Russell Banks, novelist steeped in the working class, dies at 82

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Russell Banks, novelist steeped in the working class, dies at 82
The author Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, in Miami, Sept. 26, 2011. Banks, whose vivid portrayals of working-class Americans grappling with issues of poverty, race and class placed him among the first ranks of contemporary novelists, died on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 82. (Oscar Hidalgo/The New York Times)

by Rebecca Chace

NEW YORK, NY.- Russell Banks, whose vivid portrayals of working-class Americans grappling with issues of poverty, race and class placed him among the first ranks of contemporary novelists, died Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was 82.

His literary agent, Ellen Levine, said the cause was cancer.

The prolific author of 21 works of fiction and nonfiction, Banks brought his own blue-collar background to bear in his writing, delving into the psychological pressure of life in economically depressed towns in the Northeast, their stark reality often shadowed by the majestic Adirondacks of northern New York state.

“In Banks’ world, geography is a kind of grim destiny,” Jennifer Schuessler wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2008.

Two of his novels, “Continental Drift” (1985) and “Cloudsplitter” (1998), were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

“Continental Drift,” his breakthrough novel, proclaimed itself with a bold statement: “This is an American story of the late 20th century.”

Bob Dubois, a disillusioned New Englander looking for a break in Florida, and Vanise Dorsinville, a young Haitian woman trying to make her way to that state by any means necessary, drove the narrative as Banks traced his personal reckoning with race and class through the separate trajectories of these two disparate characters.

The result was a “visionary epic about innocence and evil and a shattering dissection of contemporary American life,” Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote.

Literary accolades and acclaim soon followed. Banks received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1985 as well as his first Pulitzer Prize nomination.

In his monumental work “Cloudsplitter,” Banks took on John Brown, the radical abolitionist who was hanged in 1859 after leading an armed assault on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia, in a failed attempt to establish a bastion for freed slaves in the surrounding mountains.

This ambitious and fully realized novel struck close to home for Banks, who lived for eight months a year in Keene, New York, a small Adirondacks town close to the John Brown farm and burial site. Banks took his title from the English translation of Tahawus, the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks, which can be seen from Brown’s farm.

Discussing the foundations of the book in The Paris Review in 1998, he said, “I am interested in the whole question of the possibility of heroism, especially in a secular age and especially in a democratic society.”

He noted that many Americans, particularly Black ones, considered Brown a hero, while other Americans, particularly many white ones, viewed him as a criminal madman. And he observed that groups on the fringes of American life — radical anti-abortionists and extremist militias, for instance — had evoked Brown’s name, making Banks further aware of Brown’s contemporary resonance.

“Is there such a thing as heroism?” he asked in the interview.

Banks’ writing developed from a self-consciously experimental style in his early books to the gritty realism that brought him renown. And as he became more self-confident as a writer, he increasingly connected his own life experiences to his explorations of American mythology — as he did in “Rule of the Bone” (1995), in which a young rebel rejects what passes for civilization to light out for parts unknown.

That book’s 14-year-old narrator, Chappie, follows in his author’s footsteps as he flees upstate New York and heads south with little more than youthful bravado. Banks had made the same journey at 18.

In an authorial nod to “Huckleberry Finn,” Chappie tells his tale with swagger: “You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not.”

In much of Banks’ writing, his concerns about race, class and power repeatedly surfaced, with particular attention given to the powerless and the overlooked, especially his outwardly unremarkable blue-collar characters.

“There’s an important tradition in American writing, going back to Mark Twain and forward to Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, whose work is generated by love of people who are scorned and derided,” Banks told The Guardian in 2000. “I have an almost simple-minded affection for them. My readers are not the same as my characters, as I’m very aware. So I’m glad when they feel that affection too.”

Russell Earl Banks was born March 28, 1940, in Newton, Massachusetts, just west of Boston. His father, Earl Banks, was a plumber, and his mother, Florence (Taylor) Banks, was a homemaker and bookkeeper.

The eldest of four children, Russell was raised in Barnstead, New Hampshire, a small town about 90 miles north of Newton. He was open about his father’s alcoholism and the physical abuse his father inflicted on him as a child — a blow to the head cost him the mobility of his left eye — but he also acknowledged his conflicting feelings about him.

“I don’t remember not being physically afraid of my father,” he told People magazine in 1989. “I hated my father, and I adored him.”

Earl Banks left when Russell was 12, and the family moved back to Massachusetts, settling in Wakefield, where Russell Banks worked odd jobs to help support his mother and siblings. He excelled in school, earning a full scholarship to Colgate University and becoming the first in his family to attend college.

Colgate at that time was an all-male institution for sons of the upper middle class. Banks left after eight weeks, hitchhiking through a snowstorm with the romantic notion of joining Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. He was already thinking of himself as an artist — inspired by the spirit, if not the stream-of-consciousness writing style, of Jack Kerouac, another son of Massachusetts, whose explosive novel “On the Road” was published when Banks was 17.

“Kerouac was a working-class boy from Lowell, and it wasn’t too hard to make an identification,” Banks told literary journal Ploughshares in 1993.

He told The Paris Review: “I only got as far as Miami. By that time Castro was marching into Havana and didn’t need me anymore. Also, I realized I didn’t quite know how to get from Key West to Cuba, and I couldn’t speak Spanish.”

Remaining in Florida for a time, he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a mannequin dresser at a Montgomery Ward department store, where he met Darlene Bennett, a salesclerk. They married and eventually moved to Boston, where their daughter, Lea, was born in 1960. Banks found work in a bookstore, fell in with a literary crowd and began to write poetry and short stories.

“Bohemianism is a useful way for a person to drop out of the class wars of America,” he told Ploughshares.

In 1963, after a brief return to New Hampshire, where he worked as a plumber and pipe fitter alongside his father, Banks attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he met his first real mentor, novelist Nelson Algren. By this time he had divorced his first wife and married Mary Gunst, a poet, with whom he had three daughters. When her wealthy parents offered to pay his tuition to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he gratefully accepted.

While at college, he co-founded a small literary press and magazine, Lillabulero, and entered into the social ferment of the civil rights era, becoming involved with Students for a Democratic Society and participating in protests. He graduated with honors in 1967.

During this time he published two volumes of poetry; a first novel, “Family Life” (1975); and his first short-story collection, “Searching for Survivors” (1975), which won an O’Henry Award.

The family eventually returned to southern New Hampshire, where Banks began teaching creative writing at New England College. He taught at several other institutions over the decades, including Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University; in 1982 he joined the faculty at Princeton University, where his colleagues included Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates.

His mature prose style began to emerge in “Hamilton Stark” (1978), a critically acclaimed novel about a misanthropic New Hampshire pipe fitter, not unlike his father. His next novel, “The Book of Jamaica” (1980), revolved around a white American living in Jamaica who wrestles with his embedded racism and the country’s colonialist history. Both novels were ambitious works that sought to dismantle the unfulfilled promises of America through the gimlet eye of the white working class.

“Continental Drift” had its roots in “The Book of Jamaica.” Beginning in 1976, Banks spent a year and a half in Jamaica on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation; while there he became obsessed with the history of that island nation as well as the entire Caribbean basin.

That period was a moral turning point for him, as he explained in The Paris Review.

“I began to live my life more consciously and aggressively in racial and class terms, laying the ground on which I stood a few years later when I wrote ‘Continental Drift,’” he said. He would make Haitian immigrant Vanise one of that book’s central characters.

Building on the success of that novel, Banks spent the 1980s and ’90s solidifying his craft in works like “Affliction” (1989), a father-son story dealing with domestic violence. Banks dedicated that book to his father and admitted to The Guardian that his own experiences were omnipresent in it.

“He died in 1979,” he said of his father, “and yet he appears in my dreams two or three times a week, as he was in his mid-40s, when he was at his most powerful. He left a residue of violence my neurons are still patterned around.”

“The Sweet Hereafter” (1991), a novel based on a fatal school bus crash in Alton, Texas, in 1989, focuses on the way such an accident changes a small town forever. Kakutani wrote in the Times that it “underscores the innate precariousness of our lives, our susceptibility to grief and loss and hurt.”

Film versions of his work brought Banks recognition beyond the literary world. “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), adapted and directed by Atom Egoyan, received two Academy Award nominations. Banks himself appeared in the movie as a doctor.

A film version of “Affliction,” adapted and directed by Paul Schrader and also released in 1997, starred Sissy Spacek, Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe and James Coburn. It was nominated for two Oscars, and Coburn won for best supporting actor.

Banks received many awards and fellowships. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Academy of Arts and Letters and served as president of the International Parliament of Writers. He was the official New York state author from 2004 to 2008.

His marriage to Gunst ended in divorce in 1977. A third marriage, to Kathy Walton, a book editor, in 1982, ended in divorce in 1988. He married poet Chase Twichell in 1989.

She survives him, along with Lea Banks, his daughter from his first marriage; three daughters, Caerthan, Maia and Danis Banks, from his second marriage; a brother, Stephen; a sister, Linda Banks; a half sister, Kathleen Banks-Nutter; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Banks’ own intentions as a writer are summed up in his narrator’s closing lines in “Continental Drift”:

“Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives — no, especially wholly invented lives — deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book’s objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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