His work sang but was unsung. That's what friends and avid readers said about Barry Hannah, the Southern writer who died at age 67 on March 1. Many of his greatest admirers were writers themselves. In 2000, when news spread that Barry had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, more than 50 young writers staged a banquet to honor him. They came from Montana and New York and Florida to be with the author of Airships and High Lonesome for one evening and let him know how much he meant to them.
Barry loved a good laugh, and I loved to be in his company (we were friends for more than 25 years) because he was as stunning and funny in speech as he was in print. He gave you the sense that you were clever and engaging, so when you were around him the conversation moved freely. His talk would take on a peculiar phrasing that was unpredictably antiquated--he said he owed it to the King James Bible and Shakespeare--and sharply hip at the same time. Where that came from was a genius that resided someplace in his finely tuned ear and wildly inventive mind.
His characters loved and hated deeply, soared high and were tortured with abysmal despair. For them, he plundered the rich, ravaged history of Mississippi and the Deep South, which, he said, "might be wretched, but it can howl." Many have chronicled this past, but none have captured its psyche as Barry did. He wrote and lived his life in the same way he led the post-Faulkner literary renaissance in Oxford--wide open and fearlessly, the same way that Civil War cavalrymen rode into battle, hurling an expression that Barry often employed when signing books for friends: "Sabers up!"
Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., is the city's former mayor