Russell Banks Obituary, Death – Russell Banks, who wrote Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, has died. He was a prize-winning fiction writer who set his stories in the cold, rural towns of his native northeast and imagined the hopes and failures of everyone from blue-collar workers today to the radical abolitionist John Brown. He was 82.
Banks, who was a retired professor at Princeton University, died on Saturday in upstate New York, his editor Dan Halpern told the Associated Press. Halpern said that Banks was getting treatment for her cancer. Joyce Carol Oates said on Twitter that Banks died peacefully at home. She called him a great American writer and the “dear friend of so many.”
“I loved Russell and admired his huge talent and kind heart,” Oates gushed. His best work was “Cloudsplitter,” but he did other great things as well. Banks called himself a descendant of 19th-century writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. He was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and grew up in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He wanted to make great art and knew a lot about how a country feels.
He was the son of a plumber and often wrote about working-class families, including those who died trying to escape, those who got away and lived while asking “Why me, Lord?” and those who were caught up in “a sort of lunacy.” Banks lived in Florida for part of the year and had a home there for a short time, but he was mostly from the north and had a traditional Puritan sense of justice. In many of his stories, snow fell, like in The Sweet Hereafter, where a bus accident destroyed an upstate New York town, or in Affliction, where a desperate, divorced New Hampshire policeman’s paranoid visions destroyed him.
In the 1985 novel Continental Drift by Russell Banks, oil burner repairman Bob Dubois leaves his home state of New Hampshire to start a business with his rich brother in Florida. But when they get there, they find that their brother’s life is just as pointless as their own. Cloudsplitter, his most ambitious book, was a 750-page story about John Brown’s unlikely fight to end slavery in the United States.
Even though the story was written before Banks’s time, it was based on something that really happened. Banks went to Brown’s grave site in North Elba, New York, where he lived, and told the AP in 1998 that Brown “became a kind of ghostly apparition.” In 1999, for Cloudsplitter, Banks was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; 13 years earlier, for Continental Drift. He also was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and won the Anisfeld-Book Award for Cloudsplitter.
In the late 1990s, two of his books were turned into critically acclaimed movies: Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which starred Ian Holm, and Paul Schrader’s Affliction, which won James Coburn an Academy Award for best supporting actor. His most recent works are A Permanent Member of the Family, a collection of short stories, and Foregone, a novel set in 2021 about an American filmmaker who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War and looks back on his impulsive youth. This is a story Banks himself lived, so he could relate to it.