Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036
Jerry David Madden is one of the most diverse and prolific of American writers. His many works range from literary criticism to the short story, drama, poetry, and, most important, the novel. In addition to his creative writing and scholarship, he has edited books and journals and taught both creative...
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- Critical Essays
Jerry David Madden is one of the most diverse and prolific of American writers. His many works range from literary criticism to the short story, drama, poetry, and, most important, the novel. In addition to his creative writing and scholarship, he has edited books and journals and taught both creative writing and literature at colleges and universities.
Madden, the son of James and Emily Madden, had a typical middle-class upbringing and attended public schools. His imagination was profoundly influenced by his grandmother’s storytelling, the many films he viewed while working as an usher at the local theater, and the great radio plays of the 1930’s and 1940’s. So fascinated was he with the dramatic power of the written and spoken word that he was telling stories by the age of three and writing them by the age of eleven. After graduating from Knoxville High School in 1951, Madden entered the University of Tennessee. His academic progress was slow, however, because of sporadic travels around the country that fed his yearning for a firsthand view of life. In 1953, these journeys culminated with his working in the merchant marine and finally joining the U.S. Army, where he remained until 1955.
Upon his release from service, Madden entered the Iowa State Teachers’ College, where he continued to work on both the novel and the play Cassandra Singing. He married Roberta Margaret Young in 1956 and returned to the University of Tennessee, where he completed his B.S. degree in education in 1957. From there, he moved to San Francisco State University, where he studied with novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark, earning his M.A. in creative writing there in 1958.
In the 1960’s, Madden was on the faculties of a number of colleges and universities, including Center College in Danville, Kentucky (1960 to 1962); the University of Louisville (1962 to 1964); Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he was the assistant editor of The Kenyon Review (1964 to 1966); Ohio University in Athens (1966 and 1968); and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1967). In 1968, he became writer-in-residence at Louisiana State University, which became his academic home.
Madden’s master’s thesis became his first published novel, The Beautiful Greed. In a style that is simple, direct, and vivid, the book details a somewhat autobiographical story based upon his experiences in New York City and the merchant marine. The protagonist, Alvin Henderlight, following the example set by Madden himself, has quit school to look for some sort of meaning in a meaningless existence. He joins the merchant marine, where adventures themselves seem to justify life. It is through Alvin’s quest for purpose and direction in the chaos of real life that Madden is able to explore basic existential themes dealing with humanity’s ability to forge, with action and art, meaning on an absurd landscape.
This existential vision is not only an outgrowth of Madden’s own southern heritage and his familiarity with the works of such key southern writers as Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner but also a product of his reading of works by Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, and James Joyce. Indeed, Madden has published critical discussions of such moderns as Albert Camus, James Agee, Wright Morris, Nathanael West, James Cain, and Carson McCullers, as well as contemporary writers such as George Garrett and Barry Hannah.
The 1969 novel Cassandra Singing is set in the coal-mining region of Kentucky and centers on the close relationship between a brother, who represents force and action, and his bedridden, imaginative sister, who represents the life of language and contemplation. For Madden, the characters personify dangerous extremes in a world where a balance between energy and intellect is vital. Events that separate the siblings force them to face the existential necessity of making choices.
Madden’s ability to infuse his characters with liveliness, lyrical passion, and truthfulness is also apparent in Bijou. The protagonist is Lucius Hutchfield, a thirteen-year-old usher at the Bijou Theatre in Cherokee, Tennessee. Lucius spends his time enthralled with the giant images and sounds in the motion-picture house. The story recounts how the boy fantasizes about the plots of the films, replaying them in his mind and applying them to his own life. The book concerns the growth of an artistic imagination as it confronts the tension between the worlds of fiction and fact.
Madden’s nostalgia for his past continues in Pleasure-Dome, the sequel to Bijou, wherein Lucius, following his own nostalgic yearnings and his intense desire to be a storyteller, has traveled to North Carolina to learn more about the origin of Jesse James. As an artist seeking the raw details for his tale, Lucius is willing to go to great lengths to exploit Zara Jane Ransom, an elderly woman who knew and loved James. Sharpshooter is a fictional memoir of a Civil War soldier, thirteen-year-old Willis Carr. It was highly acclaimed by critics and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
The artist’s need to create, thus finding some purpose in a world which seems to have none, is the theme of many of Madden’s short stories, such as “The Last Bizarre Tale,” which appeared in the collection That’s What I Like About the South, edited by George Garrett and Paul Ruffin (1993). It is also a preoccupation in his criticism, as seen in his essay “Art for the Reader’s Sake” (1991). Madden’s interest in the process of writing has led him to write or coauthor such works as the popular A Primer of the Novel: For Readers and Writers, Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, and the useful annotated bibliography Writer’s Revisions. He has also edited Rediscoveries and Rediscoveries II (the latter with Peggy Bach), in which American writers talk about neglected works of fiction which interested and influenced them.
Whether as critic, scholar, and teacher, or as playwright, poet, and fiction writer, David Madden always exhibits his reverence for his craft. In “Art for the Reader’s Sake,” after deploring the fact that most teachers in his discipline seem to use literature only to promote their own social agendas, Madden emphasizes the value of the aesthetic experience. Like Joseph Conrad, Madden has based his life on the conviction that art is a way to make others see for themselves.