An inspiration and mentor to a generation of young American writers, acclaimed Mississippi author Barry Hannah, 67, died Monday at his home. He was the writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and director of its Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program.
Hannah won numerous awards and international recognition. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his short story collection “High Lonesome” (1996). His first published novel, “Geronimo Rex” (1972), won the William Faulkner Prize for writing and earned him a nomination for the National Book Award.
“Barry Hannah was an extraordinary teacher and colleague, and, of course, he remains one of the best American writers since Faulkner,” said Ivo Kamps, chair of UM’s English department. “His prose still has the power to mesmerize and to startle the reader. Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts was once asked what it takes to be a great drummer. He replied, ‘It’s all about hitting things and when.’ Barry’s prose is like that; he knew how to hit things and when. That’s how he made his music.”
Hannah, a Meridian native who grew up in Clinton, served as UM’s writer-in-residence for more than 25 years. He is the author of four short story collections: “Airships” (1978), “Captain Maximus” (1985), “Bats Out of Hell” (1993) and “High Lonesome.” He also published eight novels: “Geronimo Rex,” “Nightwatchman” (1973), “Ray” (1980), “The Tennis Handsome” (1983), “Hey Jack!” (1987), “Boomerang” (1989), “Never Die” (1991) and “Yonder Stands Your Orphan” (2001).
His awards include the PEN/Malamud Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Robert Penn Warren Lifetime Achievement Award in fiction.
“This is a great loss for the University of Mississippi community and for the world,” Chancellor Dan Jones said. “Barry Hannah was an extraordinary talent. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
Hannah’s death came just days before the 17th Oxford Conference for the Book, which opens Thursday at the J.D. Williams Library. The three-day conference, set for various campus and Oxford locations, is dedicated to Hannah, with several sessions and speakers examining his work. Hannah was among the featured speakers at the inaugural conference in 1993, along with George Plimpton, William Styron, Willie Morris, Larry Brown and Kaye Gibbons.
In 2004, Hannah took a leave from UM to accept a one-year position as writer-in-residence at Texas University-San Marcos, where he held the prestigious Mitte Chair of Creative Writing. The endowed chair is held each year by an award-winning writer of international distinction.
Most recently, he was recognized in The Atlantic magazine as a “dynamic teacher” largely responsible for the success of the MFA in creative writing program.
“In addition to his distinguished career as a writer, Barry Hannah was loved and admired by his students,” said former UM Chancellor Robert Khayat. “He was accessible, easily approached and devoted many hours to assisting and encouraging aspiring writers. During my years as chancellor, he was always supportive of our efforts to strengthen the university. Barry will be missed.”
Another UM writer in residence, Tom Franklin, who first met Hannah 11 years ago, said it was “so amazing” to watch the giant of literature walk around in Square Books, Oxford’s oldest bookstore, and ride his motorcycle about town.
“Barry had an unmatched energy that permeated everything he did,” Franklin said. “He was truly an amazing man whose death leaves shoes that can’t be filled. I honestly can’t believe he’s gone.”
UM communications specialist Tobie Baker, who enrolled in Hannah’s fiction writing courses twice, recalled a gentleman who deplored big game hunting and a carefree soul who delighted in afternoon motorcycle rides.
“For aspiring young writers, Barry Hannah’s constructive criticism was intimidating like a grumpy old man, but his praise and encouragement was inspirational like a grandfather with twinkling eyes,” Baker said. “He was a genuine man.”
Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books and former Oxford mayor, said Hannah was a fixture in the Oxford and UM community.
“Barry was respected by his colleagues and loved by his students and friends,” Howorth said. “His work and his life have meant so very much to us.”
Born in 1942, Hannah received his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi College in 1964, and his master’s (1966) and MFA (1968) degrees from the University of Arkansas.
He joined the UM faculty in 1982, after serving as professor and writer-in-residence at Clemson University, Middlebury College, University of Alabama, University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Montana and Memphis State University.
Hannah, who was for years the heart and soul of the university’s creative writing program, became director of the MFA program in 2001.
“Barry Hannah touched many people in his important life, and his sudden death leaves us all saddened,” said Glenn Hopkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “He is, quite simply, irreplaceable.”
Hannah received the Distinguished Faculty Fellow award from the College of Liberal Arts in 2002.
He is survived by his wife, Susan; three children, Barry Jr., Teddy and Lee; and two stepchildren, Shannon and David White.