Issue 147, Summer 1998
Russell Banks was born on March 28, 1940 in Newton, Massachusetts and raised in the small town of Barnstead, New Hampshire, the son of Earl and Florence Banks. His father, a plumber, deserted the family when Banks was twelve. Banks helped provide for his mother and three siblings. An excellent student, winning a full scholarship to Colgate University, he dropped out in his first year with the intention of joining Fidel Castro’s insurgent army in Cuba, but wound up working in a department store in Lakeland, Florida. He lived briefly in Boston, where he began to write short fiction and poetry, before returning to New Hampshire in 1964. Soon after, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he cofounded a small literary publishing house and magazine, Lillabulero.
Throughout the 1960s, Banks contributed short stories to a variety of literary magazines. He was graduated with honors from North Carolina in 1967 and returned to New Hampshire where he taught at Emerson College in Boston and the University of New Hampshire at Durham. The 1971 volume of The Best American Short Stories included fiction by Banks. In 1974 he published a volume of poetry, Snow: Meditations on a Cautious Man in Winter. His first novel, Family Life, was not a critical success, but Banks’s next volume, a collection of short stories, Searching for Survivors, won an O. Henry Award. A second collection of short stories, The New World (1978), received acclaim for its blending of historical and semiautobiographical material.
The working-class New Englander and his struggle with violence became the focus of his next two novels, Hamilton Stark (1978) and The Book of Jamaica (1980). Banks developed his narrative experiments with point of view while deepening his exploration of themes on the barriers of race and class. An interrelated collection of short stories, Trailerpark (1981), brought Banks widespread critical acclaim. The Relation of My Imprisonment, based on the religious and moral struggles of a seventeenth-century coffin builder, followed in 1984.
Banks ascended to the first rank of American novelists in 1985 with the publication of Continental Drift, a dual-point-of-view work about an oil-burner repairman from New Hampshire and a Haitian refugee. The convergence of lives and experiences around violence and tragedy also informs his next novels, Affliction (1989) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), both of which were recently made into motion pictures. Following Rule of the Bone (1995), Banks’s most recent novel, Cloudsplitter (1997), transforms the themes of race and violence into an American epic centered on the story of John Brown.
Banks is married to the poet Chase Twitchell. It is his fourth marriage; he has four daughters from previous marriages. Banks spends most of the year at his home in the small town of Keene, New York. He recently retired from his position as the Howard G. B. Clark University Professor at Princeton University.
Most of this interview was conducted at his home in Princeton. A powerful, burly man with a closely trimmed beard and white hair, Banks sat comfortably in his study surrounded by books, his computer, and a large collection of model and toy school buses.
You began to write in the 1960s. How did that decade influence you? Did you meet any notable figures?
Yes, I met Kerouac. It must have been 1967, a year or two at the most before he died. I got a call from a pal in a bar in town, The Tempo Room, a local hangout—Jack Kerouac is in town with a couple of other guys and he wants to have a party. I said, Yeah, sure, right. He said, No, really. I was the only guy in this crowd with a regular house. So Jack Kerouac showed up with a troupe of about forty people he had gathered as he went along and three guys who he insisted—and I think they indeed were—Micmac Indians from Quebec. Kerouac, like a lot of writers of the open road, didn’t have a driver’s license. He needed a Neal Cassady just to get around; this time he had these crazy Indians who were driving him to Florida to be with his mother. They all ended up crashing for the weekend. He had just received his advance for what turned out to be his last book and was spending it like a sailor on leave. He brought with him a disruptiveness and wild disorder, and moments of brilliance too. I could see how attractive he must have been when he was young, both physically and intellectually. He was an incredibly beautiful man, but at that age (he was about forty-five) the alcohol had wreaked such destruction that it left him beautiful only from the neck up. Also, you could see why they called him Memory Babe—he would switch into long, beautiful twenty-minute recitations of Blake or the Upanishads or Hoagy Carmichael song lyrics. Then he would phase out and turn into an anti-Semitic, angry, fucked-up, tormented old drunk—a real know-nothing. It was comical, but sad. There were a lot of arguments back and forth, then we would realize that no, he’s just a sad, old drunk; I can’t take this stuff seriously. Eventually he would realize it himself and he would back off and turn himself into a senior literary figure and say, I can’t take that stuff seriously either. Every time he came forward, he would switch personas, and you would go bouncing back off him. It was a very strange and strenuous weekend. And very moving. It was the first time I had seen one of my literary heroes seem fragile and vulnerable.
Was Kerouac an early inspiration?
Kerouac was very important to me for a lot of reasons, though not necessarily for the reasons that he was inspiring to other folks. But for a working-class New England kid who was for the most part an autodidact, reading Jack Kerouac, a writer of clear significance, was very liberating—liberating both in literary terms and in sexual terms, as well as in social behavior. He gave me another way to think and walk—validated my life so far and my hopes for that life. I never actually wanted to write like Kerouac; I never wanted to write about what he wrote, particularly. But there was a rough personalism and expansiveness in his work that had gone out of favor at the time. Kerouac reinvoked a Whitmanesque perspective and texture—he renewed the old barbaric yawp, which was very exciting and inspiring. To me, it was something new, although that rough personalism is of course a very strong, old current in American literature with its headwaters in Whitman and Twain. In the twentieth century it got blocked by the power of the Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce models and the high modernists’ affection for formalism. But there was also Dreiser, Steinbeck, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. I think Kerouac reinvigorated that stream, opened it up again. I think that’s what happens with a young writer—a single figure, who may not be major in any way, can help you rethink and re-view writers that otherwise you would have dismissed or feared.
Do you remember the first writer who really bowled you over?
Whitman. It was in my late teens, and I suddenly realized that was the kind of writer I wanted to be. Not the kind of writing I wanted to do, but the kind of writer I wanted to be—a man of the people, but at the same time writing high art. It was the first time I had the sense that you could be a writer and it would be a lofty, noble position yet still connected to the reality around you. You didn’t have to be Edgar Allan Poe, or Robert Lowell for that matter. Whitman was the first figure of that sort.
Do you make a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow literature?
The distinction between high and low culture depresses me, dividing all culture like Gaul into high, middle, and low. It’s a very comforting way to think about culture, so long as you think of yourself as highbrow. I think it speaks to, and speaks out of, anxiety about class, especially in the United States, as people from the lower classes begin to participate in the literary arts and intellectual life in an aggressive way. Then folks start claiming there is high, middle and low culture—so know your place, please, and stay there. I don’t think it would have made much sense to Whitman. Some of the distinctions between high and low culture wouldn’t make much sense to someone like John Brown of Harpers Ferry, for example, who thought that Milton and Jonathan Edwards were as available to him as penny broadsides.
Did you sense that anxiety when you started to write?
I sensed that the culture was run by people who went to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, that it was run by upper-class white men. I don’t think I was wrong. Pick up an O. Henry Award anthology or any poetry anthology from that era—there may have been a few Jewish guys from Columbia—and that’s it. But pick up an O. Henry anthology from 1996, the contributors come from everywhere—white men, women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans. But in the fifties there was no way you could think about culture as something that was not run, not the product of, and not consumed primarily by that small group of white male graduates of Ivy League colleges.
Given this, you were hardly encouraged to become an artist early on?
No. No push in that direction whatsoever.