Critical Context

During a short career—which was ended by a motorcycle accident when he was forty-nine—John Gardner distinguished himself in a wide range of pursuits. While working in many literary genres, including fiction, poetry, children’s tales, and even operatic librettos, he remained a university professor of medieval literature and creative writing. Gardner’s imaginative use of scholarly learning is typified by the first of his novels to achieve marked critical and popular success: Grendel (1971), a retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view. Both Time and Newsweek named Grendel one of 1971’s best fiction books.

Other triumphs followed, culminating in October Light, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle award for fiction in 1977. Like Grendel and other works by Gardner, October Light is full of erudite allusions, prompting a few critics to attack it as excessively theme-ridden. Most critics, however, regard it as his finest novel, an ambitious but lively treatment of ultimately insoluble mysteries, and the most successful of Gardner’s attempts to bring past learning to bear on present dilemmas.

After October Light, Gardner’s reputation declined somewhat, perhaps in part because of his attacks on most contemporary writers for failing to affirm life and inspire readers. His On Moral Fiction (1978), a work of critical theory containing these charges, was highly controversial. Some critics said that Gardner’s last works of fiction—The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981) and Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982)— fell short of the standard he himself set in On Moral Fiction. Even after his death, Gardner and his work remain controversial, but no one disputes that he was one of America’s most important contemporary authors, or that October Light is his masterpiece in fiction.