Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Celebrating the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair: first editions by Harry Crews and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ memoir, Cross Creek (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1st ed., 1st printing, 1942).


Rawlings’ 1938 novel, The Yearling, won her critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize; two books later she returned to her rural Florida homestead for this autobiographical account of her first decade there. The book contains colorful portraits of neighborhood, characters, including one Zelma Cason, whom she described as “an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her ministrations think nothing at being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed, or guided through their troubles."

Cason, who wore pants, had an inordinate fascination with guns, and swore with such vigor neighbors claimed they could hear her a quarter mile off, took umbrage at Rawlings’ profile, hired one of the first women lawyers in Florida, and sued Rawlings for libel. Though Rawlings won at trial, the judgment was overturned on appeal and Rawlings was assessed damages of $1.

Bitterly disappointed, Rawlings moved away from Cross Creek and never wrote of her life there again. Despite the personal fallout Cross Creek caused, the book was a financial success. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and was issued in a servicemembers’ edition during World War II. A film version, issued in 1983, won Alfre Woodard an Oscar nomination for best-supporting actress.

Henry Bemis Books’ copy is a hardcover, unclipped but worn dust jacket. Some yellowing to the edges of the text block. Copyright page bears the Scribner “A”.  Original purchaser’s bookplate on the endpaper; her name is written on the half title with the date, April 1942. Good condition overall. HBB price: $35.

“There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”

scar lover.jpg

Crews, Harry, Scar Lover (Poseidon Press/Simon & Schuster, 1st ed, 1st printing, 1992). ISBN 0-671-74489-5. A man in Jacksonville, avoiding his past, his family gone, is slowly drawn back into life by a good woman. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, very good condition. Rare copy of a critically-acclaimed writer’s work; the singer Maria McKee wrote a song based on it. Crews dedicated Scar Lover to actor Sean Penn, who filmed another Crews novel, The Indian Runner. HBB price: $45 obo.

Publisher’s Weekly wrote:

Although this demented and darkly humorous tale is billed as Crews' "most mainstream'' novel, rest assured he hasn't gotten there quite yet. Acerbic college-dropout Pete Butcher loathes himself for accidentally causing his little brother brain damage with a claw hammer, and he is haunted by the sight of the dual dents on the child's forehead. On his way to a Jacksonville, Fla., warehouse--where he works with a Rastafarian whose wife repeatedly brands him to commemorate each year they are together--Pete encounters Sarah Leemer, a handsome, mesmerizing young woman with a golfball-like lump in her breast. Against his better judgment, he and Sarah become lovers and he is welcomed into her family, which includes a mentally unhinged mother who has just had a radical mastectomy and a father who complains of a bad heart ``the size of a watermelon.'' The suffering foursome have just achieved an uneasy peace when tragedy strikes them anew, launching its survivors into a gruesome, comical, grimly poetic night of graphic death and Rasta remedies. Pete's sudden responsibility to the Leemers serves to expiate his guilt over his brother; Crews admirably sustains his theme of disfigurement and healing, and if the finale is slightly ambiguous it still bears its author's trademark perverse twist.

Imagine, if you can, a cross between Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. Imagine him, next, a frequently drunk, profane ex-Marine who said he grew up in “the hookworm and rickets belt” of South Georgia. If you can conjure the likes of that, then you’ll feel right at home in the works of the novelist Harry Eugene Crews (1935-2012).

His family, and all his new neighbors as they moved, once a year, from one played out sharecropper farm to another, were so poor and ignorant most others who were poor and ignorant would have gazed on them, scratched their heads in wonder, and said, “Really?”

His childhood reading was mostly the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Besides owning all the cool stuff in the world, they were astonishingly clean and happy-looking. At five, he survived a bout with polio, his legs drawn up behind him, racking him in spasms, as relatives, gawkers, and faith healers consulted on the case.

After he got his legs back, he managed to fall into a cauldron of scalding water used to sear the hair off hog carcasses and lived.
Crews got the hell out of Dodge at seventeen. After three years in the Marines, he got a BA in literature and an MA in education at the University of Florida, where he studied with the Southern Agrarians novelist Andrew Lytle.

Even by the lurid standard of postwar Southern Gothic, Crews’ work was weird. He was 36 when his first novel was published. Margalit Fox wrote of it in his New York Times obit,

“The Gospel Singer,” published in 1968, [was] about a traveling evangelist who meets a lurid fate in a Georgia town, features characters of the sort that would people his dozen later novels: sideshow freaks, an escaped lunatic and a sociopath or two.

“You don’t intend to make a career out of midgets, do you?” Mr. Crews’s wife asked him early in his writing life.

Indeed he did. Besides midgets, later novels feature a 600-pound man who consumes titanic quantities of the diet drink Metrecal (“Naked in Garden Hills,” 1969); a woman who sings tenderly to her dead husband’s skull (“Scar Lover,” 1992); and, perhaps most famously, a man who eats an automobile — a 1971 Ford Maverick, to be exact — four ounces in a sitting (“Car,” 1972).

Crews and his wife married and divorced twice in a decade. They had two sons, and one drowned when he was four.

With articles in men’s magazines like Playboy and Esquire, Crews built following. Margalit Fox wrote,

Though his books captivated many reviewers, they were not the stuff of best-seller lists, in part because they bewildered some readers and repelled others. But they attracted a cadre of fans so fiercely devoted that the phrase “cult following” seems inadequate to describe their ardor...Despite their teeming decadence, or more likely because of it, Mr. Crews’s novels betray a fundamental empathy, chronicling his characters’ search for meaning in a dissolute, end-stage world. His ability to spin out a dark, glittering thread from this tangle of souls gave him a singular voice that could make his prose riveting.

In addition to his journalism, Crews published fifteen novels, three collections of essays, and a memoir of his childhood. A rock band was named for him, and several others wrote songs based on his work. One of his books, The Indian Runner, was made into a movie by Sean Penn.

He quit drinking in the 1980s. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. “I had an ex-wife and I had an ex-kid and I had an ex-dog and I had an ex-house and I’m an ex-drunk,” he told The Times in 2006. “I’ve supported whores and dopers and drunks and bartenders. Thank God I don’t do that anymore.”

"Listen,” he told one of his last interviewers, “if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark."

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ memoir, Cross Creek (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1st ed., 1st printing, 1942).

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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