There are only twelve more days until Christmas and but 8 days until Hanukkah. In Christianity, the twelve days of Christmas actually refer to the twelve days "from Dec. 25, celebrated as the birth of Jesus Christ, to the Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6.” In Judaism, Hanukkah is observed for eight days, this year from December 24, 2016 to January 1, 2017. For fun, beginning today, through author Ted Geltner's birthday on December 26, we will celebrate a blend of Twelve Days of Crewsmas and Eight Days of Crewsukkah over here on the website, especially as Geltner's family celebrates both holidays. Though Harry Crews himself may not have ordered his life much around a specific religion, and all of us bring in the season in so many unique ways, we'll try our best to bring you a Harry Crews-related "gift" or "light" every day through December 26, so be sure to check back for more posts.
On the first day of Crewsmas, Harry gave to us....the Sears catalog.
Harry Crews is famous for his fond and colorful remembrances of the Sears catalog, which was one of his primary sources of reading material as a poor farm boy in Georgia, along with Mickey Spillane novels. So synonymous was he with the Sears brand, in some ways, that he was interviewed in the PBS documentary "Mr. Sears Catalogue" and also mused about it in Jim White's documentary "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus." Ted Geltner also devotes a page or two in chapter two of Blood, Bone, and Marrow to Harry's pastime of making up stories about the people in the catalog. "Since where we lived and how we lived was almost hermetically sealed from everything and everybody else, fabrication became a way of life. Making up stories, it seems to me now, was not only a way for us to understand the way we lived but a defense against it. It was no doubt the first step in a life devoted primarily to men and women who never lived anywhere but in my imagination. I have found in them infinitely more order and beauty and satisfaction than I ever have in people who move about me in the real world."
Harry Crews reminiscing about the Sears catalog in "Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus"
I recently came upon a holiday-related Facebook post author Tom Poland wrote about the Sears catalog and Harry Crews called "Remembering the Wish Book," which reminds many of us old enough to remember the magical place that doorstopper of a catalog once held during the holidays.
Remembering The Wish Book by Tom Poland
With Christmas just around the corner, what better time than now to remember the Wish Book. What child didn’t love that book come Christmas. A child’s favorite pages ended up torn and dog-eared, with special toys circled. Dreaming of things Santa might bring, the Wish Book represented many a child’s hope for a big Christmas. Adults saw great temptations and things needed to make life more practical. The Wish Book had it all.
It had flimsy paper, was thick as a big city phone book, and served as a mirror of the times. Of course, I’m writing about the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Has anyone seen one lately? No way, unless you stumbled upon one in an attic. The company stopped producing the catalogue in 1993 in response to retailing trends. It marked the end of an era.
Georgia writer Harry Crews remembers the catalogue and in a way the catalogue made him who he is. “In the minds of most people, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue is a kind of low joke associated with outhouses. God knows the catalogue sometimes ended up in the outhouse, but more often it did not. All the farmers, black and white, kept dried corncobs beside their double-seated thrones, and the cobs served the purpose for which they were put there with all possible efficiency and comfort.
“The Sears, Roebuck catalogue was much better used as a Wish Book, which it was called by the people out in the country, who would never be able to order anything out of it, but could at their leisure spend hours dreaming over.”
Crews heaps praise on the catalog. “The federal government ought to strike a medal for the Sears, Roebuck Company for sending all those catalogues to farming families, for bringing all that color and all that mystery and all that beauty into the lives of country people.”
I agree. Strike a medal. I remember it myself, which dates me I suppose. I remember seeing it in my grandfather’s two-seater, the pages torn away in ragged layers. And I remember dreaming over shiny shotguns with mahogany-like stocks when visions of hunting occupied my small boy’s mind. And any man who’s not a liar will tell you he leafed through the women’s lingerie section. Thumbing through its pages was nothing less than an adventure in pure imagination and a journey through America. But it wasn’t all joy.
The Sears, Roebuck catalogue also brought a reality check into some homes. Crews said he first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect.
“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, they had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much in the faces of people around me.”
No doubt, a family eking out a hardscrabble living found the catalogue a tormenting presence, a reminder of its standing in life, a reminder that there are “haves” and “have-nots” in this world. Crews, who grew up wretchedly poor in Bacon County, Georgia, wasn’t fooled by the beautiful models, perfect hair, pressed clothes, and the things companies do to make their products appear perfect and desirable.
“Young as I was, though” wrote Crews, “I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world ... And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the catalogue.”
Crews, using his rich imagination, figured all the beautiful catalogue people were related, not necessarily by blood, but they knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off an on, violence, and hate between them as well as love. And though he couldn’t know it at the time, the stories he spun about the models in the catalogue jumpstarted a unique writing career.
While rich kids poured over the Wish Book knowing their wishes would come true, the catalogue offered Crews a creative escape from abject poverty. For others, its bright pages provided Christmas wrapping paper during tough times, a way to start a fire, and then there were those outhouses.
That was then. Today, Sears produces a scaled-down catalog, the Wish Book (actual name), but it’s just 187 pages, a fraction of its glory days self.
Remember the “big book” with fondness? Then thank Richard W. Sears for founding the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886. A year later, Alvah C. Roebuck came on board to repair watches. Sears sold his business in 1889 and a year later he and Roebuck founded a mail-order operation: Sears, Roebuck and Company, and that led to the first Wish Book in 1893.
It enjoyed a run of 100 years, a century of Americana, memories, and dreams. And for one Bacon County boy, its flawless people spurred his imagination to understand that somehow, even if you were a picture-perfect model, life nonetheless was hard, real, and filled with suffering.
Tom Poland's work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.
He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.
Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about “Georgialina”—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.
On the second day of Crewsmas...
"Harry Crews was a brilliant, maddening, hell-roaring personality who also happened to be a great writer. Blood, Bone and Marrow will stand as the definitive Crews biography. His true life was bigger and wilder than even his own novels." —Carl Hiaasen
CARL HIAASEN was born and raised in Florida. He is the author of thirteen previous novels, including the best sellers Bad Monkey, Star Island, Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, and Lucky You, and five best-selling children’s books, Hoot, Flush, Scat, Chomp, and Skink. His most recent work of nonfiction is Dance of the Reptiles, a collection of his columns from The Miami Herald.
"Harry was one of my all-time favorites." —Carl Hiaasen
On the third day of Crewsmas, Harry gave to us...book picks!
Harry Crews blurbed many books during his day, and would often personally inscribe books he gave to friends, such as Huntley Johnson, who was also his lawyer (and that of many Florida Gators). Here are a handful from Huntley's library with inscriptions from Harry:
God’s Pocket by Pete Dexter “On every page, I did not think Dexter could top what he had done, and on every succeeding page, he did it.”
Set This House on Fire by William Styron “This book was on Faulkner’s desk when he died, and deserved to be.”
Affliction by Russell Banks “The best kind of who-done-it because you already know who did it. It’s the why that kills you.”
A Separate Peace by John Knowles “I remember reading this as a young, unschooled, unpublished (and unpublishable) writer, and thinking, ‘this guy isn’t writing about a school at all’.” I’ve never topped that for critical insight."
On the fourth, fifth, & sixth days of Crewsmaskah...more books!
Today we shine a bright light upon three authors who gave their time and wits to the book and tour. A big thank you to bestselling author (and former student of Harry Crews) Michael Connelly, who wrote the foreword to Blood, Bone, and Marrow and also appeared with Ted Geltner at the book launch in Atlanta, GA, and again in Gainesville, FL, and Los Angles, CA. His latest novel, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list on November 20, 2016. Authors Jessica Handler (Braving the Fire) and Steve Oney (And the Dead Shall Rise) also took time out of their busy schedules to appear with Ted Geltner in Atlanta and Los Angeles respectively, and we're so grateful.
On the seventh day of Crewsmas...a poem was left with care!
Some hang their stockings by the chimney with care, while others like Harry "hang hide out for the rest of us" if they dare. Alright, so it's not even close to "Twas the Night Before Christmas," but the thirty year-old poem "To Harry Crews," by Michael Lee Johnson, seems just the kind of sacred-profane jingle worth a Crewsmas share.
TO HARRY CREWS | By Michael L. Johnson | Kansas Quarterly (Fall 1986)
Breeder of pit bulls!
Teller of tales!
Conan the Floridian!
At the reception you talk
about your hard love
affair with words and work
your way through one more
six-pack of beer.
to either arm.
You said it yourself:
if you can’t get
too much of a thing,
then you don’t want
any at all.
Your brooding brow
bores forward like
glower in your eyes.
Then laughter breaks
from your warrior face
burned with lines
of a nightmare life.
What do you fear,
making such noise?
A manhood that droops,
from disuse. Death.
Your stories are real
as muscle, blood,
bone. Lived through.
But words cannot say
the truth of the self,
and what you do
is worth what
you can get for it.
You reach into your hip
pocket, take out
your wallet, and extract
a snapshot. I look:
a woman weight
lifter, flesh taut
as marble. You roar,
“Now that’s better than
fuckin’ a boy!”
Well, so you go:
over the edge all
the way to the end.
You’ve had the shakes
too many years,
but somebody’s got
to hang hide out
for the rest of us.
On the eighth day of Crewsmukkah...
Tampa Bay Times books editor, Colette Bancroft, chose Blood, Bone, and Marrow as one of her top 10 favorite books of 2016!
"Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews (University of Georgia Press) by Ted Geltner takes on a task with a high degree of difficulty. It's the first biography of Crews, a longtime University of Florida writing professor who was both a brilliant and influential novelist and, to put it mildly, a very difficult human being. Crews' wild-man lifestyle won him a multitude of admirers and as many enemies; Geltner does an impressive job of navigating that to bring readers a clear-eyed, balanced portrait of the man."
Here is her complete list.
On the ninth day...a letter came for Santa Crews...
Tom Nordlie, a public-relations writer for the University of Florida, and former student of Harry Crews, recently shared this amusing story about his old professor through this website:
"Back in the late '50s, when Harry was a first-year student (non-PC term "freshman") at UF, all male first-years were expected to wear "rat caps" at all times and, additionally, to carry a book of rules and traditions on their persons at all times. They were also pretty much expected to perform any servile acts demanded of them by upperclassmen. Looking back from our perspective in 2016 this seems ridiculous and exploitive, but at the time this was an accepted and even celebrated aspect of the college atmosphere.
Well, Harry told us that one day he was walking across campus bare-headed when he was challenged by an upperclassman who recognized h. (Keeping in mind that Mr. Crews was older and more worldly than many of his classmates, being in his early 20s, a United States Marine and a formidable boxer.)
The upper classman asked, "where's your rat cap?"
Harry pulled it from his pocket.
"I've got it."
The upperclassman pointed out, "you're supposed to be *wearing* that cap."
Harry said he tossed the cap on the ground and stated, "if you think you're man enough, you go on an' pick it up and put it on my head."
The upperclassman demurred, and walked away.
Yeah, I just bet he fucking did."
On the 10th day of the Harry Holidays...
Do join us in wishing Ted Geltner a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY, today!
Picture it! Brooklyn, NY. Tuesday, December 26, 1967. Little Teddy Geltner (as he was known until the early ‘80s) arrived into the world on the first day of Hanukkah and the day after Christmas. The author of Blood, Bone, and Marrow practically seemed destined to publish a biography of Harry Crews, as he shares a birthday with none other than Crew’s mentor and teacher, author Andrew Lytle (b. 1902). He also shares a birthday with the mordantly funny writer David Sedaris (b. 1956), who many will agree wears a similar Southern Gothic mantle as Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor in his regular celebration of life’s misfits and freaks. This might well explain Ted's own wicked sense of humor!