Diary: Tobias Wolff on Harry Crews’ “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place”
(1) One of the houses in which Crews lived as a child in Bacon County, Georgia (from Ted Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews); (2) the Swisher plant in Jacksonville, Florida, where Crews’s mother rolled cigars; (3) house in Jacksonville, left, where the Crews’s lived. Compiled by Tim Gilmore for his Jacksonville blog, “JaxPsychoGeo”
To enter the memoir A Childhood by novelist Harry Crews is to enter another world. Though set in an American state—Georgia—in a time not so distant from our own—the first half of the twentieth century—any temptation to feel ourselves on familiar ground is continually revealed as illusion. The way of life Harry Crews describes here, its culture, relation to the land, its employments, trials, pleasures, and dangers—dangers that he himself barely survived—forbids the comfort of recognition. At times, but for the distinctive American music of the voices Crews records, and the occasional mention of a truck or tractor, we might well imagine ourselves in feudal Europe, or the Russia of serfdom. Or, given the eruptions of interfamily violence begetting revenge begetting more violence, Sicily. His past is indeed another country.
A word about those tractors. They figure as a distant rumor—we never see one, any more than we see the owners of the exhausted, unyielding land farmed by Crews’s family and their neighbors. Those who plough these fields do so with the help of mules, if they’re lucky enough to own one. Crews’s father was not so lucky. He had to harness himself to the plough, make a mule of himself from sunup to sundown. Worn out by the labor, he died at thirty-three, leaving his family destitute.
“Wounds or scars,” Crews writes, “give an awesome credibility to a story.” He himself bore enough of these to support any number of stories. And so, it is clear, did the people he grew up with, their lives scarred by poverty and violence. In the absence of effective legal authority, they were left to settle their differences without official mediation or constraint. Indeed, recourse to the sheriff defined a man as a weakling, destined “to be brutalized and savaged endlessly.” Crews witnessed violence in his own home, and felt it like a pulse in the society around him, brought on by causes great and trivial: “As many men have been killed over bird dogs and fence lines in South Georgia as anything else.” His stepfather, in a drunken rage with Crews’s mother, blew the mantel off their fireplace with a shotgun, and the night might well have come to a worse ending. “I knew for certain,” he writes, “that it was not unusual for a man to shoot at his wife.”
Crews does not use the word “poverty” to describe the conditions of his upbringing, perhaps because it is a word generally understood in relation to the prosperity of others—that is, as deprivation. Little as his family had, their community was hardly better off. They did not see themselves particularly disadvantaged. And in extremity they could for a time depend on the slender resources of extended family or friends. But in truth their lives were a struggle for survival, so desperate at times that “being alive was like being awake in a nightmare.” Their weight went up or down according to the season. The children were subject to rickets, and worms nesting in their throats had to be pulled out by hand to keep them from choking. The family could not afford misfortune, yet misfortune haunted them. When Crews’s mother saw their two precious yearling calves headed toward a barrel of pesticide and ran out to intercept them, Crews, then a toddler, seized that moment of freedom to taste some raw lye his mother had been using to scrub the floor. His cries sent her running back to the house, and from there eight miles by cart to the doctor. When they finally got home again the two calves were dead, lying stiff by the barrel of poison. “The world that circumscribed the people I come from,” Crews writes, “had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it.”
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Hunger, sickness, accidental maiming, unremitting labor for the unreliable reward of another meal, violence, early death. Harry Crews works from a dark palette here, as the truth of his sometimes terrible experience demands, yet the great picture he paints is shot through with light and love, and without even the faintest tincture of bitterness or self-pity. In fact he is grateful for what he sees as the good fortune of growing up where he did, among the people of that place—a feeling sharpened in him by his forced departure when his mother, in flight from her shotgun-wielding second husband, moved her small family to Florida to take a job in a cigar-rolling factory, and Crews finally encountered modernity. Refrigerators and flush toilets, but the air loud with engine noise, and greasy with exhaust. Houses crowded close together, but inhabited by distant strangers rather than old friends and kinfolk. Paved roads everywhere, but no fields, no mules ploughing a furrow “with lovely exactitude.” Dogs roaming the streets, but none herding cattle, or wrestling a sick cow to the ground to receive a dose of medicine.
Crews’s sense of displacement affects us as well, touching us with his own nostalgia for the life he had to leave behind, ugly and hard as it sometimes was. “I come from people,” he writes, “who believe the home place is as vital and necessary as the beating of your own heart … It is your anchor in the world, that place, along with the memory of your kinsmen at the long supper table every night and the knowledge that it would always exist, if nowhere but in memory.”
I give thanks for that memory of his, as I give thanks for the consummate art, and the great heart, that produced this beautiful book, now and forever part of my own memory, where I too have a seat at that long table, drinking in the stories.
Tobias Wolff is the author of five works of fiction, most recently the novel Old School, and the memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army. This post is adapted very slightly from his foreword to a new edition of A Childhood to be published next week by Penguin Classics, alongside Crews’ novel The Gospel Singer with a forward by Kevin Wilson.
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