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Writer and University of Florida teacher Harry Crews dies at 76

When I visited Harry Crews in Gainesville in 2008, he pointed at the tile floor on one side of his front door. "That's where my last dog died, a few years ago."

Then he pointed to the other side of the door. "And that's where I tried to die myself right afterward." He blinked a couple of times. "Blood is terrible to clean up. I had to hire a crew to do it."

Mr. Crews, novelist, journalist and teacher, chronicler of ruin and redemption in the hard side of the South, died in Gainesville on Wednesday. He was 76.

His ex-wife, Sally Ellis Crews, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the cause was complications of neuropathy, a nerve disorder. "He had been very ill. In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain."

In addition to Ellis Crews, he is survived by a son, Byron. Another son, Patrick, died in childhood.

Born in Bacon County, Ga., to a sharecropper family, Mr. Crews survived polio at age 5 and a fall into a vat of boiling water at a hog butchering at age 6 — both of which he described in A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), one of the finest, and most harrowing, American memoirs in the later half of the 20th century.

Mr. Crews served as a Marine during the Korean War and was the light-heavyweight boxing champion of its 1st Division. In 1956 he enrolled at the University of Florida to study writing; he had been writing stories for as long as he could remember, he often said in interviews.

He joined the UF creative writing faculty in 1968, the same year he published his first novel, The Gospel Singer. Set in Enigma, Ga., it recounts the fate of a faith healer and the maimed, blind and sick who seek his help — just the first of 16 novels he would publish about characters crippled in body and soul, whom he treated with savage honesty and tender regard.

He taught writing at UF for 30 years, intimidating and inspiring several generations of students with his performances in and out of the classroom. He was a legendary wild man whose drink- and drug-fueled escapades were often marked by violence.

"People do like to exaggerate about me," Mr. Crews said in 2008. "But I don't care. Hell, I was drunk every day for 30 years. I drank with both hands. But I wrote every day."

In addition to novels, he published his memoir, many short stories and novellas, and hundreds of magazine articles, ranging from a piece for Playboy on the Alaska oil pipeline to one for Fame magazine about accompanying Madonna to a Mike Tyson fight.

When I visited him, he was still rising at 2 a.m. every day to work on the second volume of his memoirs.

"I won't finish it," he said.

A literary descendant of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Erskine Caldwell, Mr. Crews was the most influential practitioner of the literary genre known variously as grit lit, Southern Gothic and rough South, a style that echoes in the work of writers as various as Hunter S. Thompson and Cormac McCarthy.

Mr. Crews' fiction, teeming with rattlesnakes and pitbulls, violence and spiritual quests, profane humor and strange sex, put off many readers and critics but also earned a passionate following in the 1970s and '80s.

Now, many of his books are out of print, although, his ex-wife said, he was negotiating e-book editions.

No services are planned, according to the family.

For decades, Mr. Crews had sported a highly visible tattoo on his right arm, a skull over the last lines from E.E. Cummings' poem Buffalo Bill's defunct:

How do

you like

your blue-

eyed boy,

Mr. Death?

Times files and wires were used in this report. Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Read Crews' work

An excellent introduction to the work of Harry Crews is Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader. It includes his memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place; two early novels, the Gypsy's Curse and Car; and a selection of his essays.

Among his best novels are A Feast of Snakes, The Knockout Artist and Scar Lover.

Collections of his nonfiction include Florida Frenzy. Crews was an inspiration and mentor to countless writers, many of whom interview him in Getting Naked With Harry Crews: Interviews, edited by Erik Bledsoe.



A student's words

Tampa resident and bestselling author Michael Connelly (The Drop) was one of Harry Crews' students at the University of Florida. Reached in Paris, where on Thursday he was named a Knight of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications, Connelly emailed this:

This is sad news, punctuated by the fact that when the French Minister of Culture read the proclamation today, he mentioned that I was taught by Harry Crews, who enjoys a cult following here. I smiled to myself thinking Harry might like to know of his mention and that he had a French cult of readers.

Harry was the first living writer I ever saw or met. As such he was equally impressive to me for his words and lifestyle. I think the linking word is raw. His work was strong and emotional with a take no prisoners rawness unless it was flat out hilarious — as in All We Need of Hell. He was also just as raw in his life. Rough, in your face, challenging you to dare be a writer. I only took three classes from him — I majored in journalism, not creative writing. He only showed up for two. A grad assistant who was no Harry Crews ended up teaching the third when he was a no show that quarter. But I went to Lillian's a few times and saw him in the barber chair throne. I didn't need to drink there because he was the intoxicant. This was what a real writer was like. I thought, this is like drinking with Hemingway in Key West. Hell, it might've been better.

Writer and University of Florida teacher Harry Crews dies at 76 03/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 10:23am]

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