Barely Discernible Notes On Barry Hannah


We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

This is a strange world. Once upon a time I only learned about the death of a famous writer from a newspaper. Or from the evening news. Or, more recently, from a newspaper or news site online. If I knew the person, I might have received an email or phone call from a friend before it was sent out into the ether. Now, I learn on Twitter. Death told via Twitter hits like a fist. The first mention of Barry Hannah’s death on the Internet came from a 140-character tweet @ficwriter. She posted: “An interview with author Barry Hannah who died today:” The link had no news about his death. I couldn’t find mention of his passing anywhere online. I don’t know @ficwriter, but I responded to her, “wait. barry hannah died?!” and then I asked, “can you confirm this?” His Wikipedia biography had not been updated.  I felt a great welling of fear that it was true. I knew that Barry Hannah hadn’t been shy of hard living; I had heard he wasn’t well. But I hoped that it was a mistake of some kind; he was only 67. I checked his birthday (it’s next month) hoping that somehow his birth had accidentally been converted into his death in a single Tweet.

While I waited for some confirmation, I realized that  a minute earlier I had seen his name in the book I was holding. It’s a cookbook called The Great American Writers’ Cookbook. His recipe is for Three Bean Soup. Through my friend Maud’s blog, I’ve gained an interest in writers’ recipes (she’s an expert on the subject), and I learned about this cookbook in particular. Recipes are, after all, a form of narrative. Some recipes are fiction – full of fantasy and aspirations – a cook’s dreams for a dish. Some recipes are nonfiction – a cook’s hard work and ability to communicate a successful culinary experience.

I smiled when I saw his name and his soup listed. Barry Hannah, great wearer of denim from head-to-toe, has always reminded me of the late James Deetz, a renowned archaeology professor and mentor with whom I was close at The University of Virginia. They both wore suspenders. They were deeply Southern. And they had soup recipes. Of his Three Bean Soup, Hannah writes, “It’s a plain, staple food that can feed a big gang of people—friends, lovers, kids, relatives, everybody!” There’s no messing around in their cooking. For them cooking is not beautiful, but it is something that can create memory and meaning. It was this memory, of Professor Deetz and his Baseball Soup, which led me to post, in seven tweets, Barry Hannah’s soup recipe.

But perhaps there is another reason I posted the recipe. I received my MFA at the Bennington Writing Seminars in June 2008. Halfway through the program, our director and founder, Liam Rector killed himself. Later, the Bennington community lost poet Jason Shinder to a long battle with cancer. During that time, there were deaths and suicides in my own family. Because of all this, because of our shared challenges and losses, and because of the ease of connectivity these days, I am ferociously attached to my Bennington community. But before all this heaviness, all was wonderful at my first Bennington residency.

Barry Hannah was visiting as an associate faculty member. During this particular visit he lectured on “Military History as Regards Fiction: The Unquenchable Thirst about World War II.” He recommended we read John Keegan’s The Second World War.

In the lecture he explored how a generation of soldiers came back from the war with a passion for literature. He mentioned that returning vets enrolled in school, feeling that they didn’t have time to “mess around.” Barry identified with the returning Vietnam vets and said an MFA program saved his life. He reminded his audience that the “greatest generation” had been fighting “real evil.” He said something about how he wasn’t impressed by science fiction and that “nonsense in outer space” because it had already happened – even Star Wars had the Nazi helmet. He said that Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Gore Vidal didn’t expect to be as educated as they were, or own the world as they did, or be a part of the only nation to drop an A-bomb in 1945. He mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iraq, and Iran – and that we can’t really know what these wars are like for the silent men who return – those suffering with PTSD. There were a lot of one-liners in this lecture. My notes say: A writer is not romantic … but better be having fun. He said: “I think you can imagine my almost total disinterest in e-mail.” The lecture is also filled with mantras: People didn’t die in vain. A single person could make a difference. You’ve got to teach something to exist. You’ve got to act to exist. I thought existentialism meant you’ve got to have a turtleneck and smoke cigarettes. It’s harder and harder to write because you don’t have to surprise anyone anymore. The best job you can do is not to know more, but to know what you like, and like it passionately. The lecture, despite my inability to tie everything together here, was exceedingly well constructed.

He said, in closing: “I grew up believing life is precious. Objects are precious.” He listed the pencil, the pen, and the Smith-Corona Electric. He quoted Solzhenitsyn and talked about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He encouraged us to sit in a room alone and show what we can do. One of the last comments he made is that his memory of his teachers is sacred.

The day before this lecture, Hannah read to us in the evening from the floor of a converted barn. The story was a masterfully woven portrait of poverty, loneliness, ignorance, and race. At least one character in the story uses the “N” word multiple times. Afterwards, there was consternation from many students, as well as an instructor, who felt that he had read it with too energetic a voice. He did read those words with energy. His characters made many in the audience uncomfortable. As the best writers do, he sparked a strong reaction. Born in the South, I spent my childhood in several Dixie states and am easily transported to Hannah’s Southern territories. On hearing the story I thought: This is real. I know these people. But still, hearing a Barry Hannah story read aloud for the first time, in the unquestionably Yankee territory of Bennington, Vermont, is disorienting. Some got it; some didn’t. And “some get it; some don’t” seems to be the opinion of where Barry Hannah’s work is at right now on the literary continuum. If he is solidly part of the canon, why are three of his books out of print? Why is he left out of so many Best Of story anthologies? I just pulled a dozen or so off my shelves, and he isn’t in a single one. This seems strange. Another strange thing, the first Facebook group I joined in months, is called, “Get Barry Hannah back in print!” I signed up last week. It has 228 members. Right now, it is painful to think about the stories I like so passionately, particularly because I feel he hasn’t always been understood.

After Liam Rector’s suicide, a poem he wrote called “The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends” was circulated widely online and among his friends and students. The first stanza reads:

We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

I reached for my memory of this poem when I heard the news about Barry Hannah, because of his connection to my community, because of my connection to his. I think of my Bennington teachers, mentors, and friends, and what we have lost and gained. We have been taught to commune with each other. How strange that most of us, particularly those of us who didn’t know him except as a writer and teacher, won’t meet in a bar for a drink, but we will post links and stories on e-mail, on message boards, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Is this a good way to grieve? To celebrate a life? With links upon links? I only know that it is too soon after hearing the news for me to process much. These last few years have felt like death overload.

Finally, it all spills out. This is why I posted the soup recipe. It is all the nutrition I can stand.

A. N. Devers is the founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, an online publication dedicated to literary pilgrimage. Her writing most recently appeared in The Paris Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Tin House, she also edits for Pen America’s journal. She is a fiction writer working on her first book, which is non-fiction, and divides her time between Brooklyn and Asbury Park, NJ. More from this author →