Russell Banks was one of the last of the white male novelists who once dominated American literature.
Banks, the 82-year-old author of acclaimed novels "Continental Drift," "Cloudsplitter," "The Rule of the Bone" and "The Sweet Hereafter," died from cancer Saturday at his home in upstate New York.
The author of 14 novels, several nonfiction books and a number of poetry and short story collections, Banks wrote about conflicted working class men seeking to escape their harsh, economically constricted lives.
A native of rural Massachusetts whose physically abusive father was a plumber, Banks before his literary breakthrough drifted around the country, working a series of blue collar jobs.
While he eventually studied writing at the University of North Carolina, Banks was one of the last American writers who underwent an apprenticeship in the working world outside of academia.
In the tradition of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, Banks often wrote about young characters heading to the American road to test their moral code and masculine courage. Along with contemporaries Raymond Carver, Robert Stone and Jim Harrison, he updated Ernest Hemingway's macho literary ethos for the Vietnam-era generation.
Thomas McGuane, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLilllo are the last survivors of that male-dominated world of American fiction. Now, women, American black, Asian, African, gay and Latino writers have risen to prominence.
A professor at Princeton University, Banks like Carver was also part of a generation of macho American poets. He began his career writing poetry and launched a literary journal at the University of North Carolina. Banks was also a close friend of the poet William Matthews, notorious for sexually harassing women students.
Yet Banks' books displayed depths of moral consciousness, ethical conflicts and historical awareness beyond the cliches of masculine fiction. "Cloudsplitter," a Pulitzer Prize finalist, examined the motivations of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, leading to his attack on Harpers' Ferry. Banks also displayed a rare sensitivity to the confusions of adolescence.
An appreciative assessment of Banks' career by Washington Post critic Ron Charles presented Banks as a major American novelist at risk of upsetting the moral sensitivities of today's censorious culture. Charles makes a compelling case that Banks' books deserve continued readership.
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