On Monday we lost Barry Hannah, godfather of Mississippi letters. Here was a man who could part a bookstore or barroom crowd like royalty, out of respect for his command of language and his mythic character. This in an age when the power of the written word sometimes barely raises an eyebrow. "Hannah stories," traded like currency among writers and devoted readers, attest to his reputation as an enfant terrible in the early days of his writing career, and for quick, clever wit and an eccentric nature, even up until the end. He was everything you crave and hardly ever see anymore in a fabled writer.
Equally precious is the kind wisdom he imparted to his writing students, which can be sampled from any number of interviews posted on the web (including this one by Wells Tower), and the generous spirit he shared with his friends. His death marks the end of an era, not only in Oxford but in the wider realm of Mississippi literature, and to us and many more, the loss of a treasured friend.
We've fondly preached our devotion to Hannah in these pages, using him as the gold standard for literary art. He could write sentences and paragraphs whose distilled power often trumped entire books. No one crafted a sentence this way. We often find ourselves pulling a novel or story collection, opening and dipping in at random, sampling like poetry or scripture. Just a hit sometimes is all you need. No one would accuse him of crackling plots, but nor could they ignore the terrifying gift of his prose, only read in awe or slink away in misunderstanding.
Living in this part of Mississippi and loving books, much is made of William Faulkner and his legacy, and among writers especially, there is the quiet concern of writing in his "long shadow." We've often thought of Hannah as our generation's Faulkner. Both had a reputation in Oxford of being different, sometimes difficult, often misunderstood and under-appreciated. Both possessed the chops to write circles around their contemporaries, often writing for little reward but the awe of peers and readers or a self-satisfaction they fed like a vice. Like Faulkner, it will be difficult for the next generation of Mississippi writers — and the time is yours to rise up — to write in Hannah's long shadow, not to imitate and reach for something that cannot be duplicated.
Several years ago, a meeting was assembled in Oxford by young writers all over the country who called themselves the Sons of Barry. Dozens of writers, both known and soon-to-be, former students and long-time admirers, came to town to pay tribute to their hero. Though his health had already begun its decline, a cycle of various and grave illnesses, he attended the celebration, met his "sons" humbly, dined and smoked and danced with them. He left before the others, who had assembled outside a ramshackle lodge in the country, and saw him off in the light of fireworks launched from a cotton field.
What many of those young writers learned, and what we have had the good fortune to know for many years up close, is the generosity of Barry's character. Not only a stunning wordsmith, but a true friend, who charms students in his class and friends on the street with his vibrant conversation, which is as hilarious, colorful and raggedly wise as his prose. Listening to him speak, you realize his writing is not studied. Poetry erupted from the man. If it took him any time at all to write — and though there have been long gaps in his bibliography, and we have been waiting ten years now for the next book, through all his struggles and pain — it must be because he labored to strain every ounce of boredom out of his stories.
In times of trouble, Barry knew the value of friendship, how even brief eloquence can lend comfort. He did not take his friends for granted. We were surprised and honored just last summer when he dropped in unannounced, wearing oxygen to combat emphysema and bearing scars from a wreck that totaled his motorcycle (we thought the guy was indestructible!), in high spirits, sharing tales and good cheer on his way back from the Vicksburg battlefields. He still wrote letters to friends, a dying courtesy, and lucky are those who received one.
We received our last letter from Barry on Monday, of all days. We'd sent him a box of books to sign months ago, and when they didn't return, we feared that he hadn't felt up to it. But then it came, before we heard the bad news. We must've opened it around the time he passed.
The letter was short, heartfelt, thrumming with life. (We always took pleasure deciphering his chicken-scratch hand.) He described his new book — maybe a novel, maybe a collection — almost complete for a possible 2011 release "as mortality presses nearer and nearer (no fucking pity, please)."
For a less wistful elegy — and perhaps to learn a little more about why he was so important, not just to us here in the dysfunctional family of Mississippi but to American literature — read his New York Times obituary. And dear God, please read one of his books, whether the brilliant novel Geronimo Rex, still one of the best Mississippi novels ever, or one of his famous short story collections, such as Airships, or his last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, a sleeper favorite here with plenty of wisdom, comedy and happy tragedy.
Finally, our love and thoughts go out to Barry's dear wife, Susan, and all the rest of his family.