North Country residents remember Russell Banks

Jan. 10—KEENE — Russell Banks, a summer resident of Keene, died from cancer this past Saturday at his home in Saratoga Springs.

He was 82.

The award-winning author and twice Pulitzer Prize nominee was a professor emeritus at Princeton University.

He is survived by his wife, poet/editor Chase Twichell, four children, and other family members and friends.

PLUMBER'S SON

Born March 28, 1940 in Newton, Mass., he was the son of Florence (née Taylor) Banks, a homemaker, and Earl, a plumber.

This working-class background shaped his writing, according to his Steven Barclay Agency biography.

"Through a dozen novels and short story collections that have won him Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants and a St. Lawrence Prize for fiction, Banks has made a life's work of charting the causes and effects of the terrible things 'normal' men can and will do. He 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 in his books."

He was the New York State Author (2004-2008), President of the International Parliament of Writers, and the founding past-President of Cities of Refuge North America.

In 2005, Mr. Banks taught a one-credit course, "Adirondack Bohemia," at SUNY Plattsburgh. The course delved into the myriad of artists and intellectuals who have worked and played in the AuSable River Valley of the Adirondacks for the past 150 years.

Among the most notable are Sigmund Freud, William and Henry James, virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and famed artist, activist and SUNY Plattsburgh benefactor Rockwell Kent.

Banks discussed "Adirondack Bohemia" and his works at a public lecture as part of the college's Presidents' Speakers Series.

He was awarded a SUNY Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at Plattsburgh State in 1999.

He was a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He received seven honorary degrees and in 2014 was named an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture.

Banks wrote more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction and was first published as a poet in 1969 with a collection titled, "Waiting to Freeze."

His most recent works include "Forgone" in 2021 and "The Magic Kingdom," in 2022.

Two of his books were adapted into acclaimed film releases, "The Sweet Hereafter," directed by Canadian Atom Egoyan, and "Affliction" directed by Paul Schrader.

PULITZER-PRIZE NOMINEE

Banks turned his sapphire gaze closer to his Adirondack home when he wrote his 1995 coming-of-age story, "Rule of the Bone," which featured Champlain Centre mall, and the 750-page behemoth, "Cloudsplitter," a fictional retelling of abolitionist martyr John Brown through the eyes of his son, Owen Brown.

The novelist was a 1999 Pulitzer finalist for the book as well as a recipient of a Anisfield-Book Award.

This was his second such nomination 13 years after "Continental Drift", his critical breakthrough novel.

Banks lived for awhile in Jamaica and Florida, but it's the Northeast where he lived the longest physically and on the page.

PRINCETON COLLEAGUES

The words that keep coming to historian Dr. Nell Irvin Painter's mind about her late Princeton colleague is "an ethical force in the public sphere as an author and also as a citizen."

At Princeton University, she was working on her biography, "Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol," while he was in the midst of "Affliction."

"We bonded in two ways," Painter, a New Russia resident, said.

"One was as fellow authors. We were both working on child abuse and family violence. Sojourner Truth was enslaved, and of course she was subject to violence and she says that she inflicted violence on her children to make them good slaves."

In the 1990s, Painter headed African-American Studies, which was just a program at the time at Princeton.

"In the '90s, it was like African-American Studies was not respectable," she said.

"If you were associated with African-American Studies, a lot of people thought there was something wrong with you. I was in the department, but there was a lot of prejudice, but Russell didn't have that and Russell served on our faculty committee. He wasn't the only white faculty member, but it was unusual at the time."

Mr. Banks understood racial dynamics in a way that was very rare for white people in the '90s.

"He was a very helpful presence in guiding African-American studies," she said.

"We had that tie. His two books got made into movies, and he made enough money, so that he didn't have to teach. I didn't see him regularly on campus."

ADIRONDACKS INTRODUCTION

In the late '90s, Painter ran into him in the Creative Writing building.

"He said, 'Oh wow, how are you?'" she said.

"I said, 'Oh, boo-hoo. We're all tied up in Vermont. We have these neighbors from hell. We can't get out, and we can't stay here. and it's horrible.' He said, 'Well, why don't you come over to the Adirondacks?'"

Painter and her husband, Dr. Glenn Shafer, didn't know anything about the 'Dacks.

Mr. Banks referred them to realtor Martha Lee Owen, and they purchased their residence.

"He took us to one of the openings at the Atea Ring Gallery (Westport) and sort of introduced us to people up here," Painter said.

"That got us started. That was in 2004. Then in 2010, when I published 'The History of White People,' he introduced me at my book talk here in Elizabethtown.

"At that event, I really met Martha Swan. Russell was very involved, thank heaven, with John Brown Lives! It was through Russell and Martha that we got involved in John Brown Lives!, which is still our community up here, our anti-racist community."

Mr. Banks was really a key figure in Shafer and Painter's lives in the North Country.

"Seeing him and Chase every summer until his health started failing," Painter said.

"I'm very grateful to him, first as intellectually and creatively through Princeton, and second, for my community up here in the Adirondacks."

PROFOUND THANKS

Thank you. Thank you.

These are the first sentiments expressed about the late author by Martha Swan, executive director, of John Brown Lives!

"I want to say that John Brown Lives! has been inspired, and fortified, and nourished by his literary work, by his friendship, by his good counsel for nearly 25 years," Swan said.

"He's probably done more than anyone that I'm aware of in a very, very long time to really interest people in John Brown's life, as it played out in the North Country on this landscape but the impact and reverberations nationwide."

THE GODFATHER

Mr. Banks gave the first reading when the Adirondack Center for Writing opened in its new space in September 2021 at 15 Broadway in Saranac Lake.

"I asked him, can you christen our new space?, Nathalie Thill, ACW executive director, said.

"That was the last program we did with him, and it was amazing. We have all the videos and photos and this and that. It was really a special night. I had asked him to introduce Ayad Akhtar (2021 New York State Author) for the Kickass (Writers) Festival, and that's when he was diagnosed with leukemia and he had to go into the hospital almost immediately. So, he wasn't there."

ACW presented the late writer many times over the years.

"I even brought him into FCI Ray Brook," she said.

"He gave a reading there."

In her statement about the author's passing, Thill wrote:

"Russell Banks wrote stark, honest, and important books about—and for—the Adirondack community, reflecting rural mountain life back to us with love, respect, and humanizing detail. He also wrote from those communities, penning novels at his long-time home in Keene. Though his audience here in the North Country is strong, his words have reached millions all over the world.

"We here at ACW mourn the loss of a great American writer, a champion of the Adirondack literary community, and a dear friend. Our thoughts are with his wife, Chase Twichell, and his children."

FRENCH CONNECTION

Mr. Banks took Kathleen Carroll, retired New York Daily News film critic and co-founder, with him and artistic director of the Lake Placid Film Forum, and multimedia artist Nathan Farb on a lot of great trips.

One was to Paris, France.

"He and Kathleen were very close," Farb of Jay said.

"The French Academy of Arts and Letters is supported by the French government, and they honored Russell. Russell was able to invite all of his friends. He said he wanted to share it with people. He invited Patti Smith to do a performance. I went to this celebration of his work that lasted a week long. We stayed at four-star hotel, all expense of the French government. It's just amazing stuff from that. We lived the good life for a week, Kathleen and I."

During this French sojourn, Farb had an Adirondack exhibition there.

"It was a show that I did at the arts center years ago," he said.

"I had all those big prints in one show, basically I wound it all up in a giant tube and shipped it off to France. It was fun. Patti Smith walked around the show with me."

Farb credits his late friend as the catalyst for the Lake Placid Film Festival, formerly Film Forum, which Banks co-founded with Carroll.

"It started because Russell had shown that film, 'The Sweet Hereafter,'" Farb said.

"An enormous outpouring of local people went to see that movie."

Email: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

Twitter@RobinCaudell