.R.I.T, UGK are Hip -Hop artists but they are 100% Southern Hip-Hop. If anything we need to kill off the “southern cliche” writing. And as long as the educational system in the south continues to fail then rough and tumble non MFA writers will still be produced. Because these sort of writers emerge later in their life, the next crop is still to come.

  7. Your speaking truth Scott Thompson. Well said. Well said. I did not
    see your post till I posted mine.

  8. Though I love you, Bay, I, too disagree but then, you knew I would. I believe Suzanne could not have written ‘Temple’ had she not been Southern. Because I believe our way of viewing the world and its’ people is directly shaped by being Southern I like the influence our writing has on the rest of the world. We bail out the town drunk and we buy him a sandwich. We wish he wouldn’t drink himself to death but we go to his funeral when he does. Sometimes, we even pay for it. I believe that kind of acceptance is uniquely Southern.

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