In Modern American Memoirs, two very discerning writers and readers have selected samples from 35 of the finest memoirs written in this century, including contributions by such diverse writers as Margaret Mead, Malcolm X, Maxine Hong Kingston, Loren Eisely, and Zora Neale Hurston. Chosen for their value as excellent examples of the art of biography as well as for their superb writing, the excerpts present a broad range of American life, and offer vivid insight into the real-life events that shaped their authors. Here, readers can learn about the time when Harry Crews, playing as a boy, fell into a vat of boiling water with a dead hog; Chris Offutt joined the circus and watched a tattooed woman swallow a fluorescent light; and Frank Conroy practiced yo-yo tricks.
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October 08, 1996
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Excerpt from Modern American Memoirs by Annie Dillard
Harry Crews (1935)
Harry Crews was born the son of a farmer in Bacon County, Georgia, and grew up there. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a sergeant, then attended the University of Florida, where he became a professor of English in 1974.
Author of more than a dozen novels, from The Gospel Singer (1968) to Scar Lover (1992), Crews has also written stories, essays, and nonfiction.
Crews's memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, describes the first six years of his life, under circumstances "where there wasn't enough money to close up a dead man's eyes." His family lived on a series of tenant farms in Bacon County. His father died when he was two. The "daddy" in this memoir is his stepfather, whom he loved. Later he learned that this man was his uncle.
From A Childhood
It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now--the stories, and everything conjured up by them, that I have been writing about thus far--I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Or if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.
I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I'd been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.
Precious. That was my mama's word for how it was between Sam and me, even though Sam caused her some inconvenience from time to time. If she wanted to whip me, she had to take me in the house, where Sam was never allowed to go. She could never touch me when I was crying if Sam could help it. He would move quietly--he was a dog not given to barking very much--between the two of us and show her his teeth. Unless she took me somewhere Sam couldn't go, there'd be no punishment for me.
The house there just behind me, partially under the arching limbs of the oak tree, was called the Williams place. It was where I lived with my mama and my brother, Hoyet, and my daddy, whose name was Pascal. I knew when I opened my eyes that morning that the house was empty because everybody had gone to the field to work. I also knew, even though I couldn't remember doing it, that I had awakened sometime in midmorning and come out onto the porch and down the steps and across the clean-swept dirt yard through the gate weighted with broken plow points so it would swing shut behind me, that I had come out under the oak tree and lain down against the curving roots with my dog, Sam, and gone to sleep. It was a thing I had done before. If I ever woke up and the house was empty and the weather was warm--which was the only time I would ever awaken to an empty house--I always went out under the oak tree to finish my nap. It wasn't fear or loneliness that drove me outside; it was just something I did for reasons I would never be able to discover.
I stood up and stretched and looked down at my bare feet at the hem of the gown and said: "I'm almost five and already a great big boy." It was my way of reassuring myself, but it was also something my daddy said about me and it made me feel good because in his mouth it seemed to mean I was almost a man.
Sam immediately stood up too, stretched, reproducing, as he always did, every move I made, watching me carefully to see which way I might go. I knew I ought not to be outside lying in the rough curve of root in my cotton gown. Mama didn't mind me being out there under the tree, but I was supposed to get dressed first. Sometimes I did; often I forgot.
So I turned and went back through the gate, Sam at my heels, and across the yard and up the steps onto the porch to the front door. When I opened the door, Sam stopped and lay down to wait. He would be there when I came out, no matter which door I used. If I went out the back door, he would somehow magically know it and he would be there. If I came out the side door by the little pantry, he would know that, too, and he would be there. Sam always knew where I was, and he made it his business to be there, waiting.