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.
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.