In 1973, Barry Silesky quit a teaching job he disliked and prepared to apply to law school. Stopping to read John Gardner's recently publishedSunlight Dialogues, he came across a passage that permanently changed his life. The passage read in part, “Poets made poems that might …endure a thousand years. But what was it a lawyer made …?” Silesky set aside his law school application after concluding that nothing “could be more worthwhile than the work Gardner was doing,” and embarked upon his own writing career. By 2004, Silesky's published works included two literary biographies, two volumes of poetry, and a book of short fiction.
That 1973 experience, which inspired Silesky to write this biography, is typical of Gardner's influence on many people he knew and some he never met in person. In addition to nurturing his academic students, Gardner fostered younger talents such as Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Charles Johnson. He inspired many others during his years as a key figure in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Gardner would explain his popularity by saying, “You have to love your students.” Most returned the affection and esteem he showed them.
Gardner also achieved his own unique brand of distinction. During a short career, ended by a fatal motorcycle crash in his forty-ninth year, Gardner excelled in a wide variety of academic and artistic pursuits. While working in many literary genres, including poetry, fiction, children's tales, and even operatic librettos—and turning in fine performances on the French horn—he remained a university professor of medieval literature and creative writing. Gardner displayed imaginative use of scholarly learning in the first of his novels to reach critical and commercial success: Grendel (1971), a retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster's viewpoint. Both Time and Newsweek magazines named Grendel one of 1971's best works of fiction.
Other triumphs followed. The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), a work of fiction set in Gardner's hometown of Batavia, New York, remained for sixteen weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1977. October Light is full of erudite allusions, prompting a few critics to attack it as excessively theme-ridden. Most, however, regard it as his finest novel, an ambitious but lively treatment of ultimately insoluble mysteries and the most successful of his attempts to bring past learning to bear on society's current predicaments.
Gardner's colorful appearance—shoulder-length white hair, black leather jacket, and ever-present pipe—caused some who did not know him to mistake him for a student. He had seemingly boundless energy, prompting Lennis Dunlap, Gardner's collaborator on short-fiction anthologies, to make a comment echoed by many other acquaintances: “The guy was just going all the time. Day and night…. It was like he never slept.” Gardner would shower praise on young writers he considered worthy. He would invite whole classrooms to his house for all-night parties. He talked people into collaborating with him on all manner of projects from magazine editing to operatic librettos. Once he importuned music professor Joe Baber to collaborate on an operatic libretto. Baber dismissed the proposal as drunken chatter and went home. Silesky reports, “The next morning, Baber was shocked to find Gardner at his door with a draft of a libretto he had written the previous night.”
Gardner constantly had a drink in hand, sometimes finishing a quart of gin before dinner, but typically stayed up all night to produce his work. Silesky relates that Gardner once produced overdue text for CliffsNotes to Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d’Arthur from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m., during which he consumed two pitchers of martinis and nothing else.
Gardner saw himself as an artist “beyond the mundane occupations of domestic life,” and his financial life tended to be in “constant disarray” unless others, such as his cousin Bill, an attorney, stepped in to manage his alimony payments and back taxes. The author also “loved to display his own penchant for life on the edge.” He married his cousin Joan at age nineteen, and for nearly twenty-five years until they divorced, they continually needled each other and argued, sometimes coming to blows. Friends likened their conflicts to those in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). After this marriage...