Study Guide

John Hawkes

John Hawkes Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

An “experimental” novelist of remarkable achievement, John Hawkes wrote dark, menacingly comic novels of the grotesque and the gothic. His fiction creates difficulty for the reader who is unwilling to concur in the underlying conviction in Hawkes’s works that beauty is difficult. Although some have accused him of mere indulgence, he strove, through numerous revisions, for coherence, conscious control, and form. His ideal was the creation of a pure vision that did not rely on moral and literary conventions. Hawkes carried the suffocating burden of evil, destruction, putrefaction, and sexual perversion with such success that he could insist: “The product of extreme fictive detachment is extreme fictive sympathy.” The creative process itself, he said, “is probably immoral, but its ultimate aim and moral purpose is compassion for every living thing.”

John Clendenin Burne Hawkes, Jr., lived in Old Greenwich and in New York City until he was ten, when his family moved to Juneau, Alaska. He attended Trinity School, Pawling, and, after serving a year in Germany with the American Field Service, Harvard College. In Albert Guerard’s creative writing class, he finished two novels, The Cannibal and Charivari. The Cannibal, a nightmare vision of Germany after World War II, evokes the desolation of war-torn Europe and forecasts the repetition of Nazi destruction. When the novel appeared in 1949 (the year of his graduation from Harvard), Hawkes was twenty-three years old, well-read in modern poetry but unacquainted with much contemporary fiction. Although he claimed that his books “came out of a vacuum,” comparisons were quickly made with Franz Kafka, Djuna Barnes, Flannery O’Connor, and Nathanael West; later books also show the distinct influence of William Faulkner.

Until 1955, Hawkes was assistant to the production manager at Harvard...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

John Hawkes Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in Stamford, Connecticut, reared in New York City and in Juneau, Alaska, John Clendennin Burne Hawkes, Jr., went to Harvard for his higher education, which was interrupted when World War II broke out. He then joined the American Field Service, driving an ambulance in Italy as Ernest Hemingway and several other American writers did in World War I. After service in Italy, Belgium, and Germany, Hawkes returned to Harvard, took Albert J. Guerard’s creative writing class, and stunned classmates and teacher alike with his first major work, Charivari, a novella written while Hawkes and his wife were in Montana; The Cannibal followed shortly thereafter.

In his own words, Hawkes began life in the late summer or early fall of 1947 when he married Sophie, went back to Harvard, met Albert Guerard, and began to write, and through Albert[met] James Laughlin, who became my publisher. So I had a wife, a teacher, and a publisher—all at the age of 22.

Hawkes graduated in 1949 with a bachelor of arts degree from Harvard, where he later held various jobs, including assisting the production manager of Harvard University Press and lecturing in creative writing. In the late 1950’s, Hawkes moved to Brown University, eventually becoming a full professor of English. He held a number of visiting professorships and lectureships and lived in Providence, Rhode Island, and in a variety of exotic places in the Caribbean, Greece, and France. He and his wife, formerly Sophie Goode Tazewell, had four children.

Even though many of his works have a nightmarish, violently hallucinatory quality about them, Hawkes himself was hardly an advocate of ugliness in real life. As he said to Thomas LeClair in 1979, “I deplore violence. I want to lead a safe, ordinary life with my wife and children and my friends and students. But ugliness is as essential to fiction as it is to the dream.”

Hawkes retired from university teaching in 1988 but continued to make his home in Providence. He died in Providence on May 15, 1998.