Today is the 112th anniversary of the birth of the great English novelist Graham Greene. Though Harry Crews never met him in person (that I know of), Greene played a central role in Harry’s development as a writer, and he often said "Graham Greene has influenced me more than any other writer."
In the 1960s, when Crews was teaching himself how to be a novelist, Greene was at the height of his fame, a bestselling author (and, let's not forget, a prominent Catholic and a spy) whose work was regarded as literature of the highest level.
Greene was from a wealthy family and studied at Oxford, whereas Crews grew up dirt poor in South Georgia and didn’t formally study at all—though he devoured the novels of Mickey Spillane and Graham Greene, when he wasn't reading the Sears catalog from cover to cover. Despite opposite upbringings, Crews locked in on Greene’s work as his ultimate model. He even spent a year deconstructing Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, cataloging every character, setting, transition, all the way down to Greene’s punctuation, in an attempt to understand the nuts and bolts of the book.
"All We Need of Hell (Harper & Row) includes a hero desperately trying to hang on to his physicality, his family and his freedom. There is a vicious handball match, some kicking and stomping, more than a fair amount of Jack Daniels to smooth the proceedings and references to Graham Greene's Power and the Glory. Mr. Crews said that when he first started out as a writer, he was overwhelmed by Greene's End of the Affair."—Herbert Mitgang, New York Times
Once Crews began publishing his own novels in 1968, he made his long-distance worship of Greene part of his own backstory. He told anybody who would listen about how he had patterned his work after his hero from across the ocean. So when Greene published his autobiography, A Sort of Life, in 1971, the Los Angeles Times gave Crews the assignment of reviewing. Unsurprisingly, he loved the book and saw that he and Greene shared the belief that truth can be found in the unexplored areas of the psyche:
“A Sort of Life is not written with any sense of cause and effect or chronology,” Crews wrote in the September 26, 1971 issue. “It goes where memory takes it, and the memory is always how things smelled and tasted, and of dreamlike, mysterious sourceless fears of childhood and early manhood....We stand at Greene’s shoulder as he tries to become a writer, the false starts, the rejections, the spirit-crushing experience of trying to finish that second novel,” Crews continued. “It is above all else, the story of survival, as vivid and immediate and compassionate as any you’re likely to read.”
Crews also learned that his own upbringing was not altogether as different from that of his hero as he had initially thought. Greene’s revealing book told of his own similarly lonely childhood: ignored by his parents, bullied at school, and depressed to the point that he made several suicide attempts. And a description of his endeavors to become a writer could easily be transferred to a description of Crews’ own trials a few decades later. “Graham Greene—you’ve probably heard me quote before, because god knows, it’s true—'The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.' There it is. There it is. Nah, you write things and write things—write a book for instance—and write and write and write and write and write, and you know, it’s not—every writer writes with the knowledge that nothing he writes is as good as it could be," Crews told Dangerous Minds in 2010.
“I’m not really a product of William Faulkner,” he said, his voice at once filled with jazz and Georgia. “Graham Greene has influenced me more than any other writer. People are always talking to me about being a Southern novelist, about being out of the Southern tradition, and all of that crap. All I can say to them is I’ve lived in the South all my life. I was born and raised in Bacon County. But I don’t think of myself as a Southern writer. I don’t think any novelist of any consequence wants an adjective in front of the word novelist. You don’t want to be, ah, I don’t know, a gothic novelist or a black-humor novelist. You just want to be a novelist. It’s true that a writer is told by a lot of stupid people, like English teachers, to write about what you know. But that’s bull. You write about murder, and you never killed anybody. You write about a woman, and you haven’t been a woman, and on and on. What English teachers mean, I hope, and they probably don’t, but what they should mean is that to write and write well you have to be on incredibly intimate terms with the manners of a people, the culture of a part of the country.” —Harry Crews to Steve Oney, Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine (May 15, 1977) [reprinted here at The Daily Beast almost 40 years later