George Garrett Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

George Garrett Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

George Garrett’s career as a novelist was divided into two stages, with distinct changes in style, subject material, and characterization coming at the beginning of his monumental Elizabethan trilogy. His early novels are essentially traditional American novels of the mid-twentieth century. They explore American life—mostly life in the South—with a mixture of smiling humor and serious concern about contemporary social issues. The characters of Garrett’s early novels are people caught up in social and political troubles that threaten their senses of identity and self-worth. In these early novels, the press of a corrupting world intrudes on deeply principled characters who sometimes buckle or break under the onslaught. Garrett’s Do, Lord, Remember Me is a transitional novel. It retains his established technique of blending humorous and serious themes in a straightforward narrative line, but it points a new direction in its narrative voice. The story is told from the points of view of several of the novel’s characters. Garrett had been experimenting with this device in his three previous volumes of short stories, and he carried the technique to full flower in his Elizabethan trilogy of novels: Death of the Fox, The Succession, and Entered from the Sun.

The Finished Man

Garrett’s first novel, The Finished Man, published in 1959, is a southern political novel in the tradition of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946). The central character, Mike Royle, is a man embroiled in the sins and deceits of a political system that is fearfully inhumane and racist, a system that is a travesty of Jeffersonian democracy. Royle works in the reelection campaign of an unprincipled senator whose cynical opportunism brings about his ultimate downfall. Also, Royle is witness to the failure of his father, a highly moral, charitable judge who is betrayed by his own vision and by the corrupt politics around him. Royle hopes to learn about society and himself using these two failed lives as object lessons. What Royle actually learns is that the complexities of human motives are most often undiscoverable and that evil often seems to have a life and body of its own. At the end of the novel, Royle attempts to discover meaning through an inspection of the lives of his forebears. Here Garrett touches on that American version of Shintoism that is a mainstay of the southern novel. Much of The Finished Man is told through periodic flashbacks that enliven the psychological portraits of the main characters.

Do, Lord, Remember Me

Do, Lord, Remember Me tells the story of evangelist Red Smalley and his perverse entourage of friends and lovers as they tour the American South with their revival show, fleecing the rubes and causing noisy trouble. Garrett succinctly catalogs the misbehavior on the tent-revival trail—the dramatically phony faith healings, the sexual escapades of the brothers and sisters of the mad faith, and the sleazy magic tricks designed to bilk the naïve believers. Red Smalley is no comic stereotype preacher, however; he is a complex man pulled in opposite directions and pulled apart. He wants to be a true man of God, but he loves being a charlatan and a drunk. He believes his own propaganda from the makeshift pulpit, but he cannot bring himself to live the Faith that he prescribes for others. The members of Smalley’s revival crew, an ungodly collection of misfits, are similarly conflicted. They want to be what they cannot be, what they will not allow themselves to be.

This complex novel is told from several narrative points of view, with all of the main characters telling their own versions of the novel’s tumultuous events and interrelationships. Like Smalley, the other narrators are troubled by one overriding realization. They all are trying to escape the inescapable truth that forms the core of the novel: Human beings are inherently evil, and the institutions that they create and support are shot through with that evil.

In many ways Do, Lord, Remember Me is a testing ground for the large fictional techniques that pervade Garrett’s Elizabethan cycle. The novel’s choric narrative technique, the use of interior monologues, and the employment of various typography devices are expanded and supplemented in the three Elizabethan novels.

Garrett’s first assumption about historical fiction was that a given historical period or event or character is locked in time; it has a definable beginning, middle, and end. Nevertheless, inside that static frame, he believed, the novelist may create a limitless theater for the individual and collective human imagination. In his essay “Dreaming with Adam: Notes on Imaginary History,” Garrett defines this imagination about which he was writing: “The subject is the larger imagination, the possibility of imagining lives and spirits of other human beings, living and dead, without assaulting their essential and, anyway, ineffable mystery, to dream again in recapitulation the dream of Adam, knowing, as he did not until he awoke that it is true.”

Death of the Fox

Death of the Fox, the first novel in Garrett’s Elizabethan cycle, centers on the final days of the adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh as he contemplates his beheading. Ralegh was a poet, explorer, courtier, and politician, and one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorites. Ralegh’s flamboyant personality dominates the novel. His story is told by Ralegh himself, James I, Henry Velverton, and others. These multiple narrations are blends of memory and imagination, so that interior monologues are bonded into recollections of historical events, people, and the familiar objects of everyday life. This blend allows the narration to travel back and forth in time and space, creating a fictional mosaic that finally combines into a portrait of the life and death of Ralegh. As Garrett portrays him, Ralegh is the embodiment of the spirit of the English Renaissance. He is a man who strives for moral and spiritual autonomy yet one who is swept into the intrigues of a complex political system that he cannot understand or control.


(The entire section is 2542 words.)