Ernest K(ellogg) Gann Essay - Critical Essays

Gann, Ernest K(ellogg)


Ernest K(ellogg) Gann 1910–

American novelist, scriptwriter, short story writer, and autobiographer.

Gann, a former World War II flier and commercial pilot, is known for his aeronautical adventure fiction and his autobiographical documentary on aviation, Fate Is the Hunter. Such novels as The High and the Mighty and his recent The Aviator are studies of people caught in stressful situations.

Although Gann occasionally deviates from aviation stories, he is at his best conveying the technical details of airplanes and flying within the context of the adventure story. His historical novel The Antagonists was the basis for Masada, a television mini-series.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Rose Feld

In "Island in the Sky," Ernest K. Gann, veteran airline transport pilot, tells a story that transmits the feelings, the thoughts, the impulses of men who come alive in the stratosphere. It possesses the understatement of individuals who need no words to explain actions, the poetry of airborne creatures who know the fulfillment of release from the earth.

Mr. Gann's story is concerned with the flight of Dooley and the forced landing of his plane, the "Corsair," in the uncharted frozen wastelands of northern Canada. It is concerned with the kind of man Dooley was and the kind of men who, without question, assumed the perilous task of finding him and his crew….

It is not in the description of flight alone, of flying above clouds, through clouds and beneath them that Mr. Gann excels. On their frozen lake in the midst of nowhere six men waited for life or death. One of them went, lost in a blizzard within fifty yards of his comrades, and … in describing his death Mr. Gann describes the last moments of a man who was alien on earth….

That the others didn't die was due to the miracle of the courage and the comradeship that is part of the flying man's code. There is a moment of dreadful suspense in the tale when one shares the heartbreak and the panic of five men who after a glimpse of joy are driven back to face a bitter death. Mr. Gann tells his story and portrays his people with an economy of words and emotion that mark the poet of the air. Only a creature with the earth-clinging instincts of a ground-hog could fail to be stirred by it.

Rose Feld, "The Men of the Stratosphere," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1944, p. 5.

Frederick J. Bell

There have been books about the men who fly bombers, torpedo planes and fighters. Mr. Gann's book ["Island in the Sky"] is written about men who, like himself, are peacetime commercial airline pilots but who today are flying in war. Like all airmen, they live in a world apart and usually they find it difficult to convey to outsiders the sensations of existence in their island in the sky….

There is none of the high poesy of St. Exupéry, but there is fine straightforward prose that is as clean as a gull in flight….

This is Mr. Gann's first novel. In this reviewer he created a desire for more stories from his pen about those gallant men who have found their island in the sky. The great novel of the airman is yet to be written. For that, we will have to wait for the perspective of peace.

Frederick J. Bell, "The Log of a Corsair," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1944 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 16, 1944, p. 6.

David Dempsey

Getting the mail through Dead Man's Gulch has been a profitable occupation for novelists since the days of the pony express. Mr. Gann brings the subject up to date with a novel ["Blaze of Noon"] about the pioneering days of air mail and shows that neither time nor technology has daunted the spirit of adventure which attends the delivery of a first-class letter….

Mr. Gann is at his best in transporting you through a cumulonimbus cloud, or landing you at a fogged-in airport. When the youngest MacDonald and the Girl "meet cute," however (she is a nurse with whom he falls in love while reading an eye chart), we know that the author has his eye cocked on Hollywood. From there on he sets his course somewhere between Buffalo, the airline terminus, and Southern California. The results, fortunately, are not as bad as they might be. Mr. Gann is too much of an old pilot himself to let romance interfere with the United States mail.

David Dempsey, "The Air Mail Pioneers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1946, p. 5.

Richard Match

The four MacDonalds, soon increased to five by marriage and depleted by air tragedy, are the heroes of ["Blaze of Noon"] Mr. Gann tells their story smoothly and well, though its tone is just a shade too slick to let you think of the author as a flyer first and a professional scribe second…. Full of daring duels with cumulo-nimbus, complete with that inevitable tense huddle around the airport radio, sweating the comrade aloft down through the blizzard, "Blaze of Noon" is prime dressed Hollywood meat, right down to and including a bathtub scene….

Mr. Gann's book is a competent novelization of the [birth of the airlines] … and a thoroughly readable story of men who "lived with valor as with a mistress." It will serve, for the time, as a monument to the heroic air era midway between the Wrights's flying machine and the B-29. Some day it will be superseded by a great novel of the air.

Richard Match, "The Shoestring Airlines," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1946, p. 8.

John Brooks

[In "Fiddler's Green"] a young San Francisco dope peddler named Bruno Felkin, having murdered an underworld rival, accidentally comes aboard the Taaga. Later, finding himself some miles at sea with the boat's captain and his son, Bruno decides that this is a good place to hide out, and he signs on as a crew member. The story adumbrates Bruno's relationship with the captain's son, a fisherman who would rather be a dope peddler, and with the sea, which eventually conquers both of the young men, in its own way.

As story or theme, this suggestive material is handled with less skill and suppleness than it deserves. Bruno Felkin … is plausible enough as a small-time criminal. At sea, however, he fails to achieve the stature that Mr. Gann seems to have intended for him; he is not and never will be Ishmael. The land-bound characters … are only routine detective-fiction characters. The novel, too, has a serious technical flaw: continually insistent on plot, it nevertheless includes a series of vignettes of characters who never touch the story and therefore serve to confuse the reader.

The best of "Fiddler's Green" is its picture of the fishing life. It is intriguing to see how the author's interest perks up, how his style takes on a new cadence, every time his story moves out from the wharf to the open sea…. Unfortunately, Mr. Gann never settled whether he was telling a melodramatic story or painting a picture.

John Brooks, "Wind, Waves and Fog," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1950 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 28, 1950, p. 5.

Edgar L. Acken

The story of Ernest Gann's fourth novel, "Fiddler's Green," tells of Bruno Felkin's jarring impact upon the lives of Hamil and his son Carl, upon his own girl, Connie, and on the men whose boats and lives centered about a commercial fishing wharf in San Francisco Bay….

The author of this tale is himself an adventurous man, whose previous novels have been about planes and flying men. He writes good adventure stories and his people are not stock characters. There is true suspense throughout the book. Mr. Gann also knows his San Francisco waterfront and makes the reader feel as if he, too, knew it.

The only letdown comes at the conclusion when, after exciting action and apt...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Charles Lee

There is nothing stingy about Ernest K. Gann's sense of melodrama in his new novel, "The High and the Mighty."

The serious reader, if he hasn't already jet-propelled himself elsewhere, will, of course, find a twenty-second character aboard who lends a somber note to the hectic doings on plane 420: his name is Death. "The High and the Mighty" is, in a sense, a study of men and women on the edge of destruction (aren't they always?), of the thoughts they think as they are about to die, of the answers they're ready with if they could but live.

All of these people are picked with a kind of relentlessly obvious factitiousness; their ironies are leaden; their commingled climaxes have the...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Coleman Rosenberger

"The High and the Mighty" is a novel which is notable on two counts—as an eminently entertaining addition both to one of the oldest and to one of the most recent branches of storytelling. The most recent is the literature of flight, of which the first-rate examples seem very few when it is remembered that the year 1953 will mark a full half century since Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the supposedly impossible at Kitty Hawk. But even if the literature of flight were considerably richer than it is, Mr. Gann's taut novel of the agony of a great four-engine plane which took off from Honolulu across the Pacific for San Francisco would command attention.

The other branch of story telling to which...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Riley Hughes

Mr. Gann's characters [in The High and the Mighty] are types—the overage pilot, the perceptive stewardess, the sinister passenger—but they are not automatons … The title, one would think, is meant to be taken ironically: the crew and passengers on the flight from Hawaii to San Francisco may be high, but they are anything but mighty by the time Mr. Gann is through with them. With the assurance of complete technical knowledge, the author takes the plane up, then gets it into serious trouble. What happens then and the varied reactions of passengers and crew to their situation and to what they have made of their lives together make up Mr. Gann's story. It's one on the toughly sentimental side; adult readers...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

The New Yorker

Mr. Gann, a forthright and thoroughly masculine writer, misses fire with ["Soldier of Fortune," the] account of an attractive American woman's lonely search through the Hong Kong underworld for news of her husband, an American photographer who is mysteriously missing in Red China. The woman, Jane Hoyt, is real enough, but the underworld she explores is much too gentle and approachable to seem true, and its chief figure, an adventurer named Hank Lee, only occasionally convincing as his author struggles to persuade us that he is an enigmatic, ruthless colossus, a kindly Samaritan, and a wistful, unsure lover, all at the same time.

"Fiction: 'Soldier of Fortune'," in The New...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Burke Wilkinson

When Ernest Gann is at the top of his game, as he was last year in "The High and the Mighty," he is very, very good indeed. When he is in something less than top form, as in this new adventure story, the seams in his cleverly stitched plots begin to show. For he is one of the leading current creators of the formula school of novel—of the Novel of Precarious Situation. Despite the vigor of his observation and the unfailing accuracy of his technical detail, a Gann novel must rise or fall on the amount of tension which the central situation generates.

"Soldier of Fortune" has an entirely adequate if scarcely original central situation. Jane Hoyt, an attractive American girl, comes to present-day Hong...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

James Kelly

In a half-dozen previous novels, headed by "The High and the Mighty," Ernest Gann has at times effectively drawn upon his air and ground experience as a multimillion-mile pilot. The technical litany of a plane in flight. The diversely selected passengers bound by a taut situation to which they respond in diverse ways. The aloof and lonely skipper occupied with the terrible responsibility of craft and human lives. Add a bravura plot to hold dramatic material intact for passage in and out of the clouds or through the inscrutable back streets of Hong Kong and San Francisco, and the basic components are pretty well identified. Lacking the poesy of St. Exupéry, for instance, or the dazzling simple power of Capt. Joshua...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Brendan Gill

[One] of the really big money-makers of the winter season should be "Twilight for the Gods."… Mr. Gann, who wrote "The High and the Mighty" a few years back, is a lucky fellow. He knows just who his customers are and what they like, and he serves it up to them by the platterful. The feast calls for enormous helpings and no surprises, since each course must be as easy to recognize as it is preposterous…. Mr. Gann's slapdash novel will make a terrific movie, full of wind, waves, sharks, and gruffly tender moments. If one of the usual stable of Hollywood writers had been assigned to prepare a screen treatment, he would have been hard put to it to earn his pay. This possible embarrassment has been avoided by giving...

(The entire section is 158 words.)

Pierce Fredericks

Previously a skillful producer of broad-shouldered adventures, Ernest Gann tries for something more like the Ivy Look in ["The Trouble with Lazy Ethel"] and manages to be more or less continually entertaining. His heroine this time is no member of the nubility, but a young lady with the general contours of a Notre Dame tackle. His hero (so laconic as to seem at times retarded) is a weatherman who can be loosely characterized as scared of girls….

The reader should be warned that material just about sufficient for a long short story has been pumped up to novel length, but Mr. Gann manages to keep up the fun almost all the way.

Pierce Fredericks, "Reluctant...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Taliaferro Boatwright

Toward the middle of Ernest K. Gann's artful and satirical new novel one of his characters, a dissolute journalist, cries out: "My job is to write about the creation of the most vicious, insulting slap in the face that God has ever received from the hand of man!" In a sense, this is just what the author himself has done. For "The Trouble With Lazy Ethel," which is built around the preparations for a thermonuclear explosion at a remote atoll in the Pacific, is really a look at the people who are creating that slap. And its climax is a demonstration that the hand of God is mightier by far than the works of man….

Around the halting love affair between Adam and Margaret, the fumbling efforts of Pike to...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Martin Caidin

In such novels as "Blaze of Noon" and "The High and the Mighty," Ernest K. Gann struck some memorable chords in the orchestration of flight. Now, for the first time, he steps from behind the shield of fiction to stand autobiographically exposed in "Fate Is the Hunter."…. It is a tribute to Mr. Gann that in his review of his own stirring years in the skies, the reader is often quick to forget that this is not fiction. Mr. Gann's subtle technique of drawing the reader into his scenes establishes a rapport between pilots and nonfliers that is rare, indeed.

Mr. Gann has chosen in "Fate Is the Hunter" to emphasize the many phases of his own flying life and those of fellow pilots…. These reminiscences...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

["Fate is the Hunter"] is a documentary about the pre-war days of commercial flying, first in the United States and, after, during the war, in South America and all over the world. It is an evocation from the point of view of the men in the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot. They are shown as technicians watching their instruments and then, suddenly, as human beings surprised by peril—all four engines give out; the aircraft is lost; it runs into violent storm; it is down to a few minutes petrol; it escapes collision by 50 feet; it is pulled down by ice and so on. These jabs of Fate are unpredictable and are opposed by the pilots' luck, their individual character, their hard apprenticeship and their technical...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Martin Levin

In ["Of Good and Evil"] Mr. Gann follows the attempts of the harassed fuzz to keep pace with crime, or at least to come out even.

Like most authors who study closely the workings of an honest police force, Mr. Gann is less suspicious of "police brutality" than of the civilian horrendousness that fills the daily blotter with maimed old men, bludgeoned cashiers and corpses of varied origin. And he pleads the cause of the cops in sincere if ponderous terms. This novel has been written before, and perhaps better …, but the subject of civic vice is irresistible—and, unfortunately, inexhaustible.

Martin Levin, "Readers Report: 'Of Good and Evil'," in The New...

(The entire section is 127 words.)

The New Yorker

Mr. Gann's novel of German and French aviators in the First World War ["The Company of Eagles"] is extremely disappointing. Considering the author, whose talent and skill were proved in "The High and the Mighty," and considering the time, the place, the circumstances, and the personalities of the two heroes involved, it should have been a very exciting and affecting story. The year is 1917, but the fifty years that have passed since then have skimped Mr. Gann's perspective instead of making it clear and rich. There are times when he seems to have been carried away by his interest in old flying machines. [Gann's two protagonists] are both brave, loyal, intelligent, and personally appealing men, but Mr. Gann's...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Brian Garfield

At his best, Ernest K. Gann is spectacularly good. An experienced airman and a skillful narrative writer, he has staked out a claim to a thrilling pilot's sky. Readers of Fate Is the Hunter and some of his ten other books must anticipate keenly the prospect of climbing back into the cockpit beside the old master. In [In the Company of Eagles] however, he fails to prove up his claim…. The two scantily realized principals of the new book … are little more than mouthpieces for the weary statement that war is hell. (pp. 55, 58)

[The] central story is about an insignificant battle in a giant catastrophic war. And actually perhaps the only significance of a war novel today can be in the...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Publishers Weekly

[With "The Antagonists"] Mr. Gann has attempted to write a historical novel with contemporary relevance. Masada was the last bastion of Jewish resistance after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., the place where 960 zealots, led by Eleazar ben Yair defied the Tenth Legion commanded by General Silva and chose suicide to Roman captivity. What took place there is intensely exciting history. Not even Mr. Gann's lifeless portrayals of the main characters in his novel can diminish the intensity of the actual events. Silva is presented as crippled, drunk, in love with a Jewess and Yair as weak and dull. Mr. Gann has more success with his minor characters…. They add color to the story but not enough to...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Charles Dollen

Ernest Gann has taken an historical event of the highest drama and turned it into fiction of high quality [in "The Antagonists"]. General Flavius Silva and Eleazar ben Yair are the antagonists of the title, and they are worthy of each other. Flavius is supremely confident in the might of Rome; Eleazar has firm faith in the power of Jahweh….

In this age, when there are few ideals that seem worth dying for (or living for, either!) it may be difficult to enter into the spirit that created Masada, or the Crusades or the Revolution. The bitter, seemingly irrational hatreds that are now tearing the mid-East asunder are equally hard to understand. It is this spirit, however, that Gann is investigating and...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Brigid Brophy

Who is Ernest K. Gann? Critics of style will get the answer in one: a committee consisting of the ghost of Herman Melville and a North American kinswoman of Mrs Malaprop. Melville has contributed the folksy archaisms ('aloft or alow') and the whimsy: 'an aircraft waiting for the approach of its driver—hanging its head in shame'. Mrs Malaprop's American cousin has devised a startling new meaning for connive (radio signals help pilots 'twist, connive, and slip successfully between the towering cumulus') and a quite surrealistically new meaning for empirical. (p. 23)

If [Ernest K. Gann's Flying Circus] has a thesis it seems to be that modern flying, described as 'flying by the numbers', is less...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Paul Stuewe

[Brain 2000 is a sophomoric] future-fantasy about a child genius and his efforts to avert global catastrophe. Gann's plodding style didn't seriously detract from his straight novels, but it brings this attempt at comedy down to earth with an extremely dull thud. A miscalculation best forgotten as quickly as possible, and certain to disappoint those gripped by the heroics of The High and the Mighty and Fate Is the Hunter.

Paul Stuewe, "American Thrillers: 'Firestarter', 'Brass Diamonds', 'Brain 2000'" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Quill and Quire, Vol. 46, No. 10, October, 1980, p. 40.∗

(The entire section is 92 words.)

Publishers Weekly

Author of "The High and the Mighty" and other bestsellers, Gann falls short of expectations in ["The Aviator."] It is gripping where it focuses on flying in its infancy during the 1920s and on pioneers who took the wild risks that made aviation a reality, but it only occasionally succeeds as an adventure tale. In 1928, pilot Jerry takes off northward, carrying the mail and a passenger, 11-year-old Heather. Suddenly, the plane falters and Jerry crashes into mountainous terrain. Both survive but Heather is badly injured, and here is where the story becomes steadily more difficult to accept. Heather is unbelievably precocious and self-sacrificing during the agonizing days when hopes of rescue dim; Jerry is slightly more...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

David F. Salisbury

Ernie Gann is well known to lovers of tales of the air. His classic novels "Fate Is the Hunter" and "The High and the Mighty"—and the movies made from them—captured the magic as well as the tragedy of the early days of aviation.

With his new book, "The Aviator," Mr. Gann once again explores this familiar skyscape….

In many ways "The Aviator" is reminiscent of Antoine St. Exupery's "Night Flight"—a wonderfully told story of a mail pilot in Patagonia caught in a storm. Gann cannot match the French lyricism of Exupery, but, in his own way, he does create interesting characters and put them in a suspenseful situation. One only wishes he had developed the characters more fully...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Michael Malone

Ernest K. Gann writes best sellers about flying and fighting…. Mr. Gann's heroes, whether at war in ancient Masada or World War I France, are usually laconic, fiercely self-reliant loners, cynical sentimentalists, promiscuous with death, faithful to a pal.

Oddly, "The Aviator," seems to belong on that nostalgic cottage shelf, to have the descriptive feel and earnest tender style of popular novels written three decades ago; it might have appeared first in The Saturday Evening Post with brown-tinted illustrations, two tipped monoplanes aloft in the background, girl with windblown hair to the fore. Its subject is a favorite of Mr. Gann's: the flying world of gypsy moths in the 1920's….


(The entire section is 255 words.)