Harry Crews (1935-2012)

Southern writer Harry Crews died Wednesday, March 28. He was 76 years old.

Harry Crews is one of those literary figures whom people either know very well or not at all. If you have read Harry Crews, it is likely that you have devoured most everything he put to paper. Some of it was not so great, but some of it is some of the most visceral, terrifying, and hilarious writing that has ever come out of the South.

I count his memoir, Childhood: The Biography of a Place, among one of the best pieces of Southern writing, period. It is here that we learn where Crews developed his empathy for the scarred, the grotesque, and the physically challenged. Harry Crews, for part of his childhood, was all of those things.

Playing as a young boy, Crews fell into a vat of boiling water with a dead hog. He suffered, confined to a bed for months with severe burns.

Crews also was bed-ridden for six weeks at the age of five, when his legs inexplicably tightened up (it is believed he had Polio), pulling his heels to the backs of his thighs.

I believe that we gain empathy through our own suffering. Perhaps I want to believe this because in childhood, I dealt with a handful of afflictions, mental and physical, which left me exposed to ridicule and scorn. Granted, I was fortunate enough to not live in south rural Georgia in the 1930's (my childhood was a dream compared to Crews'), but through these trials I developed a heightened sense of empathy that I carry with me to this day.

Harry Crews, through his wild, campy, gothic stories and outlandish casts of characters, taught us a great deal. He taught us that freaks are just as human as anyone else. He taught us that what we often see as personal defects are quite often our greatest assets. He taught us that our desire to be accepted and loved will lead us to ruin if we are not grounded. He taught us that no matter what snake oil is being peddled, and no matter how slick the peddler, we would do well to question the claims.

In many ways, Harry Crews was a skeptic. He wrote a great deal about religion -- there was the charismatic, but highly flawed faith healing Evangelical in 'The Gospel Singer,' the snake-handlers in 'A Feast of Snakes' to name a few -- but a running theme throughout all of his books was the search for the truth.

“I think all of us are looking for that which does not admit of bullshit," said Crews in an interview. "If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we'll load up the bar and put you under it. Either you can do it or you can't do it—you can't bullshit.”

The loss of Harry Crews is a great loss for Southern literature, for the South, and for literature, period. He was a huge inspiration to me. He dished out a lot of tough love. Through his own personal trajectory, he reminded me that anyone can create art if they work hard enough. He reminded me that a life in which we don't continuously seek the truth is a life that has not been lived fully.

As a tribute to Crews, I have collected some of my favorite Crews passages and quotes from interviews:

"I know what it's like to have people look at you and [have] their face mirror your own rather dreadful circumstances. That is to say, your freakishness. And there were other times I felt freakish, too. ... When I left the farm and went into the Marines. Here I am, a boy off a farm in Georgia, who, among other things, I didn't know what a pizza was. Never heard of one. Didn't know what pepperoni was. So I go to Paris Island and the Marine Corps, in a platoon of boys from New Jersey, New York. Well, everything about my speech, the idiom of my speech was all wrong."

“I first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect. Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn't have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful.”
― A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

“If you wait until you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read - if you wait for the time, you will never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

"A writer's job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it. To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let's get to where the blood is, where the bone is."

"When I first got out of the Marine Corps, I travelled with a circus for about six months, and it had a freakshow. One guy had a deformity in the middle of his forehead that looked just like an eye, so they billed him as Cyclops. And there was a woman with a beard—I don't mean just fuzz, I mean a black beard. They let me sleep in the back of the trailer, and I remember one morning seeing them alone together. I could cry right now because it was just so sweet. He was kissing her, and she was hugging him, and they were talking about what they were going to have for supper. Now, how is that being a freak? I think it's a man and a woman doing the best they can with what they got. That, incidentally, is my definition of fiction."

"Survival is triumph enough."


15 Reasons Why North Carolinians Should Vote Against Amendment 1

1. Amendment 1 is poorly written
Many who are voting for Amendment 1 do not understand this poorly written amendment's implications beyond same-sex marriage. This amendment, if passed, would affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

2. Amendment 1 harms children
Amendment 1 strips legal protections from children (and not just children of same-sex couples).

3. Amendment 1 harms families
Amendment 1 bans all legal relationship recognitions except for married heterosexual couples, leaving all single-parent households, unmarried couples (with or without children), and domestic partnerships without many crucial legal protections.

4. Amendment 1 will harm seniors
Widowed or single senior couples could be forced to marry to maintain their legal protections, which would result in loss of benefits such as pensions, health care, and social security.

5. Amendment 1 may invalidate domestic violence and stalking laws as they apply to non-married couples
Domestic violence laws may only apply to married heterosexual couples if Amendment 1 passes, leaving unmarried women without protection. When a similar constitutional ban passed in Ohio, domestic violence convictions were overturned as a result.

6. Amendment 1 is bad for business
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce has stated that "North Carolina’s proposed Amendment 1 is bad for business. It will interfere with employer’s ability to recruit talent and their right to provide competitive benefits to their employees. It also signals to employers and employees that North Carolina is not welcoming to the diverse, creative workforce that we need to compete in the global economy. We should not do anything that diminishes any corporation's interest in locating or remaining in North Carolina." Many North Carolina businesses agree, including Bank of America, House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, Replacements Ltd., and Capstrat.

7. Same-sex marriage is already illegal
The Amendment does not change the legal status of same-sex marriage in North Carolina. It will however, have cascading effects to the lives of children, families, seniors, and unmarried heterosexual couples. And do we really need to enshrine discrimination in our state constitution?

8. Same-sex marriage is inevitable
North Carolina State University House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), once a strong backer of the marriage ban, stated that he believes Amendment 1 will pass, but he believes it won’t remain long. “If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years,” he stated. Desegregation was inevitable, and many fought it at the time. Do we really want to look back and be reminded that we voted to enshrine discrimination at a time when equality was becoming mainstream?

9. If your faith compels you to vote in favor of Amendment 1, you are blurring matters of church and state
If we are to write religious ideology into our constitution, where do we draw the line? Do we outlaw tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), divorce (Mark 10:9), and shellfish (Leviticus 11:10)? Do we allow Sharia Law for our muslim citizens? There is a reason why, as Americans, we don't legislate religious ideology. It's a slippery slope.

10. Faith leaders across NC are speaking out against Amendment 1
If you don't believe you can reconcile your faith with your vote against Amendment One, you may want to consider the hundreds of faith leaders from across the state who have pledged to vote against. Many have recorded video messages in which they share how their faith requires they vote against the amendment.

11. People who have devoted much of their lives to North Carolina and its citizens are speaking out against Amendment 1
Many people who have spent their entire lives working to make North Carolina great have spoken out about how Amendment 1 is bad for our state, including NC Libertarian Party Chair J.J. Summerell, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Bev Purdue, Bob Etheridge, Rep. David Price, Russell and Sally Robinson (Russell is the grandson of the NC Constitution's principal drafter), Rep. Bill Faison, Sen. Eric Mansfield, Durham City Council Member Mike Woodard, and Duke Political Science Professor Michael Munger. Do you really believe that all of these proponents of our great state are part of a radical, extremist agenda to destroy the place they call home?

12. Sexuality is not a choice
Sexual orientation is determined by a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental influences. The biological factors related to sexual orientation involve a constellation of genetic factors, as well as brain structure and early uterine environment. The following major medical and professional organizations have concluded that sexual orientation (and gender identity) is not a choice: American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Association of Social Workers, Royal College of Psychiatrists, and American Academy of Pediatrics. If you don't agree, when did you make the conscious choice to be heterosexual? Should our great state discriminate against people based on their natural traits?

13. Children do just fine in families with same-sex parents
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the Child Welfare League of America, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and the Canadian Psychological Association are all in agreement: Each has issued reports and resolutions in support of gay and lesbian parental rights. But let's not forget, this amendment also discriminates against single parents and unmarried heterosexual couples and their children.

14. Marriage has not always been defined as a union between a man and a woman
To characterize marriage as "the union between a man and a woman as designed by God," is, quite simply, to freeze the definition of marriage at the point in human history that suits your idea of what marriage should be -- with total disregard for how marriage came about, how it evolved, and how it will inevitably continue to evolve.

15. Less government in our lives
Regardless of political affiliation, Americans seem to agree that we would all like to see less government intrusion in our lives. This is a mantra to Libertarians. Conservatives decry what they see as the Obama Administration's desire to control our health care. Democrats largely stand united against the GOP's desire to control family planning. We all seem to agree on one thing: We need less government intrusion in our lives. Why should we allow the government to decide who we choose to love, who we choose to live with, and how we choose to raise our families? We have the chance on May 8 to send a clear message:

For more information on the harms of Amendment 1, please visit:
Protect All NC Families
Neighbors For Equality

Please donate what you can to help fund television ads to inform North Carolinians about the harms of Amendment 1.

Volunteer to help beat Amendment 1 on May 8:
Protect All NC Families
Neighbors For Equality

Most importantly, vote on May 8. (Are you registered?)

Read about why I am voting against Amendment 1:
Why A Heterosexual, Married, North Carolinian Father Of Three Cares About LGBT Equality


How Religious Is Your State?

A new Gallup survey reveals that all our stereotypes about religiosity and US geography are correct. Surprise, surprise: Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, and Louisiana are the most religious states. And lo and behold, the Northeast (that hotbed of liberal Democrats and ivy league schools) are the least religious.

Via LiveScience:
A new Gallup survey reveals which U.S. states are most and least religious, with the South living up to its Bible Belt label, while other states were less likely to attend religious services.

The results are based on telephone interviews conducted between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2011, with a random sample of 353,492 adults, ages 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Here are the rankings:
Mississippi: 59 percent are very religious
Utah: 57 percent
Alabama: 56 percent
Louisiana: 54 percent
Arkansas: 54 percent
South Carolina: 54 percent
Tennessee: 52 percent
North Carolina: 50 percent
Georgia: 48 percent
Oklahoma: 48 percent
Texas: 47 percent
Kentucky: 47 percent
South Dakota: 45 percent
Indiana: 45 percent
Missouri: 44 percent
North Dakota: 44 percent
Nebraska: 44 percent
West Virginia: 43 percent
Virginia: 42 percent
Idaho: 42 percent
New Mexico: 41 percent
Iowa: 41 percent
Minnesota: 40 percent
Pennsylvania: 40 percent
Ohio: 39 percent
Maryland: 39 percent
Florida: 39 percent
Illinois: 39 percent
Wisconsin: 37 percent
Michigan: 37 percent
Arizona: 35 percent
Montana: 35 percent
California: 35 percent
Wyoming: 34 percent
New Jersey: 34 percent
Delaware: 33 percent
Colorado: 33 percent
Hawaii: 33 percent
Rhode Island: 32 percent
New York: 32 percent
District of Columbia: 32 percent
Connecticut: 31 percent
Washington: 30 percent
Nevada: 30 percent
Oregon: 30 percent
Alaska: 28 percent
Massachusetts: 28 percent
Maine: 25 percent
Vermont: 23 percent are very religious
New Hampshire: 23 percent

It is worth noting that five years ago I moved from the least religious state to the eighth most religious state. It has been quite an adjustment.

Read the full story here.

It is also worth mentioning that this data aligns quite well with so many other telling characteristics of our US states.