It’s hard to find a sin against the mores of academe that Harry Crews did not commit.
Students came to know that his attendance was always a variable. Inappropriate relationships with female students were common. Due to a career-long battle with alcohol and drug addiction, he would begin many a semester that he would not complete. The battle with alcohol did not remain off campus, either. It was not uncommon for a student or a colleague to turn the lights on in the morning and find him lying unconscious, in a puddle of one fluid or another.
During his long career as a professor of creative writing at the University of Florida, Harry Crews had a stock answer that he rolled out when questioned about his profession: "I may be at the university, but I damn sure ain’t of the university."
He wanted to emphasize that he was a writer first, and his role as a teacher came in a distant second. But it went deeper than that. He wanted you to know of his distaste for what he considered the odious aspects of university life, the side that was beneath him as a writer. Harry Crews may have cashed a paycheck from the University of Florida every two weeks, but he was not of the university — the faculty cocktail parties, the tenure committees, the footnotes on top of footnotes, the black gowns and processions.
But in truth, Harry Crews was of the university. He spent 30 years at Florida, and several years before that at Broward College. The world outside academe came to know him in the 1970s and ’80s as the hell-raising, bar-brawling, whiskey-swilling Southern Gothic novelist and freewheeling literary journalist who originated a new strain of literature known as Grit Lit. At the peak of his fame, his byline could be found monthly in national magazines like Playboy and Esquire, his dark, twisted novels had an underground cult following, and he wrote screenplays (if unproduced) for Michael Cimino and Sean Penn and mingled with Hollywood celebrities.
But though Crews wanted you to know of his aversion to particular aspects of academe, he also advertised to the public his dedication to his role as a teacher. In fact, another Crews adage spoke to the importance of teaching to his own success as a writer, and how it enhanced his ability to cope with the deadly pressures that surround the very act of writing.
"When I spend three hours in the morning writing and the work is no good, I can go to the university and give every ounce of energy I have teaching a class," he would say. "When I walk out of the lecture hall a little voice in the back of my head says ‘Son, you may cain’t write, but you sure as hell can teach.’"
The fact that Crews made it to university as a student, let alone a professor, was a miracle in its own right. Raised dirt poor during the depths of the Depression on a South Georgia sharecropper farm, he was the first member of his extended family to receive a high-school degree, which he did just barely. After a stint in the Marines, he used the GI Bill to enroll at the University of Florida. Professors he encountered soon after he arrived on campus looked at his work and encouraged him to find the nearest exit. But Crews was driven to write, and that drive, along with a modicum of luck, landed him in the classroom of Andrew Lytle, a member of the famed group of writers known as the Agrarians. Lytle saw a glimmer of talent in the rough-hewn Crews, and a mentor relationship was born.
In the course of researching the life of Harry Crews, I spoke with several of his colleagues, supervisors, and students about his role at the university. At some point, these interviews began to include a standard question: How did he remain employed?
Interactions with the faculty gave him an opportunity to showcase his outsider status. Many a time he offered to settle disagreements in the parking lot. At one faculty meeting, members of the English department were discussing tenure, and what type of publications should be given more weight, peer-reviewed journals or original works of fiction. The very notion outraged Crews. He stood up and issued a challenge: He would produce a scale, and any member of the department could physically weigh their puny articles to see if they measured up to his stack of books. Nobody took him up on the offer.
At another faculty meeting, a department chair chastised Crews for being late. "Sorry," Crews replied, "I was out making literature."
Add a little alcohol, and the stories get more outrageous. One faculty mixer reached an exciting conclusion when Crews threw a vase, missed his target, and connected with an anthropology professor, drawing considerable blood. "She should have known it was going to be that type of party," Crews said later.
Antics such as these are, for the most part, a distant memory on campuses today, as are the larger-than-life characters like Crews who perpetrated them. What we gained in civility, however, we may have lost in originality and spirit. It was in the responses I received from former Crews students that I found practices and ethics that I could incorporate into my own conduct as a professor.
Crews poured himself into his students’ work with the same energy that he did his own. In class, he would amaze students by offering page-by-page suggestions on minor details about their stories, from memory. Even after the class concluded, he was known to run into students in the hall and offer comments on work the student hadn’t thought about for months.
His rough exterior camouflaged a deep compassion for his students. The fledgling writers in his classroom poured their souls onto the page. Crews understood that vulnerability, and the responsibility that came with accepting it. "They are bringing me their blood and bone," he liked to say.
To attend a Crews lecture, students would say, was to witness a performance, or a sermon. Former students, looking back from a window of 30 years, remember him pacing back and forth across the stage, waving his arms as he proclaims the virtues of a particular passage by Hemingway or O’Connor. Or they will describe a night sitting around a table in the dark corner of a bar, where the discussion had moved after class, Crews holding court, buying round after round of drinks and regaling his students with stories, each of which tried to answer for them the essential question each needed to answer: What does it take to be a real writer?
There is a belief in some parts of higher education today that the student is a blank slate, and the onus is on the professor to produce an educated, employable graduate. Anything less is a failure.
If students learned anything in a Crews classroom, it was that the opposite was true. Success, whatever that might be, was 100 percent dependent on the student. It was right there in a Crews course syllabus: "I hope you will not do yourself the disservice of thinking that you are an empty vessel that it is my duty to pour full of knowledge."
His ability to convey his own passion and pass it on to his students was his greatest gift. "After a class with Harry Crews," one former student told me, "you wanted to run home, get the typewriter out, and get going."