Harry Crews (1935-2012) was an American author (novelist mostly, but also essayist, columnist, journalist, and screenwriter) known for Grit Lit—rough-and-tumble depictions of the Deep South; that is, the south minus the pretty boy face of Elvis crooning “Love me Tender” or shrieking kids on the waterslide during Dollywood summers. Think, instead, of honky-tonk—cubed.
Born tenant-farmer poor in rural Georgia, Crews emerged from childhood— which included a bout with polio, a drunk and violent stepfather, and severe burns from having fallen into a vat of nearly boiling water used to prepare dead hogs—into adulthood, which included two marriages and two divorces (to the same woman), a drowned son, and decades of substance abuse.
Harry and I nose-dived into each other in the mid-1970s, at the University of Florida, where he taught me creative writing.
In a memoir, A Childhood (1978), Crews wrote of his fascination as a kid with the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue (think of Amazon.com decades before the .com) because all the people on its pages were flawless, even perfect. And that was not how the world appeared to this child.
“Nearly everybody I knew,” he wrote, “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.”1
Not so the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue people, whose “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 of in the faces of the people around me.”2
Yet the child knew that “it was all a lie,” and that “there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another, because there was no other way to live in the world.”3
He and his friends started making up stories about them, “forcing the beautiful people to give up the secrets of their lives: how they felt about one another, what kind of sicknesses they may have had, what kind of scars they carried in their flesh under all those bright and fancy clothes.”4
Why, when reading this, did I instantly think of the astonishingly good-looking and happy and fulfilled persons and their beautiful families and big houses and exotic trips all dangled before me on social media? And though, yes, tragic stories go up, psychologists often advise people struggling with depression to stay off Facebook and other sites that allow users to create whatever images that want of themselves. Why? Because, apparently, unlike young Harry Crews staring at the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue people, too many users don’t realize that, whatever wonderful photos appear before their eyes, we’re all fallen and broken beings, and so many scars and hurts and faults are hidden “under all those bright and fancy clothes.”
Our broken realities require a Saviour who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, yet without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15).
1 Harry Crews, A Childhood (Penguin Publishing Group, Kindle Edition), pp. 54-57.