Russell Banks, author of Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, and many others, has died at age 82. Banks’ agent, Ellen Levine, confirmed his death from cancer on January 8th.
Remembering Banks on Twitter, the great documentarian Ken Burns remarked that, “Russell Banks was one of our greatest writers, with a keen understanding of how space and race influenced our history and literature, something he also said about Mark Twain in this clip from our film on Twain. Russell will be greatly missed.”
The Guardian remembers Banks with admiration:
Born in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Banks was a self-styled heir to such 19th century writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, aspiring to high art and a deep grasp of the country’s spirit. He was a plumber’s son who wrote often about working class families and those who died trying to break out, caught up in a “kind of madness” that the past can be erased, and those like himself who got away and survived and asked “Why me, Lord?”
In a 2003 interview with January Magazine by Richard Kiln, Banks talked extensively about the writer’s view of the world:
Again, it goes back to: how does the writer view the universe? How do you view human beings? It’s the case, I think, that no one is simply one thing or the other — except for those few beings who are out of their minds, in a literal and ongoing way. But most human beings — almost all human beings — are made up of this conflicted mix of good and bad motives, and good and bad deeds, and perception and blindness. And they’re not interesting if they aren’t. You know, if a character is completely consistent — loves puppies, loves babies, loves mornings — like those classified ads you read in the back of magazines; people looking for companionship. They love to jog, and they love to read Spinoza…. they love opera! They’re totally consistent right down the line. You read it and you say, that’s not a real person! That’s advertising! And so the same thing with human beings. You can’t believe in them if they’re consistent. They have to be made up of these contradictions and conflicts and contraries — because we know we are. And that’s the final reality check.
Banks was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction: for Continental Drift and then later for Cloudsplitter.
For the last several years, Banks kept homes in Miami beach and upstate New York. The Washington Post summarizes his most recent work:
Mr. Banks’s most recent books included the novels “Foregone” (2021) and “The Magic Kingdom,” released last year, both centered on protagonists who offer accounts, even confessions, of their lives as they reach the end.
You can read Richard Kiln’s interview with Banks here. ◊