John Champlin Gardner, Jr. (July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982) was a well-known and controversial American novelist and university professor, best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth.
Early life and education
Gardner was born in Batavia, New York
. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught English
at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare
and often recited literature together. As a child, Gardner attended public school and worked on his father's farm, where, in April of 1945, his younger brother Gilbert was killed in an accident with a cultipacker
. Gardner, who was driving the tractor during the fatal accident, carried guilt for his brother's death throughout his life, suffering nightmares and flashbacks. The incident informed much of Gardner's fiction and criticism — most directly in the 1977 short story "Redemption," which included a fictionalized recounting of the accident.
Gardner began his university education at DePauw University, but received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955. He received his M.A. from the University of Iowa.
Gardner's most popular novels are: The Sunlight Dialogues
, about a brooding, disenchanted policeman who is asked to engage a madman fluent in classical mythology; Grendel
, a retelling of the Beowulf
legend from the monster's point of view; and October Light
, about an aging and embittered brother and sister living and feuding together in rural Vermont. This last novel won the National Book Critics' Circle Award in 1976. Each book features brutish, isolated figures struggling for integrity and understanding in an unforgiving society.
Teaching and criticism
Gardner was a lifelong teacher of fiction writing. He was a favorite at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference
. His two books on the craft of writing fiction—The Art of Fiction
and On Becoming a Novelist
—are considered classics. He was famously obsessive with his work, and acquired a reputation for advanced craft, smooth rhythms, and careful attention to the continuity of the fictive dream. At one level or another, his books nearly always touched on the redemptive power of art.
In 1978, Gardner's book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, sparked a controversy that excited the mainstream media, vaulting Gardner into the spotlight with an interview on The Dick Cavett Show (May 16, 1978) and a cover story on The New York Times Magazine (July, 1979). His judgments of contemporary authors—including such luminaries of American fiction as John Updike and John Barth—which could be termed either direct, courageous, or unflattering, depending on one's perspective, harmed his relations with many in the publishing industry. Gardner claimed that lingering animosity from critics of this book led to the lukewarm critical reception of his final novel, Mickelsson's Ghosts. What was unfortunately lost in the furor over On Moral Fiction was Gardner's compelling thesis, perhaps the most clear articulation of his normative fictional philosophy: that fiction should be moral. Gardner meant "moral" not in the sense of narrow religious or cultural "morality," but rather that fiction should aspire to discover those human values that are universally sustaining. Gardner felt that few contemporary authors were "moral" in this sense, but instead indulged in "winking, mugging despair" (to quote his assessment of Thomas Pynchon) or trendy nihilism in which Gardner felt they did not honestly believe. Gore Vidal found the book, as well as Gardner's novels, sanctimonious and pedantic, and he called Gardner the "late apostle to the lowbrows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university.
In 1994, Stewart O'Nan published "On Writers and Writing" a posthumous collection of Gardner's essays and reviews. His friend and former student Charles Johnson wrote the introduction.
Gardner inspired, and some say also intimidated, his writing students. At Chico State University, when a young Raymond Carver mentioned to Gardner that he had read, but not liked, the assigned short story, Robert Penn Warren's "Blackberry Winter", Gardner said, "You'd better read it again." "And he wasn't joking", said Carver, who related this anecdote in his foreword to Gardner's book On Becoming a Novelist. In that foreword, he makes it clear how much he respected Gardner, and also relates his extraordinary kindness. For example, when Gardner saw that Carver needed a place to write undisturbed, Gardner gave him a key to his office.
In 1977, Gardner published The Life and Times of Chaucer
. In a review in the October 1977 issue of Speculum
, Sumner J. Ferris pointed to several passages that were allegedly lifted either in whole or in part from work by other authors without proper citation. Ferris charitably suggested that Gardner had published the book too hastily, but on April 10
, reviewer Peter Prescott
, writing in Newsweek
, cited the Speculum
article and accused Gardner of plagiarism
, insinuations that were met by Gardner "with a sigh."
On December 10
, Gardner was hospitalized with colon cancer
. He remained in Johns Hopkins Hospital
for about a month and a half.
Gardner married cousin Joan Louise Patterson on June 6
; the marriage saw children but ended in divorce. Gardner married the poet Liz Rosenberg in 1980, but this marriage also ended in divorce. His fatal motorcycle crash near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania
came days before he was to marry Susan Thornton. A memoir of her relationship with Gardner, On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner
, was published in 2000.
Gardner is buried next to his brother Gilbert in Batavia's Grandview Cemetery.
- The Resurrection (1966)
- The Wreckage of Agathon (1970)
- Grendel (1971)
- The Sunlight Dialogues (1972)
- Jason and Medeia (1973)
- Nickel Mountain (1973)
- The King's Indian (1974)
- October Light (1976)
- In the Suicide Mountains (1977)
- Vlemk the Box Painter (1979)
- Freddy's Book (1980)
- The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981)
- Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982)
- The Life and Times of Chaucer (1977)
- Dragon, Dragon (and Other Tales) (1975)
- Gudgekin The Thistle Girl (and Other Tales) (1976)
Criticism and Instruction
- The Poetry of Chaucer (1977)
- On Moral Fiction (1978)
- On Becoming a Novelist (1983)
- The Art of Fiction (1983)
- The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet (1965)
- Gilgamesh (with John Maier, Richard A. Henshaw) (1984)
Essays and reviews
- ''On Writers and Writing (1994)