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Russell Banks

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Russell Banks
Banks in 2011
Banks in 2011
Born(1940-03-28)March 28, 1940
Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedJanuary 8, 2023(2023-01-08) (aged 82)
Saratoga Springs, New York, U.S.
EducationColgate University
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (BA)
Notable worksContinental Drift, Affliction, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, The Darling, The Sweet Hereafter
  • Darlene Bennett
  • Mary Gunst
    (m. 1963; div. 1977)
  • Kathy Walton
    (m. 1982; div. 1988)
  • (m. 1989)

Russell Earl Banks (March 28, 1940 – January 8, 2023) was an American writer of fiction and poetry. His novels are known for "detailed accounts of domestic strife and the daily struggles of ordinary often-marginalized characters".[1] His stories usually revolve around his own childhood experiences, and often reflect "moral themes and personal relationships".[1]

Banks was a member of the International Parliament of Writers and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Life and career[edit]

Russell Earl Banks was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 28, 1940, and grew up "in relative poverty."[2][3] He is the son of Florence (née Taylor), a homemaker, and Earl Banks, a plumber, and was raised in Barnstead, New Hampshire.[3][4][5] His father deserted the family when Banks was aged 12.[5] While he was awarded a scholarship to attend Colgate University, he dropped out six weeks into university and travelled south instead, with the "intention of joining Fidel Castro's insurgent army in Cuba, but wound up working in a department store in Lakeland, Florida".[5] He married Darlene Bennett, who was working as a sales clerk at the time; they had one daughter and later divorced.[3]

According to an interview with The Independent, he started to write when he was living in Miami in the late-1950s, though an interview with The Paris Review dates this to Banks's subsequent spell living in Boston. He moved back to New England in 1964 and then to North Carolina, where he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, funded by the family of his second wife, Mary Gunst.[2][5][6][7] In Chapel Hill, Banks was involved in Students for a Democratic Society and protest during the Civil Rights Movement.[2] In 1976, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.[8] Banks divorced Mary Gunst in 1977 after 14 years of marriage. They had three daughters.[3] He was subsequently married to Kathy Walton, an editor at Harper & Row, from 1982 to 1988.[3][6] The following year, he married poet Chase Twichell.[2][3]

Banks was the 1985 recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for fiction.[9] Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were finalists for the 1986 and 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction respectively.[10][11] Banks was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.[12]

In popular culture, Banks was briefly mentioned in philosopher Richard Rorty's 1996 future history essay "Fraternity Reigns" in The New York Times Magazine as having written the fictional book Trampling the Vineyards, described as "samizdat", in 2021.[13]

Banks lived in upstate New York and Miami.[14] He was a New York State Author for 2004–2006.[15] He was also Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland.[2] He taught creative writing at Princeton University.[16]


Banks died from cancer at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, on Sunday, January 8, 2023, at the age of 82.[3][17]

Works and themes[edit]

His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous international prizes and awards. He wrote fiction, and, later, non-fiction, with Dreaming up America. His main works include the novels Continental Drift, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, and Affliction. The latter two novels were each made into feature films in 1997 (see The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction). Many of Banks's works reflect his working-class upbringing. His stories often show people facing tragedy and downturns in everyday life, expressing sadness and self-doubt, but also showing resilience and strength in the face of their difficulties.[18] Banks also wrote short stories, some of which appear in the collection The Angel on the Roof, as well as poetry.

Banks also lived in Jamaica. Interviewed in 1998 for The Paris Review, he stated that:

After living in Jamaica and writing The Book of Jamaica, I accepted that I was obliged, for example, to have African-American friends. I was obliged to address, deliberately, the overlapping social and racial contexts of my life. I'm a white man in a white-dominated, racialized society, therefore, if I want to I can live my whole life in a racial fantasy. Most white Americans do just that. Because we can. In a color-defined society we are invited to think that white is not a color. We are invited to fantasize, and we act accordingly.[5]

The themes of Continental Drift (1985) include globalization and unrest in Haiti. His 2004 novel The Darling is largely set in Liberia and deals with the racial and political experience of the white American narrator.

Writing in the Journal of American Studies, Anthony Hutchison argues that, "[a]side from William Faulkner it is difficult to think of a white twentieth-century American writer who has negotiated the issue of race in as sustained, unflinching and intelligent a fashion as Russell Banks".[19]

In 2023, it was confirmed that Paul Schrader would write and direct Oh, Canada, an adaptation of Banks' novel, Foregone, starring Richard Gere and Jacob Elordi.[20]


According to Robert Faggen in The Paris Review, Banks's debut novel, Family Life, "was not a critical success". His next volume, a collection of short stories called Searching for Survivors, won Banks an O. Henry Award. A second collection of short stories, The New World, published in 1978, "received acclaim for its blending of historical and semi-autobiographical material".[5]

Many have admired Banks' realistic writing, which often explores American social dilemmas and moral struggles. Reviewers have appreciated his portrayal of the working-class people struggling to overcome destructive relationships, poverty, drug abuse, and spiritual confusion. Scholars have variously compared his fiction to the works of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus. Christine Benvenuto commented that "Banks writes with an intensely focused empathy and a compassionate sense of humor that help to keep readers, if not his characters, afloat through the misadventures and outright tragedies of his books." [21]

In 2011, The Guardian's Tom Cox selected Cloudsplitter as one of his "overlooked classics of American literature".[22]

Awards and honors[edit]


Novels [28]
Story collections [28]
  • Searching for Survivors (1975)
  • The New World (1978)
  • Trailerpark (1981)
  • Success Stories (1986)
  • The Angel on the Roof (2000)
  • A Permanent Member of the Family (2013)
  • American Spirits (2024)
  • Waiting To Freeze (1969)
  • Snow (1974)
Nonfiction [28]
  • Invisible Stranger (1998)
  • Dreaming Up America (2008)
  • Voyager (2016)


  1. ^ a b "Russell Banks – Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)". Student Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 10, 2013. Retrieved October 19, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e Freeman, John (May 9, 2008). "Russell Banks: Class warrior in a club tie". The Independent. Archived from the original on January 22, 2014. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Chace, Rebecca (January 8, 2023). "Russell Banks, Novelist Steeped in the Working Class, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2023.
  4. ^ Niemi, Robert (1997). Russell Banks. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 9780805740189.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Faggen, Robert (Summer 1998). "Russell Banks, The Art of Fiction No. 152". The Paris Review. Summer 1998 (147). Archived from the original on April 26, 2021. Retrieved July 10, 2023.
  6. ^ a b Hubbard, Kim (November 13, 1989). "Russell Banks's Tale of Family Violence Hits Close to Home". People. Vol. 32, no. 20. Archived from the original on December 27, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  7. ^ "Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Award Recipients". Archived from the original on May 28, 2010. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  8. ^ "Russell Banks". John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on June 3, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  9. ^ a b "Past Recipients and Select Works". The John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. Longwood University, www.longwood.edu. Retrieved January 15, 2023.
  10. ^ "1986 Finalists". The Pulitzer Prizes. Archived from the original on December 20, 2012. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  11. ^ "The 1999 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Fiction". The Pulitzer Prizes. Archived from the original on May 30, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  12. ^ a b "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 18, 2006. Retrieved May 17, 2011.
  13. ^ Rorty, Richard (September 26, 1996). "Fraternity Reigns: Looking Backwards from the Year 2096". The New York Times Company. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  14. ^ Barron, Jesse (December 12, 2012). "A Conversation With Russell Banks". Harper's Magazine. Archived from the original on May 22, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  15. ^ a b "Russell Banks; New York State Author, 2004 - 2006". New York State Writers Institute. SUNY-Albany. Retrieved March 6, 2020.
  16. ^ Wendland, Joel (January 21, 2004). "Writing Class: An Interview with Russell Banks". Political Affairs. Archived from the original on July 10, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  17. ^ Saxon, Jamie (January 13, 2023). "Russell Banks, acclaimed novelist, professor in the humanities and creative writing, and 'absolutely wonderful' mentor, dies at 82". princeton.edu. Retrieved January 6, 2024. Russell Banks, award-winning novelist and the Howard G.B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, and professor of the Humanities Council and creative writing, emeritus, died Jan. 8 from cancer at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was 82.
  18. ^ "Interview: Russell Banks". IdentityTheory.com. January 18, 2005. Archived from the original on December 14, 2007. Retrieved December 9, 2007.
  19. ^ Hutchison, Anthony (2007). "Representative Man: John Brown and the Politics of Redemption in Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter". Journal of American Studies. 41 (1): 67–82. doi:10.1017/S0021875806002751. S2CID 145078185.
  20. ^ Bergeson, Samantha (September 11, 2023). "Jacob Elordi Joins Richard Gere in Paul Schrader's 'Oh, Canada'". IndieWire. Retrieved September 18, 2023.
  21. ^ Burns and Hunter, Tom and Jeffery W. "Russell Banks". Retrieved October 23, 2011.
  22. ^ Cox, Tom (November 10, 2011). "Overlooked classics of American literature: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks". The Guardian. Archived from the original on December 27, 2013. Retrieved June 15, 2013.
  23. ^ a b "Russell Banks, acclaimed novelist, professor in the humanities and creative writing, and 'absolutely wonderful' mentor, dies at 82". Princeton University. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  24. ^ "Russell Banks, novelist of the working class, dies at 82". The Washington Post.
  25. ^ "About Us | Thornton Wilder Society". Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  26. ^ "ABOUT". russellbanks.com. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  27. ^ Wyatt, Neal (May 21, 2012). "Wyatt's World: The Carnegie Medals Short List". Library Journal. Archived from the original on May 27, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2012.
  28. ^ a b c "Where to Start With Russell Banks". The New York Public Library. Retrieved May 17, 2023.
  29. ^ Briefly reviewed in the January 2023 issue of Commonweal, p.65.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Literary links