Harry Crews, U. of Florida Writing Professor With Cult Status

AP, The Gainesville Sun

April 08, 2012

Harry Crews, an acclaimed writer who taught from 1968 to 1997 at the University of Florida at Gainesville, died at his home in that city on March 28, at age 76. The cause was neuropathy.

The author of more than 20 novels and memoirs, as well as numerous screenplays, short stories, and magazine articles, he wrote about outsiders leading baroquely hardscrabble lives like the one he suffered as a child and cultivated as an adult.

His cult status has been borne out by rhapsodic testimonials since his death, many from former students. Mr. Crews first came to the Gainesville campus in the 1950s for a bachelor's degree and then a master's in education. He attended on the GI Bill after three years in the Marine Corps. He had entered the military as his family's first high-school graduate, a considerable accomplishment given that he had grown up in dire poverty in rural and small-town Georgia.

While teaching in Gainesville, Mr. Crews sported a Mohawk hairstyle and loud tattoos as part of a character-actorlike bearing that even he said should have drawn bank guards' attention. Some faculty colleagues complained that he should not be allowed on campus for students "to watch self-destruct" with alcohol and other addictions.

Indeed, said Erik Bledsoe, an independent literary critic who has edited collections of interviews and essays about the writer, Mr. Crews was larger than life, often abrasive, and undeniably—and undenyingly—self-destructive or obsessive. "If it wasn't alcohol or drugs, it was writing, or jogging, or bodybuilding, or whatever it was he'd set his mind to, at that moment," said Mr. Bledsoe. "He didn't do anything half-assed."

That included teaching, said Mr. Bledsoe: "He absolutely loved students." Even when he came to class drunk, or late, "he would talk about students' stories in depth. He'd read them and paid attention to them. He took the role and process of being a writing mentor very, very seriously."