Harry Crews grew up as the son of a sharecropper in Georgia at a time when "the rest of the country was just beginning to feel the real hurt of the Great Depression but it had been living in Bacon County for years." Yet what he conveys in this moving, brutal autobiography of his first six years of life is an elegiac sense of community and roots from a rural South that had rarely been represented in this way. Interweaving his own memories including his bout with polio and a fascination with the Sears, Roebuck catalog, with the tales of relatives and friends, he re-creates a childhood of tenderness and violence, comedy and tragedy.
The most indelible scene in American literary memoir, for this reader at any rate, occurs about two-thirds of the way into Harry Crews’s A Childhood ... It is a nearly Dickensian anthology of physical and mental intensities ... A Childhood is the best introduction to his work. It explains so much of where Crews was coming from in his blood-tinted fiction ... This memoir has a foot in another world, a weird, old Depression-era America. Crews writes with knowledge and feeling on a wide series of topics ... Harry Crews died in 2012 at the age of 76. His novels, which are mostly out of print, aren’t for everyone, despite my abiding fondness for several of them. This memoir is for everyone. It’s agile, honest and built as if to last. Like its author, it’s a resilient American original.
[Crews'] novels...were flawed, but the memoir is flawless, one of the finest ever written by an American ... The memoir’s title alone merits a small eternity’s worth of consideration: A Childhood: The Biography of a Place ... The title’s colon balances two improbabilities: that the events in the book really did occur in a single person’s early life, and that those events, far from extraordinary for their time or setting, represent a common experience, shared by kin and community ... Even Crews’s nameless characters are as memorable as the main characters of some memoirs ... What Woolf wrote of Dickens is true of Crews: he has astonishing powers of characterization, and he sketches full figures with striking simplicity. Such individuals could seem like caricatures, except that they are seen as children see: with attention, curiosity, and awe ... The bleak dénouements in Crews’s fiction sometimes feel contrived, but the conclusion of A Childhood is one of the more heartbreaking banishments since the angel took up a flaming sword in Genesis ... The beauty of A Childhood: The Biography of a Place is that it animates nostalgia and then annihilates it. Crews never says that it was better then or he is better now, only that this is who he is and this is how it was.
Of all of Crews’ magnificent output, it is A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, first published in 1978 that is the most memorable and is written in a language that will sear the mind and memory ... There are startlingly wild scenes written with hair raising power ... Crew’s word picture capturing this typical scene in Southern life, with its minute collection of images and attitudes, is an example of Southern literature at its best. It is a moving and remarkable artifact of a time and place that has receded into the past ... This review cannot begin to capture the power of the writing of Harry Crews nor the essence of this portrait of the life of a sharecropping family in the Great Depression. All that can be said is, read it. The power of the written word will never be made more clear.