GAINESVILLE, Florida — Harry Crews, an author best known for his gritty tales of the rural South, died Wednesday in Gainesville, Florida. He was 76 and had suffered from neuropathy, said his ex-wife, Sally Ellis Crews.
“He had been very ill,” she said on Thursday. “In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain.”
Crews, author of 17 novels and numerous short stories, also taught graduate and undergraduate fiction writing workshops at the University of Florida from 1968 until his retirement in 1997.
In a 1992 interview with Tammy Lytal and Richard D. Russell at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tennessee, Crews said about writing, “If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”
Crews was born June 7, 1935, in Bacon County, Georgia, the son of a sharecropper. His father died in his sleep before Harry was 2.
In his book, “A Childhood,” Crews writes about growing up in poverty and without books, except for the Bible.
“When I was a boy, stories were conversation and conversation was stories. For me it was time of magic.”
Crews moved to Jacksonville when he was young, and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school.
In “Getting Naked with Harry Crews,” he said his military service was crucial.
“If I hadn’t gone in the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t be a professor in the university. I’d be in the state prison because I was a bad actor and a bad boy.”
He also acknowledged his alcoholism.
“Alcohol whipped me. Alcohol and I had many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home and I was lying in the broken glass with a shirt full of puke and I said, ‘Hey, man, the ball game’s up,’” Crews once said in a profile written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary T. Schmich.
He told her about his views on death.
“I don’t like funerals, don’t like memorials, and don’t like memorial services, and don’t like eulogies, don’t like any of that, and so in my will, when I die, however I die, I am to be taken posthaste to the nearest crematorium and burned up without anybody seeing me.”
The writer also cut an unusual figure, shaving his head or wearing a Mohawk and making every literature lecture a performance. Other writers described him as “riveting,” especially when he was talking about writing.
“A writer’s job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it,” he wrote. “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.”
Crews is survived by his son, ex-wife and grandson. He did not want a funeral service or a viewing, said his ex-wife, who added that Crews wanted to be cremated.