Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was one of the most prolific and certainly one of the most protean and controversial major American writers of the postmodernist period. He was born in 1933 in the western New York town of Batavia, an area that was to play an important role in Gardner’s later fiction, both as setting and as source of the rural values to which he held throughout his life. Gardner possessed and propounded a particularly strong but by no means narrow-minded set of traditional values that owes much to the influence of his father, a dairy farmer, opera lover, and lay preacher, and his mother, a teacher of English. Even more important, however, was the part Gardner believed he had played in the death of his younger brother, Gilbert, in a farm accident that occurred when Gardner was twelve. Gilbert’s death left Gardner with a burden of guilt that he was never quite able to overcome but that he transformed into a narrative art quite unlike any other of its time.
First at Washington University, in St. Louis, and later as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Gardner devoted himself to the twin pursuits that remained his lifelong preoccupations: the writing of fiction and the study of medieval literature. Until his death in 1982 Gardner managed to combine academic and nonacademic careers, settings, and characters with a degree of success that few other American “academic novelists” achieved.
His first published novel, The Resurrection, deals with the return of a dying professor of philosophy to his hometown of Batavia. Despite Gardner’s adroit handling of the novel’s shifting point of view and brilliant but understated mixing of realism and grotesquerie, The Resurrection attracted little attention. The Wreckage of Agathon fared better, thanks in large part to the appropriateness of Gardner’s story of law and order in ancient Sparta to the situation in the United States at the time of the Vietnam War. The third novel, Grendel, the Beowulf story told from the monster’s point of view, brought its author to national attention, and The Sunlight Dialogues became his first best-seller. These two works represent the diverse strains that make up the unity of...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was born on July 21, 1933, in the farming community of Batavia in western New York, the setting of a number of his stories and novels. His literary interest can be traced back to his mother, an English teacher, and to his father, a farmer, lay preacher, and opera lover. “Bud” (Welsh for poet) began writing stories when he was eight, but it was the death of his brother Gilbert on April 4, 1945, in a farm accident for which Gardner held himself responsible, that appears to have influenced him most deeply. Gilbert’s death and the part that Gardner believed he played in it are the subject of one of his finest stories, “Redemption,” and serve as the subtext of nearly all of his fiction.
During his high school years, Gardner studied the French horn at the Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester. He later attended DePauw University for two years (majoring in chemistry) before marrying Joan Patterson, a cousin, on June 6, 1953, and transferring to Washington University in St. Louis, where he began writing Nickel Mountain. He did his graduate work at the University of Iowa, dividing his time between the Writers’ Workshop and medieval studies, submitting a collection of stories for his M.A. thesis and a novel, “The Old Men,” for his Ph.D. dissertation. From Iowa, Gardner went on to hold faculty appointments at a succession of colleges and universities, including Oberlin College, San Francisco State...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
John Gardner was born John Champlin Gardner, Jr., on July 21, 1933, in the western New York community of Batavia, the setting of The Resurrection, The Sunlight Dialogues, and a number of short stories. Strongly influenced by his father, a farmer and lay preacher, and his mother, an English teacher, Gardner, nicknamed Bud (Welsh for poet), began writing stories when he was eight years old and reading his work aloud to the family in the evening. The death of his younger brother, Gilbert, in a farm accident on April 4, 1945, seems to have been the most formative event in Gardner’s life. He felt responsible for his brother’s death, which he fictionalized in the story “Redemption” (1977), and as a result became deeply introspective. His mother suggested that Gilbert’s death may also account for her son’s remarkable energy and productivity, as if he wished to live both his own life and his brother’s.
During his high school years, Gardner commuted to the Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester, where he took French horn lessons. He attended DePauw University for two years, majoring in chemistry, and then, following his marriage to Joan Patterson, a cousin, on June 6, 1953, transferred to Washington University. At Washington, under the tutelage of Jarvis Thurston, he began writing Nickel Mountain. From 1955 to 1958 Gardner attended the University of Iowa; at first he studied at the Writers Workshop (his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation were both creative rather...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
John Gardner’s father was a dairy farmer and part-time preacher; his mother was a high school literature teacher. From these two, Gardner inherited and combined down-to-earth realism, life-affirming moral vision, and the belief in the power of art not only to reflect the human condition but also to affect it.
Gardner learned early the redemptive power of art. When he was twelve years old, he accidentally killed his younger brother by running over the boy with a tractor used on the family farm. In response to this tragedy Gardner turned to art—first music and then writing; he would later explain his serious, almost religious devotion to literature in terms of this early experience, when writing was his salvation.
Gardner received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Recognized for his intellectual brilliance and promise, he was named a Woodrow Wilson fellow at the University of Iowa, and he earned his M.A. there in 1956, his doctorate in 1958. Although Iowa was widely known for its creative writing program—and Gardner did participate in it—his degree was in classical and medieval literature, and his earliest publications were primarily scholarly, rather than creative.
Yet while Gardner was teaching at various schools across the United States and publishing academic articles on Old English texts and early classics such as the works of the Gawain Poet and the Wakefield cycle of mystery plays, he was also diligently writing his own fiction—more than diligently, in fact, because Gardner was compulsive in his need to write. He would complete more than twenty volumes during his relatively short life.
His novels were rejected by numerous publishers at first, and Gardner became dismayed at the state of contemporary literature, which he believed to be populated by superficial, nihilistic writers who shirked art’s essentially moral responsibilities. Largely out of response to this, and to avoid dejection—the redemptive power of art again—he began work on a manifesto of his artistic creed. When it was eventually published, after Gardner’s acclaim, it would cause considerable turmoil and even damage his reputation.
In the meantime Gardner...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The key to all of Gardner’s work was summed up in the title of his book On Moral Fiction. Gardner believed, with passionate intensity, that art was absolutely vital to human life and that it had a powerful and profound influence upon both those who created it and those who received it. In Gardner’s view, moral art affirms and reinforces that which is best in human nature: understanding of others, compassion, and love. It does not pretend to resolve the terrible complexities and tragedies of the human condition into simplistic answers or a single point of view. Rather, it embraces the “buzzing, blooming confusion” of the world and helps make sense of it.
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Grendel reflects two of Gardner's major interests: his belief in Fiction as a moral force for good, and his passion for the medieval period in history. Gardner was born in 1933 and grew up in Batavia, New York. His mother was an English teacher and his father a farmer and lay preacher, so it is perhaps not surprising that Gardner was eventually drawn to the medieval period, when society was largely agricultural and the Church played a central role in life. As a boy he was attracted not only to language but also to music and chemistry. His father's passion for opera rubbed off on young John, who sang in various choirs as a boy and later wrote several opera libretti on medieval subjects. Having decided that English was his field because he did well at it, Gardner attended DePauw University from 1951 to 1953. The latter year he also married Joan Louise Patterson, with whom he had two children. Transferring to Washington University in St. Louis, Gardner received his A.B. in 1955. He also took an M.A. at the State University of Iowa in 1956 and a Ph.D. in 1958. As his doctoral dissertation, Gardner wrote an unpublished novel, The Old Men.
After receiving his Ph.D., Gardner pursued a teaching career while continuing his writing. He held positions at a number of colleges and universities before settling at Southern Illinois University from 1965 to 1974. His first published novel, The Resurrection, was published in 1966, though it attracted little notice, and his second, The Wreckage of Agathon, appeared in 1970. Gardner had been writing fiction fairly steadily from an early age, and he described Grendel (1971) as a "late work" in an interview in 1974. Though The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) and October Light (1976) were published after Grendel, both were actually written prior to it. Grendel was the first book to bring Gardner widespread recognition. The novel was named one of the ten best books of 1971 by Time and Newsweek.
During this period the author also published (with Lennis Dunlap) a textbook, The Forms of Fiction (1961); a translation, The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet (1965); Jason and Medeia (1972), a novel in verse; the collection The King's Indian: Stories and Tales (1974); and other scholarly works on medieval literary subjects.
Both The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain (1973) were well received by the popular press. October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was named one of the best books of 1976 by both Time and the New York Times. Gardner's reputation went down, however, after the publication of On Moral Fiction in 1978. While stating his own philosophy of moral affirmation eloquently, to many critics the book seemed arrogant and dismissive of many of Gardner's contemporaries.
From 1974 to 1978, Gardner held several short-term appointments in New York and New England colleges. During this period and the following four years, Gardner also published poetry, scholarly and children's books, a novel titled Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982), and a collection of stories. In 1978, he founded the writing program at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He served as its director until the time of his death, in a motorcycle accident, in 1982.