Author of ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ Russell Banks Dies At 82: Russell Banks, the acclaimed author of “Cloudsplitter,” passes away at age 82!
Russell Banks, a renowned author, has passed away. He portrayed the ambitions and failings of everyone from modern blue-collar laborers to the radical abolitionist John Brown in “Cloudsplitter,” a work set in the chilly, rural villages of his native Northeast. His works include “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” also placed there. He was 82.
His editor Dan Halpern told The Associated Press that Russell Banks, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, passed away on Saturday in upstate New York. Banks was receiving cancer treatment, according to Halpern.
Banks passed away peacefully at home, according to Joyce Carol Oates, a former classmate at Princeton who called him a great American writer and “a good friend of so many” on Twitter.
“I adored Russell and loved his enormous talent & noble heart,” Oates said. “Cloudsplitter” is his best piece despite all of his fantastic art.
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Banks was born and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, and considered the successor apparent of 19th-century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. He deeply understood the American spirit and sought to create great art.
He was the son of a plumber and frequently wrote about working-class families, whether they were those who died trying to flee or became so enmeshed in a “kind of madness” that the past could no longer be remembered or those who, like himself, managed to escape and survive while asking, “Why me, Lord?”
Russell Banks was essentially a man of the North with a classic Puritan sense of justice, though he did spend a portion of the year there and temporarily owned land there. His writings regularly included snowfalls, from the bus accident-ravaged upstate New York town in “The Sweet Hereafter” to the troubled, divorced New Hampshire policeman in “Affliction,” who his psychotic hallucinations had killed.
In 1985’s much-praised Banks novel “Continental Drift,” oil burner repairman Bob Dubois leaves his native New Hampshire and starts a business with his wealthy brother in Florida, only to find that his brother’s existence was just as pointless as his own.
Bob forgave his brother simply because he realized that his brother’s swagger and bravado were empty from the start and did so in a profound, hardly conscious manner. But according to Banks, he never thought it would come to nothing.
“Cloudsplitter,” his most ambitious novel, was a 750-page chronicle of John Brown’s improbable goal to abolish slavery in the United States. Even though the story was written many years before Banks’ time, she was inspired by local happenings. Brown resided in North Elba, New York, and Banks frequently visited his grave. In 1998, Banks told the AP that Brown “became a type of haunting apparition.”
“Cloudsplitter” is a precursor to Banks’ more recent works, recalling Hawthorne and other early influences. The son of John Brown, Owen Brown, described his father as a tortured Old World character whose zeal to set the slaves free and punish the owners made his face blazing like a revivalist preacher.
“I was a boy; I was horrified by my father’s face,” the narrator of Banks’ story explains. “I remember my father looking into our eyes and blinding us with his sight, telling us to listen to him right now. He was determined to put his past issues with conceit and arrogance behind him. Later, he would go to battle against slavery. He claimed the time had come and wished to join in the full cry.
Thirteen years before “Cloudsplitter” in 1999, Russell Banks was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Continental Drift.” He also received the Anisfeld-Book Award for “Cloudsplitter” and the American Academy of Arts and Letters membership.
Two of his books were adapted into critically acclaimed movies in the late 1990s: Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” starring Ian Holm, and Paul Schrader’s “Affliction,” which earned James Coburn an Academy Award for best-supporting actor.
Some of Russell Banks’ most recent works include the story collection “A Permanent Member of the Family” and the 2021 novel “Foregone,” in which an American filmmaker who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War reflects on his impetuous boyhood – a background Banks knew firsthand.
The author alleges that Banks’ alcoholic father, Earl Banks, beat him as a boy, leaving him with a permanently damaged left eye. His characters typically had absent or unsupportive fathers. As the first student in his family to attend college, Russell was smart enough to earn the nickname “Teacher” in high school and a full scholarship from Colgate University. He was meant for other worlds.
He was one of the numerous young people of the 1960s who, as idealists in search of ideas, used Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” as a sort of Bible. He left Colgate to travel to Cuba to join Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army, dropping out of school and finishing in St. Petersburg, Florida.
He had four children by the time he was in his early 20s. He had also engaged in several bar fights, written poetry so awful that he later wished he had burned it, worked briefly as a plumber in New Hampshire with his father, and returned to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to finish his studies.
He was in his mid-30s and close to the end of his second marriage when his first story collection, “Searching for Survivors,” and his first novel, “Family Life,” was published. He was a well-known novelist and in a committed relationship with his fourth wife, the poet Chase Twichell when he turned 50 at the start of the 1990s.
“Over the years, I think that I’ve been able to make my fury coherent to myself, and that’s helped me to become more lucid as a human being, as a writer, as – I hope – a husband, parent, and friend,” he remarked in an interview with Ploughshares that was included in the magazine’s Winter 1993–94 issue.
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