RIP Harry Crews — A Rambling Riff on a Southern Great

Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.

This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure  you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .

I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.

I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.

I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed  me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).

I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.

Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.

Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The  Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.

Book Acquired 1.03.2012 — Tim Tebow Edition

My father doesn’t read a lot of books, or at least I don’t think he does, but I know he read Through My Eyes, the Tim Tebow memoir. I’m pretty sure he must have gotten a duplicate for Christmas, because he sent a copy my way yesterday.

If you don’t know who Tim Tebow is (that is, if you’re not a fan of U.S. football, or not from the States, or you just don’t care about sports, or Twitter, or whatever), he was one of the greatest college players of all time, leading the Florida Gators to two national championship titles and two SEC titles. He’s also a devout Christian, the son of missionaries. He currently is the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, a team he helped take (quite improbably) to the playoffs this year.

Also: a vocal contingent of people really enjoy hating on him.

Not me. Tebow is from my hometown. I went to the University of Florida. I’m a big Gator fan. And even though I’m not exactly simpatico with evangelical Christianity, Tebow has always struck me as a genuinely good, nice person.

Anyway, I have some interest in the book, although I’m sure it’s pretty standard ghostwritten sports celebrity memoir stuff.


Here is what my dad also got for Christmas: a signed Tebow ball. (My name is also Ed, so one day maybe I will have this ball too):


Infected Co-worker Dispatch Form (from UF’s Zombie Attack Plan)

In case you need to dispatch a co-worker this Halloween. From the University of Florida’s 2009 Zombie Attack plan

Infected Co-worker Dispatch Form (from UF’s Zombie Attack Plan)

In case you need to dispatch a co-worker this Halloween. From the University of Florida’s 2009 Zombie Attack plan

Historic Photos of University of Florida Football–Kevin McCarthy


Prejudices up front: not only did I attend the University of Florida, but so did my parents, my wife, and many of my lifelong friends. I was raised on Gator football, and some of my family members, when cut, are known to bleed orange and blue. I think that Tebow is something of a national treasure (surely, had not Clinton succeeded in freeing journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling from a North Korean labor camp, we would’ve sent Tebow), and I acted like a silly fool when I got to meet Urban Meyer last year (he was recruiting players at the high school where I teach English). Not only am I predisposed to liking a book like Historic Photos of University of Florida Football, I also happen to be a former student of the author, University of Florida professor Kevin McCarthy (I will never forget him calling me over to his desk after class one morning, poking me in the chest and commanding me, “Come to class!”).

So, yeah, it’s possible that I’m enthusiastically biased about a book combining archival photos of the Gators with insightful text and captions. Fans of the Florida State Seminoles probably know that this book isn’t for them upfront, but that’s okay. True Gator fans will not be disappointed. Historic Photos of University of Florida Football (new from Turner Publishing) is as much a history text is it is a survey of Gator football, following a team from its humble origins at the turn of last century (McCarthy informs us that “its 1904 team in Lake City was outscored 224-0,”) to its present glories as National Champions.

1930 UF Homecoming
1930 UF Homecoming

Most of the book chronicles the early days of Florida football (over half of the 200 images date from before 1960), and while some fans might be disappointed in a lack of more recent photographs, it’s worth pointing out that in our current media-saturated age it’s not so hard to come by these. Far more interesting are pics of the old days, with sweatered all-male cheerleading squads, bulky leather helmets, and folks dressed up to the nines to go to a football game (if you’ve ever lived in Gainesville you know that even in October a suit jacket, let alone a tie and pants, are pretty uncomfortable). Many of these photos capture the energy and intensity of the game, as well as a sense of nostalgia for a time when college football wasn’t so commercialized.

Steve Spurrier, 1965
Steve Spurrier, 1965

The images collected here transmit a love for both the Florida Gators, as well as a sense of respect for the traditions of college football in general. As the Gators’ indomitable legacy grows, surely this book will one day be referred to as “Volume I,” as there are plenty more touchdowns to be scored, games to be won, and historical moments to be made. Recommended for Bull Gators everywhere.

Historic Photos of the University of Florida


Full disclosure: not only am I a proud University of Florida graduate, but so is my wife, both of my parents, and most of my good friends. So, clearly, I am predisposed to a certain amount of interest in Turner Publishing’s Historic Photos of the University of Florida. This large, hardback coffee table book collects 200 black and white archival photos, arranged chronologically with accompanying text and captions by Steve Rajtar. The book spans over 150 years of UF history including the first fifty years when what was to become the University of Florida was still just an unrelated collection of military academies and agricultural institutes. For me, these pre-Gainesville years were the most interesting–I actually didn’t know that much about my alma mater’s history it turns out.

The black and white photos in the collection range from fascinating (turn of the century images of the first Gator football teams; early gatherings of Tomato Clubs) to humdrum (buildings! More buildings!), but all serve to tell the story of the foundation of the Gator Nation. Rajtar’s commentary is both informative and insightful, explicating the background of the photographs presented in the collection. Having lived in lovely Gainesville, I would’ve liked some color photographs to show off both the beautiful campus and the lush terrain, but the black and white does lend an air of consistency–and perhaps austerity–to the book. Although the book ends with a few photos of the past thirty years, the majority of the volume concentrates on the University’s early history–so sorry, no Tebow folks. Still, Historic Photos of the University of Florida is a must for any self-respecting Bull Gator (starving grad students can skip on this one, though).

Semi-related post-script: While you may not have attended the University of Florida, the institution has a great record when it comes to fiction writing. Padgett Powell is the current writer-in-residence (I remember him giving a reading involving some space aliens; this was about a decade ago); Biblioklept faves Chris Adrian and Chirs Bachelder are both proud UF grads (caveat: we can only assume they’re proud (they’re intelligent, why wouldn’t they be proud?)); Harry Crews was writer-in-res pre-Powell–he’s also a grad (in English education, of all things! (sidebar: he also shares The Biblioklept’s birthday (along with Prince, Michael Cera, Paul Gaugin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Damien Hirst, Bill Hader, and Allen Iverson))). So: plenty of great writers.

Historic Photos of the University of Florida is now available from Turner Publishing.

Don’t Tase Me, Bro!

What happened here?

UF is my alma mater and my own experience with the UPD during those years was actually pretty good. Why do they initially try to cuff this guy?

The Alligator reports he’s arrested for starting a riot. Do you see a riot?

Thanks to Damon for the story.

Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited

While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:

“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain […]”


But Chomsky’s not done yet:

“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones […] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”

Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)


Two things:

First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”

So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.

Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.

I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.