Authors: Barry Hannah

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist


A southerner who draws inevitable comparison to his predecessors William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah emerged in the last half of the twentieth century as one of the most prominent and idiosyncratic voices in American literature. He grew up in the small town of Clinton, Mississippi, where his father, William Hannah, was an insurance agent and his mother, Elizabeth King Hannah, a homemaker.{$I[A]Hannah, Barry}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hannah, Barry}{$I[tim]1942;Hannah, Barry}

Hannah’s experience as a trumpet player in his public high school’s all-state band became a major influence on both his subject matter and his style as a writer. He remained in Clinton through his undergraduate years, attending Mississippi College as a premedical student (B.A., 1964) and working in nearby Jackson as a research assistant in pharmacology at the University of Mississippi Medical School. While the latter experience provided medical knowledge for several of his fictional works, Hannah rejected medicine as a career and chose instead to follow his interest in literature and writing.

At the University of Arkansas he completed an M.A. in literature (1966) followed by an M.F.A. in creative writing (1967). Hannah then accepted a full-time position teaching writing and literature at Clemson University in South Carolina (1967-1973) as a way to support his family (wife Meridith, sons Barry, Jr., and Ted, and daughter Lee). He also found time to continue his own writing, which, from the beginning, attracted favorable critical attention, including the Bellaman Foundation Award in Fiction in 1970 and a Bread Loaf Fellowship for Writing in 1971.

His first novel, Geronimo Rex, begun while he was a student at Arkansas and published in 1972, was nominated for the National Book Award and awarded the William Faulkner Prize. An initiation novel, it evoked high praise for its eccentric, violent, and grotesquely humorous characters and for Hannah’s skillful handling of language. Reaction to Hannah’s second novel, Nighwatchmen, a murder mystery published only a year later, was generally unfavorable, with most critics providing negative reviews or, even worse, ignoring it.

After spending a year as writer-in-residence at Middlebury College (1974-1975), Hannah moved to the University of Alabama (1975-1980), where his reputation as a writer rebounded. Working primarily with Esquire editor Gordon Lish, whom Hannah later proclaimed his most influential editor, he published a number of highly acclaimed stories. These were included in Airships, a collection which established Hannah’s reputation as a significant short-story writer and made him the winner of the first Arnold Gringrich Award for short fiction.

As Hannah’s reputation as an artist grew (American Institute of Arts and Letters Award for literature in 1979), so did the accounts of his life as a hedonistic heavy drinker who was careless with guns. His personal life in disarray–he divorced his first wife and married Patricia Busch, only to have that marriage also end in divorce–Hannah acknowledged that alcohol had become a serious problem for him. His autobiographical third novel, Ray, provides some insight into his suffering.

In 1980 he moved to Hollywood, where he sought and received treatment for alcoholism. Except for limited work on film scripts for Robert Altman, he found himself unable to write in California, but his experiences there provided material for his later novel Boomerang. Meanwhile, Ray achieved both critical and financial success, and Hannah accepted invitations to serve as writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa (1981), the University of Mississippi (1982), and the University of Montana, Missoula (1983). He was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1983). Hannah’s peripatetic days came to an end when he settled into a long-term professional relationship with the University of Mississippi (1983) and a personal relationship with Susan Varas, whom he married in 1986.

Hannah’s battle with alcoholism continued through the 1980’s, as did his steady writing pace. At two-year intervals he published a collection of short stories, Captain Maximus, and three novels, Hey Jack!, Boomerang, and Never Die. In the early 1990’s, Hannah gave up drinking and began openly discussing his history of alcoholism. He indicated that his early fascination with alcohol came from an awareness that all of his literary idols–William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway–had been, as he termed them, drunks. Although Hannah felt he had reached a point where he had to quit drinking, he refused to speak against alcohol, saying that it had served him well through many years of writing and expressing fear of being unable to write without it. That fear proved unfounded, however, as his 1993 collection of stories, Bats out of Hell, received the Faulkner Award for Literature, and his collection High Lonesome was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

Hannah confronted major health problems as the twentieth century came to a close. Despite the weakening effects of chemotherapy for successful treatment of lymphoma and an almost deadly bout with pneumonia, Hannah continued to write, and critical acclaim for his fiction continued to grow. The Fellowship of Southern Writers presented him the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction (1999), his stories were widely anthologized, and he received numerous invitations to participate in literary festivals, workshops, and writers’ conferences throughout the United States. In 2001, his reputation firmly established as a writer, Hannah published the novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan, to worldwide acclaim. In March of 2010 Hannah, age 67, died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Oxford, Mississippi.

Hannah is widely acknowledged as a master of the short story, but throughout his career he received mixed reviews as a novelist. Some critics attack his plotless narratives and his relentless focus on violence and sex, while others acclaim his deftness with language and his unique voice. Both his novels and stories focus primarily on the South, but Hannah’s vision was not restricted to a region. Through effective experimentation with prose form, creation of powerful voices, fusion of the humorous and the tragic, transference of his own experiences into fiction, and exploration of the human psyche, Hannah established himself as a significant force in contemporary American literature.

BibliographyCawelti, Scott. “An Interview with Barry Hannah.” Short Story 3 (Spring, 1995): 105-116. This intriguing interview contains Hannah’s avowal that he himself has never carried a gun along with the assertion that “it’s the absolute act, the act of firing a gun randomly into a crowd–it’s the absolute act of art.”Charney, Mark J. Barry Hannah. New York: Twayne, 1992. First full-length study of Hannah and an indispensable guide to all his fiction, including the short stories collected in Airships and Captain Maximus. Makes a case for Hannah as one of the South’s freshest and most iconoclastic writers. Features a thorough discussion of Airships, which he sees as reflecting a vision of the South as a microcosm of human existence. Also discusses Captain Maximus in the light of its preoccupation with violence. Includes an annotated bibliography.Hannah, Barry. “The Spirits Will Win Through: An Interview with Barry Hannah.” Interview by R. Vanarsall. Southern Review, Spring, 1983, 314-341. A long, thoughtful interview, which connects Hannah’s own biography with the material in his stories. Discusses his alcoholism, his fascination with violence, his work in California as a screenwriter, the influence of other authors, his love of the English language, and his feelings of kinship with rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.Kennedy, Randy. “At Home with: Barry Hannah; Mellowing Out but Unbowed.” The New York Times, July 9, 1998, F1:1. An interesting interview with Hannah at his home in Oxford, Mississippi, after his return from a stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He mentions that he is almost finished with his twelfth book, a novel tentatively titled “Yonder Stands Your Orphan with His Gun.” Among other things, Hannah discusses alcohol, his recently deceased father who had attended the University of Mississippi when William Faulkner was postmaster there, the “homogenization” of American fiction, and his status as a cult figure in France.Madden, David. “Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex in Retrospect.” The Southern Review 19 (Spring, 1983): 309-316. Madden once found Geronimo Rex “the best first novel I’ve ever reviewed.” Considering it again ten years later, he agrees with his original assessment but now finds it lacking an intellectual framework and a “conceptualizing imagination.”Noble, Donald R. “‘Tragic and Meaningful to an Insane Degree’: Barry Hannah.” Southern Literary Journal 15 (Fall, 1982): 37-44. Noble finds Hannah’s vision split: While he believes that the world is chaotic and disconnected, Hannah still seems to have an abundant comic spirit and love of life. Hannah holds his readers not by his vision but by the power of his voice, that of a “jazz speaker” who plays with words the way a musician plays with notes.Shepherd, Allen. “Outrage and Speculation: Barry Hannah’s Airships.” Notes on Mississippi Writers, 1982, 63-73. Important analysis of many of the stories and major themes in Airships. Notes Hannah’s ability to render psychologically impaired narrators convincingly, as well as his gift for dialogue and poetic symbolism.Weston, Ruth D. Barry Hannah, Postmodern Romantic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. Important full-length study discusses Hannah’s postmodern style and his ability to express hard truths about the conditions of contemporary life. Provides a serious analysis of all of Hannah’s work including his short-story collections. This critique is also notable for its skillful use of current short-story theories to explicate Hannah’s work, especially with regard to the idea of “debunking.” It is also especially good at discerning the wild, irreverent, “carnivalesque” aspects of Hannah’s work and at examining the theme of “the lie” in much of Hannah’s work. It correctly identifies a strong religious subtext and sees Hannah as examining the social, cultural, and religious betrayals of the American Dream, especially in terms of defective myths about male prowess. Includes a bibliography.Wyatt, David. Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Analysis of Hannah as a member of a literary generation defined by the Vietnam War, which was experienced as a shared ordeal. Also notes the ways in which Hannah creates parallels between the Vietnam War and the Civil War as unfinished wars in which honor turned to shame, with various issues and emotional wounds remaining unresolved.
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