Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Freddy’s Book was Gardner’s first volume after the publication of his controversial critical volume On Moral Fiction (1978), which dismissed most contemporary American writing as specious and insubstantial because it refused to treat important subjects in a worthy fashion. Gardner, who had been severely attacked on a number of fronts for the views he advanced in On Moral Fiction, seems to have used Freddy’s Book as a way to respond to his critics by demonstrating what moral fiction was, how it could be done, and what it should accomplish. First, moral fiction is serious, in that it deals with important issues that confront real human beings. When Jack Winesap and Sven Agaard talk, they are not merely discussing idle academic subjects but are debating what it means to know the past and what can be learned from it. In other words, they consider what history is in its truest sense. Freddy Agaard does not write a steamy historical potboiler but a true yet imaginative re-creation of a lost world that still has powerful and lasting impact on the way people think and live now. Even the characters in “King Gustav and the Devil” are not cardboard cutouts but fully realized human beings who confront the same sorts of passions and doubts and choices with which readers must grapple every day. In short, Freddy’s Book, while it appears to be the sort of clever “novel within a novel” artifice that Gardner roundly attacked in On Moral Fiction, is actually a serious, in-depth dialogue that leads toward that greater understanding that Gardner always maintained was the major, perhaps sole, purpose of the novel, indeed of all true art.