John Gardner (1933-1982) Short Fiction Analysis
Although he published only two short-fiction collections during his brief but nevertheless prolific career, John Gardner took a serious and historically informed interest in short fiction’s various forms. In addition to the nineteen stories, tales, and novellas collected in The King’s Indian and The Art of Living, and Other Stories, Gardner published five uncollected stories (the earliest in 1952 while still an undergraduate, the latest posthumously in 1984); a textbook, edited with Lennis Dunlap, significantly titled The Forms of Fiction (1962); three books of stories for children (1975-1977); a novella aimed at adolescent readers; one novel, Grendel, which initially appeared in abbreviated version (edited as a short story by Esquire’s Gordon Lish, not Gardner); and another novel, Nickel Mountain, originally conceived as a set of interrelated stories. The King’s Indian and The Art of Living, and Other Stories do not, therefore, adequately represent the extent of Gardner’s interest in the short story and its allied forms. They do, however, evidence the consistency of Gardner’s aesthetic vision and, more important, his remarkable technical virtuosity, ranging from the fantastic and parodic at one extreme to the realistic and didactic at the other. Neither The King’s Indian nor The Art of Living, and Other Stories merely collects previously published works; rather, they are carefully and cleverly constructed. The King’s Indian explores and celebrates the art of narrative, whereas The Art of Living, and Other Stories pursues the moral fiction idea, which, by the late 1970’s, had become the author’s chief obsession.
The King’s Indian
The King’s Indian offers an oblique and exuberant commentary on contemporary writing, which Gardner believed was unnecessarily pessimistic and/or overly concerned with its own verbal texture. The King’s Indian is divided into four parts, the first entitled “The Midnight Reader.” Against the progressive darkness of the first four stories of the first part, Gardner posits both the hopeful vision of the fifth story and—less overtly but also perhaps more effectively—the wildly playful voices of all five narrators, metafictional and moral-fictional versions of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.
In “Pastoral Care,” the voice belongs to a John Updike-type minister beset by doubts about his congregation, his world, and himself. Unable to raise the social consciousness of his congregation in Carbondale, Illinois, the Reverend Eugene Pick, standing on a footstool that he keeps hidden behind the pulpit, does reach a tall, bearded stranger who acts on Pick’s advice, though in a way that the minister never intended: The stranger bombs the local police station and, as Pick later learns, a church (perhaps his own). Implicated, the minister flees, only, like Jonah, to learn that there is no escape from either the stranger or responsibility (pastoral care). When a girl high on drugs falls from the train, Pick, full of misgivings, attempts to comfort her boyfriend, another bearded stranger. Although he believes that “all systems fail,” Pick also believes (adapting William Shakespeare) that “flexibility is all.” “I force myself to continue,” he says at the story’s end. “I have no choice.”
“The Ravages of Spring”
Another person who apparently does not have a choice is the anonymous country doctor, identified only by the alias William Thorp, in the story “The Ravages of Spring,” also set in Carbondale, sometime in the nineteenth century. The tornado, which sets the story in motion, is formidable but no match for the vortex of intertextual forces from which Gardner spins the story’s befuddled, unprepossessing narrator and his playfully self-conscious narrative—bits and pieces from Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Franz Kafka being the most prominent. Against the awed doctor’s appreciation of “the beauty and grandeur of Nature in her rage,” Gardner posits the geneticist Dr. Hunter (a cloned copy of the original doctor, dead some thirty years), and against cloning (the reproduction of exact copies), Gardner posits his own parodic method, part put-down, part homage. The tornado topples the Poesque House of Hunter; the doctor disappears, replaced by three infant copies whom the narrator, a bachelor, leaves in the care of an old woman who, believing them mad (and perhaps thinking she has the doctor’s consent), subjects them to the “mandrake cure” from which the doctor is only able to save two. The good doctor is puzzled by events but accepting of them, including the fictively real children, the presumed offspring of a Dr. Hunter who may be little more than a character in a dream, the result of a storm-induced bump on the narrator’s head.
“The Temptation of St. Ivo”
Affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a major theme in all Gardner’s fiction and more particularly in the three remaining stories of “The Midnight Reader.” In “The Temptation of St. Ivo,” the narrator, Brother Ivo, is a copyist who possesses a firm belief in order and a genius for decorating sacred manuscripts. Ivo manages to balance the imperatives of his fantastic art and the rules of his religious order (as well as his faith in those rules) successfully until Brother Nicholas arrives on the scene. “Your rules are absurd,” Nicholas whispers, “The order of the world is an accident.” Claiming to have found where the phoenix—the symbol of the resurrection and, not incidentally, the most artful of Ivo’s many artful creations—lives, Nicholas in effect forces Ivo to choose between obeying the rules governing monastic life and acting on his faith in order to save not the phoenix, a myth, mere art, but whatever the phoenix may represent (perhaps a child whom Nicholas intends to kill, or even Nicholas’s soul). Ivo chooses action over obedience, complex faith over simple order. He leaves the monastery at night and enters the dark Dantean wood where he soon loses his way: “The rules, techniques of a lifetime devoted to allegory, have ruined me.” According to the usual Christian plot, Ivo must lose himself before he can be saved, but in Gardner’s story, Ivo’s salvation proves at best ambiguous—as ambiguous as the advice given by the knight errant whom he meets: “Nothing means anything.”
The next story, “The Warden,” does to the existentialist preoccupation with Nothing what much of postmodern fiction does: puts it to comic use, as in the joke line from Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), “Nothing was coming; nothing was already here.” The story draws heavily on Poe and Kafka, adds a dash of Samuel Beckett, and ends with the opening lines of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le...
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John Gardner (1933-1982) Long Fiction Analysis
John Gardner is a difficult writer to classify. He was alternately a realist and a fabulist, a novelist of ideas and a writer who maintained that characters and human situations are always more important than philosophy. He was, as well, an academically inclined New Novelist whose work is formally innovative, stylistically extravagant, openly parodic, and highly allusive; yet, at the same time, he was an accessible, popular storyteller, one who some critics, in the wake of On Moral Fiction, have labeled a reactionary traditionalist. It is perhaps best to think of Gardner not as a writer who belongs to any one school but instead as a writer who, in terms of style, subject, and moral vision, mediates between the various...
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Gardner, John (Champlin), (Jr.)
John (Champlin) Gardner (Jr.) 1933–1982
American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.
Gardner's career, although relatively short, was diverse and distinguished. He worked in nearly every genre, including children's fiction, opera libretti, and scholarly criticism, and his writings reflect the rich legacy of Western culture. Some of Gardner's fictional works are set in his birthplace of Batavia, New York, and also in New England, while others have such historical settings as ancient Greece or medieval Scandinavia, in which he recreated historical and fictional narratives as well as inventing his own. Gardner is often called a "philosophical novelist," for regardless of the setting, his works address timeless philosophical questions. For example, in Grendel (1971), Gardner retells the fourteenth-century Scandinavian legend of Beowulf and also explores the relationship between good and evil, the necessity of facing death, and the value of art. In his contemporary novels, Gardner often incorporates philosophical ideas from the past in order to show their relevance to the present. Gardner also made use of stylistic traits of others. He cited Chaucer as his greatest influence, yet also acknowledged the importance of William Gass and the creations of Walt Disney to his work.
Gardner was a professor of medieval literature and creative writing at several American universities before his first novels were published, and he continued teaching throughout his literary career. The Resurrection (1966) and The Wreckage of Agathon (1970) earned a modest amount of critical attention, but the publication of Grendel established Gardner's reputation as an important new novelist and was followed by such critical and popular successes as The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and October Light (1976), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Gardner explained his enormous productivity during the 1970s by observing, "When you're sitting writing for fifteen years, and nobody liking you, you do build up a backlog. I've been publishing an early work, a late work, an early work…." Gardner's popularity diminished somewhat in the late 1970s. On Moral Fiction (1978), a controversial book of critical theory, was unflattering to many of his literary colleagues and perhaps can be blamed for the largely negative reviews of his last books, The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981) and Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982). Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months after the publication of Mickelsson's Ghosts.
Gardner's novels and short stories follow the philosophy of art delineated in On Moral Fiction. Gardner believed that an artist is responsible for creating works which affirm life and present inspirational visions, and he criticized nearly all of his contemporaries for being more concerned with "technique" than "truth" and presenting the "creepy" side of life without holding out any hope to their readers. The Art of Living and Other Stories illustrates fictionally the critical principles espoused in On Moral Fiction. Characteristically, the ten stories contain a wide variety of settings and include both realistic and fantastic approaches, but nearly all of the stories treat a single theme: the value of art as a life-affirming moral force. In "Nimram," for example, a dying girl befriends an older, prestigious orchestra conductor and is uplifted when she hears his symphony. Gardner's concern with art can be seen in his earlier works as well. In some of his novels, the protagonists are professional or amateur philosophers, which allows Gardner to discuss many provocative issues. In Grendel, Gardner explicitly argues the primacy of art. The monster Grendel witnesses several phases in the emergence of Western civilization, but dismisses all of the various cultural innovations, with the exception of poetry, as unhealthy. Gardner calls the poet in Grendel "the Shaper," and Grendel realizes that the poet is the guiding force in society.
On Moral Fiction can be seen as an apologia for Gardner's earlier works. Although the protagonists in each of his first four novels face their own deaths, these works are not pessimistic. James Chandler, the terminally ill protagonist in The Resurrection, achieves a "resurrection" by performing a compassionate act shortly before his death. In The Wreckage of Agathon, a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C., an aging philosopher reflects upon the chances for good to triumph in an already corrupt society after he is imprisoned and sentenced to death. The Sunlight Dialogues, set in modern-day Batavia, parallels Wreckage in that the central character, The Sunlight Man, is jailed and about to be killed. The Sunlight Man is an insane visionary whose spirited personality is contrasted favorably with that of his jailer and persecutor, Fred Clumly, to whom order is all-important. In all of these novels, Gardner presents characters who are close to death as metaphors for all humankind, and assures his readers that salvation can be found in the artistic creations of the human mind.
Although Gardner was unquestionably one of contemporary literature's most important authors, many critics complain that his novels are weighted down by philosophizing, are overly long, and do not read well. These accusations are made especially about The Resurrection and Mickelsson's Ghosts, in which the central characters are philosophy professors. Critics have often made negative use of On Moral Fiction in interpreting Gardner's later works. Some contend that the themes of the stories in The Art of Living, taken directly from On Moral Fiction, overpower the stories themselves. Initial reviews of Mickelsson's Ghosts were largely negative and sometimes hostile. Many critics saw the novel as Gardner's attempt to answer the commentaries elicited by On Moral Fiction and charged that he was expressing his philosophy at the expense of writing an interesting novel. On Moral Fiction itself was judged as arrogant, self-serving, and wrongheaded. Critics disputed Gardner's contention that art can radically change people's lives. Nevertheless, Gardner is widely respected for presenting artistically the principles in which he believed and for creating an ambitious and innovative body of work.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68, Vol. 107 [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 31 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)
Most of the 10 stories in John Gardner's new collection ["The Art of Living and Other Stories"] develop the common theme of art and its vexed relation to life. This was also the subject of Mr. Gardner's book-length essay, "On Moral Fiction."… There he made substantial use of Tolstoy's argument for a strictly moral art, as developed in the pamphlet "What is Art?" Some of Tolstoy's later fiction is sadly marred by his determination to make his artistic instincts conform to doctrinaire moral and religious views. Certainly it is possible that Mr. Gardner runs a comparable risk in following up his moralizing essay on fiction with stories closely related to it in theme. But before addressing that problem let's recall what "On Moral Fiction" had to say.
In it he argues that all good art, including prose fiction, should be moral. By this he means it should be life-enhancing, protecting human existence from the dark forces of chaos (the "trolls") pressing in from all sides and coming up from below, seeking whom they may devour. In making this argument he is quite hard on many of his fellow writers, issuing such dismissive decrees as "bad art is always basically creepy."… These magisterial judgments are consistent with Gardner's idea that "true art treats ideals, affirming and clarifying the Good, the True and the Beautiful," that "real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by."
While there is something of the Welsh preacher, full of righteousness, in John Gardner, perhaps even something of the upstate New York prophet in a direct line from Joseph Smith, many pages of "On Moral Fiction" make lively reading, and it's a positive pleasure to see various fashionable gloom spreaders and doomsday peddlers get it in the neck. Yet one wishes that Mr. Gardner gave more evidence of having deeply meditated on modern history, and that he would avoid such juvenile terms as "creepy" in assessing mature art and artists. I suppose Giacometti's sculptures are in his sense creepy, yet their contribution to modern art and life is major....
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There are 10 pieces in [The Art of Living], in diverse modes—gothic folktale and fantasy, down-home rural comedy, evocative memoirs of childhood and adolescence in western and northern New York state. Many of the stories focus upon some crisis of artistic expression, nearly all catch a crystalline moment and refract it into a spill of glittering images or sharpedged memories. The book is not experimental in any avant-garde manner; Gardner's too much the medievalist for that. Still, it is marked with impressive surprises at every turn. (p. 51)
Gardner is a master of the economical opening; he gives a reader just enough setting and background to slip him effortlessly into the world of each tale. With voices he's equally adept. He never seems to labor as he shifts from the stylized narrative of Vlemk to the quirky ironic recall of a misunderstood ex-hoodlum to laconic Bible Belt patois (in The Joy of the Just) that would do any of Flannery O'Connor's "good country people" proud.
Readers familiar with Gardner's work will recognize his primary images—light and dark, river and valley, travel and flight. There's humor in these stories, and a full measure of graceful, unstudied prose. He is never hard on his characters. In his recent critical book, On Moral Fiction, he speaks approvingly of moral art which "seeks to improve life, not debase it," which "seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us." Gardner meets these standards easily.
What gives these stories their power is Gardner's interest in the connection between the moral and the possible. From first (Nimram, a worldly middle-aged man's perception of life and death in his encounter with a doomed young girl) to last (The Art of Living), Gardner is consistently a romantic moralist. His stories are like the box-painter's vivid pictures of gardens [in Vlemk the Box-Painter]—"accurate in their depiction of both the beauty and the sadness of the world as it is." There's considerable expertise in this book, and courage and joy. (p. 52)
Douglas Hill, "Between the Moral and the Possible," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 23, June 8, 1981, pp. 51-2.
If the author of such basically dissimilar books as "Grendel," "October Light," and that curmudgeonly manifesto "On Moral Fiction" is noted for any particular qualities, they are probably his distinctively energetic and impudent variety and vitality. Some of the variety, at least, surfaces in ["The Art of Living and Other Stories"]….
For example, there's the least typical story here, "The Joy of the Just," which portrays a moralist turned avenger, an elderly woman bent on destroying her (perfectly innocent) "offenders." The conception is promising, but the development is repetitious and dull—finally, it's a pointless story, enlivened only by some combative Bible-quoting.
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Arnold Deller is a practitioner of the most ephemeral of the arts. He is a cook. But because he is an artist, he knows that an artistic response is fitting when his son is killed in Vietnam. Art is love, he says. And because that son had written to him about the joys of eating an ancient Chinese dish called Imperial Dog, Arnold believes that he must prepare that meal in honour of his dead son….
That's a brief summary of the title story in John Gardner's The Art of Living and Other Stories. It is probably the strongest story in the collection, if only because of its central image. But its point is clear: art is first of all an act of love—Arnold cooks the meal as a tribute to his dead son....
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It is a good bet that John Gardner enjoys writing his novels far more than the public enjoys reading them. Mickelsson's Ghosts is dreadfully long and padded, and it often degenerates into drivel.
Gardner has striven to become America's Tolstoy, or, perhaps in this new novel, its Dostoevsky. He's failed, but has convinced a lot of critics. In a split of critical sensibilities, the National Book Critics Circle, by a single vote, conferred its 1976 fiction award on Gardner's October Light over Renata Adler's brilliant Speedboat. The majority of one was convinced that Gardner had something deep to say about bicentennial America and fiction-writing, mistaking for profundity his...
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There are different ways of enjoying a book. For most of "Mickelsson's Ghosts," John Gardner's new novel. I felt like sprawling out in a big chair and just having a good time with it, taking the pleasure as it comes. It seemed to me to be doing just about everything a novel can do. It offered characters I liked, but who troubled me, so that I wanted to see them feeling better, doing better. It gave me the kind of sense of place that one doesn't often find in serious novels today: A thick texture of landscape, community, friendships, infatuations, intrigues, insanities.
Mickelsson, the protagonist, has a romance with a house, rebuilding and redecorating it as a preliminary or a substitute for...
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It's a rule, seemingly, that a Gardner novel will be—in at least one of its dimensions—the story of somebody's intellectual life.
And for part of its extreme length, "Mickelsson's Ghosts" obeys the rule. As with any novel set in academia, there's a measure of plain socializing in its pages (the inevitable stiff academic dinner party) and a good deal of caricature (the inevitable artsy-clerksy faculty musicale). But there's also—highly unusual in academic novels—a serious representation of teaching and thinking….
We're offered a believable account of peaks and pits in the desk life of an academic essayist, and at intervals the novelist engages a genuinely challenging...
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To judge from John Gardner's 10th novel [Mickelsson's Ghosts], published shortly before his death last month in a motorcycle accident at age 49, he believed in ghosts. Also in witches, hex signs and divergent spectral assemblies, such as a government-supported group of Mafia landfillers and a Mormon-affiliated SS troop called the Sons of Dan. Although Peter Mickelsson, Gardner's primary witness to these questionable incarnations, is a philosophy instructor who might well be cast as "the nutty professor," the weird phenomena are visible to more responsible friends and colleagues as well. The author thus seemed to indicate that he indeed thought them real.
But the spooks are only used to set the...
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When one stands back to consider the shape of John Gardner's works as a whole, certain recurring "obsessive metaphors" or polysemous "figures" (in the terminology of Charles Mauron and the Russian Formalists) force themselves upon the imagination. One of the most resonant of these figures is the magician as artist or criminal. The figure involves the idea of a shaper—part magician, part storyteller—who purposely manipulates reality and therefore may either enhance or violate it.
If the shaper's medium is verbal, he becomes a fabulist, liar, or poetic visionary. The seer Agathon, with his queerly sunlit eyes, Taggert Hodge the Sunlight Man, and Jonathan Upchurch, glib Yankee fan of magicians, are...
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