Study Guide

John Gardner (1933-1982)

by John Gardner

John Gardner (1933-1982) Essay - Gardner, John (Champlin), (Jr.)

Gardner, John (Champlin), (Jr.)

Introduction

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.)

Julian Moynahan

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....

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Douglas Hill

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.

Bruce Allen

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.

...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Kent Thompson

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....

(The entire section is 1179 words.)

Robert R. Harris

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...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

Anatole Broyard

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...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

BENJAMIN De MOTT

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...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Selden Rodman

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...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

KATHRYN VanSPANCKEREN

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...

(The entire section is 2538 words.)