George Garrett Garrett, George (Vol. 3) - Essay

Garrett, George (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Garrett, George 1929–

Garrett, an American Southerner, is a Christian novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, and editor. His novel about Sir Walter Ralegh, Death of the Fox, has been highly praised. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Death of the Fox] is, first of all, a novel built upon and rich in the special glories of the great central tradition of fiction[.] George Garrett has a Shakespearean interest in personality and its variety, and—in addition to his extraordinarily detailed portrayal of Ralegh himself—he responds with great vitality and invariable sensitivity to one of the broadest casts in contemporary literature; each figure in it, from James I to the lowest servant hovering before the fire, is presented with particularity; each lives. Moreover each lives through action[;] dialogue and scene not only advance the narrative line but project the character directly, immediately. Modern fiction, with its obsessive self-regard and fascination with tricks and gimmicks, is so thinly populated (what American novelist after Faulkner has had the nerve or skill to be vivid?) that we look automatically to the past, to the nineteenth century, for "characters." It is one of the radical features of Death of the Fox that it places that half-forgotten yet fundamental accomplishment of the novel at its center and at least partly risks its success upon portraiture.

As a result, it seems to me, Death of the Fox is a novel deliberately designed as a tapestry. Though Ralegh occupies the foreground and is the organizing element upon which all else is built and to which all else is related, it is also Garrett's ambitious aim to reconstruct the era of which Ralegh was so representative a figure. Thus, like a tapestry, Death of the Fox moves our attention now here, now there, giving us this tableau, that set-piece, this reverie, that action, taking us back—from the final moments of Ralegh's life—to the days of Queen Elizabeth's glory, yet reminding us constantly that with James a new day has come and with it more mundane considerations. And, for all the dramatic intensity of its various scenes, Death of the Fox—intentionally, I think—avoids the kind of dramatic neatness that comes from conventional plot and its management. Its effect comes, instead, from accumulation.

A consequent distinction of Death of the Fox is its symphonic nature. This is a matter partly of language, partly of the complex interweaving of a number of thematic obsessions. Couched with great bravado in a diction and syntax that echo (though they never coarsely initate) the prose of the Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, Death of the Fox boasts a richness of imagery, description and rhythm unique in contemporary letters—only Faulkner (again) in recent American fiction dares as much (and with a far less trustworthy ear), and the only other modern parallel I can find is in the few pages of Virginia Woolf's Orlando in which, though more cautiously, she tries to recapture the same time. The themes that wind in and out of Death of the Fox, on the other hand, come not from craft but from the deepest necessities of George Garrett's mind—his fascination with war and its revelations, his sorrow at the spectacle of greatness eroding into triviality, above all his aristocratic concern with dying well—and their statement, variation and ultimate combination and resolution give the novel its remarkable resonance. Death of the Fox is a long book, yet its reach is too high to be accommodated in briefer compass.

New, ambitious, of a "breadth, depth and elevation" unlike anything anyone else of his generation has had the guts, let alone the craft, to risk, George Garrett's Death of the Fox defies easy definition—and I hope, here at the moment of its publication, that no one will try too soon to fix or place it. A crucial and culminating achievement for him, but more than that a work so different from the fashions of its day that it exposes its creator to the inevitable jealousies of lesser talents, it should be given time to settle. Meanwhile, for now, hats off.

Paxton Davis, "Breadth, Depth and Elevation: George Garrett's Death of the Fox," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, p. 13.

George Garrett's new novel Death of the Fox is a non-fiction novel in the genre [that is, the non-fiction novel], though some will call it a historical novel. It is likely that Elizabethan scholars—rather than angry wives or black militants—are going to pay careful and critical attention to the book, since it happens to be about the last 36 hours, more or less, in the life of Sir Walter Ralegh.

"Only a seasoned Elizabethan scholar can hope to get Ralegh right," says A. L. Rowse, fellow of All Souls, Oxbridge, an Elizabethan scholar, of course. Obviously this is the sort of remark that a novelist cannot help but keep in mind. After all, Mr. Rowse could easily say that one has gotten Ralegh wrong….

I would venture that before this 700 page plate galleon of a novel comes safely in this fall, her master will be eyeball to eyeball with Mr. Rowse or someone like him, perhaps his peers in the Haklyut Society.

But, if I could bet on it, I would bet on George Garrett.

Frank McCullough, "George Garrett's Ralegh," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, p. 15.

George Garrett's fourth novel, Death of the Fox, about the life and death of Sir Walter Ralegh,… is his finest novel, the work in which his eschatological mode of thought, his mastery of his craft, and the results of his meditations upon history (and historians) find their highest expression. Furthermore, it is a new kind of novel. And the vehicle for all of this is a style that will make mere novelists weep with envy….

Some people find The Finished Man Garrett's worst novel. It may not be that good. Part of the trouble is that none of it is ever grimily, vividly real, except the protagonist, and he only in places. Florida politics may be that way, and short of a grand jury investigation we shall never know, but there is a combination of dirtiness and desperation about Southern politics as played by its usual stupid crew who want to rule on behalf of the evil that didn't rear up when it should have on a few occasions. In short, as a Southerner also acquainted with its politics and culture, and as a reader, I was not moved.

Which Ones Are the Enemy? is a novel about the U.S. occupation of Trieste, an operation christened with an acronym, TRUST, that is joked about by the narrator. It is a Christian existentialist novel told through the mind of John Riche ("like in son of a bitch," he tells the orderly room sergeant when he reports to his new outfit, an artillery company). It is a fine novel, a novel I am constantly surprised more people haven't read, and a perfect exercise in tone and viewpoint. Because Garrett's control never slips, not even for a second, it's both satisfying and moving….

[The] most important aspect of this novel for those who are interested in the movement of Garrett's work is that here he presents most forcefully what will be the theme of his novels, and some of his shorter fiction: "Consider, oh Lord, this prisoner."

To get inside Garrett's work, the reader must either be, or be able to understand, Protestant fundamentalism. For those of us who still remember Bible Drill with shudders of horror, the task is not insurmountable. Most critics dismiss it as somehow "Southern." In fact, it is not an expression of his (so-called) regionalistic tendencies, but of his adherence to one of three major theological camps, Protestant Biblicism (the other two being Protestant modernism and Catholicism, both existential and traditional Thomist).

Garrett considers again and again the covenants God is represented as making with man in the Bible: through Adam (the recurring and overriding myth of Garrett's work), through Abraham and Isaac (another important leitmotif), through Jacob (he is particularly fond of the myth of Jacob wrestling with the angel), through Moses and through David, and through Christ, although the Christ myth, with the exception of Big Red Smalley in Do, Lord, Remember Me is not considered in his work as much as the Old Testament myths—I've always suspected that Southern Protestants, black and white, were stronger for the Old Law than the New, but this not the place to get into that….

Garrett is concerned, perhaps overbearingly, with eschatology, with Final Things: death, the end of History, the afterlife, la vita nuova. But he has been able to see, especially recently, man within History as well as outside it, has ventured outside the kind of Biblicism that looks at religion from the viewpoint of Christianity and not Christianity from the viewpoint of religion. And whatever his eschatological obsessions, Garrett has never used the certainty that there are things we shall never be able to resolve as an excuse for not examining the things that can be resolved. Or, worse behavior than that, currently fashionable among those whose awareness of History leads them both to an awareness of it and a man's personal responsibility in the face of it, all of which is painful. We must all anesthetize ourselves, as is commonly known….

[Death of the Fox] is a novel from History as well as of it. In other words, a dialogue between a poet of the twentieth century and a poet of the seventeenth century. In order for that [dialogue] to take place, Garrett had to be both the novelist of History and cognizant of his obligations and privileges as a novelist taking the traditional road of development of character. A novel written about the people of a novelist's generation has traditionally been a novel of character, but it is useless in an historical novel (as well as one set in the present) to explain people entirely by their wishes, dreams, hopes—what we could call the horizontal dimensions of character. Ralegh stands within History and seeks to both live within it and rise out of it, and Garrett has caught this delicate balance in the man's character perfectly—in the way that the novel of the future must do it.

This is not to say that the novel of character is founded on wrong premises. Far from it. The traditional novel of character has always been cognizant of history, even if its practitioners formerly couldn't proclaim its lessons, or the lessons of psychology, too loudly. We live in a freer age, but novelists are now writing with, as Robert Graves said, the front part of their brains, and not merely with their hearts and guts.

Now the novel can only move towards humanity, can only be written about human beings seeking their re-integration—their integrity, in the fullest sense of the word. Garrett's Death of the Fox is such a novel.

John Carr, "In Contention with Time: George Garrett's Death of the Fox," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, pp. 19-26.

Garrett capitalizes upon his advantage as a Southern writer by committing himself as few others have to the South as the origin, subject, and context of his fiction. This commitment comes out in his defense of Faulkner for staying at home in body and spirit to win his art from his native traditions and immediate social circumstances and his attack on the fugitives who have fled to other lands, imaginative or physical, for their success and safety. It is also explicitly present in his first novel, The Finished Man, where the protagonist, an expatriate Southerner, returns home to mature by learning to come morally to grips with the community which gave his consciousness finite shape….

Garrett's fiction clearly is not an elegy for a dying society or for time-weary man but a vigorous voice of the New South in the making. Energy sweeps through its intense or grotesque characters who are or become involved in the rough give and take demanded by assertive living and its direct, lucid, masculine style, especially effective in the Southern vernacular dialect, a vehicle for the raw power of life. The energy is present also in the rush of action and fury of emotion, impelled by passion and culminating in violence, which characterize his narrative technique, and in experiments with point of view, tense, character types, and plots—resulting from Garrett's persistent quest to tell the true story about change.

Where some others have reacted to the downward tumult of history by espousing symbolism and myth to secure life and art from the terrors of time, Garrett makes truth about change as it is happening, the full complexities of man's life while in the act of living it in and for the present, the sufficient condition of life and art. To say that is not to say that his fiction is rudely realistic or a simple celebration of energy and change. Despair is not replaced by elation or visonary idealism. As naked energy must be disciplined by art to become a significant story, so in life it must be disciplined by responsibility to become humanly valuable. Garrett's favorite story is an account of moral change, a fall from innocence into knowledge, begotten by a violence without evoking a violence within, of involvement in a power struggle from which there is no intellectual or moral escape. To be man, his fiction implies, is to be finite and "guilty"; it is to be a part of the world and responsible to it; it is to live in isolated individuality and with uncertainty and change as absolutes yet care, as Garrett does so obviously for all his fallen characters.

Though change is of the essence, radical change never occurs in Garrett's fiction: man never becomes something more than man, is never reborn into transcendent state nor allowed to diminish into a mechanism. He is doomed to be himself, simultaneously free and responsible, empowered but moral….

Garrett's fiction, then, speaks for a hard-nosed moral realism which, like the Wounded Soldier, achieves its happiness as art by exposing and accepting "a less exalted view of man." Its roots are in our Augustinian doctrine of natural depravity and in the theory and practice of the tale by Poe, who regarded that genre as devoted to accounting for the discovery by reason and conscience of man's worldly and moral identity through close scrutiny of violence or crimes committed in the soul's search for freedom. But its relevance for the present lies in the courage and truthfulness with which Garrett exploits his regional background, particularly the Southerner's sense of man as preeminently social as well as his experience with time and history, to probe into what most absorbs the Western heart and mind today—man's relation to man and the world, expressed sometimes in notions of interrelatedness, I and Thou, dialogue, etc. By involving his imagination in the South to the extent that he does, Garrett illuminates the immediacy of human involvement in general today with vividness and universality. As a consequence, for insight into man as a finite creature in time and this world, and into proper valuing and affirmation of a human life and art, there is no clearer or saner vison than that provided by the fiction of George Garrett.

W. R. Robinson, "The Fiction of George Garrett," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol, 1, No. 4, 1971, pp. 39-41.

Most of George Garrett's short stories, even the funniest ones, deal with uncomfortable or downright perilous situations which occur most often because the characters have willed—or sometimes merely allowed, which more or less amounts to the same thing—these situations to come about. The evils, abundantly present in the three volumes of stories I know, are rarely the expected evils, rarely natural or social forces working against his reckless individuals, but are instead pieces of the characters of the individuals themselves….

What an odd combination of qualities [one finds in George Garrett]! An open-eyed, almost Chaucerian, curiosity about, and acceptance of, the infinite impossible happen-stances of our lives—coupled with a feeling of inevitable disillusionment. Disillusion is one of Garrett's main themes in his short stories….

Use of formal parable is successful only if two conditions are fulfilled. First, the writer has to enjoy and respect parabolic form; second, he must be a moralist, old-fashioned and—in a very individual way—naive. You'd think that the former of these conditions would be automatically satisfied, that a writer wouldn't bother to employ parable unless he believed in it. Yet there is unsuccessful work by James T. Farrell, Mailer, Donald Barthelme, and others; work which fails because the writers are at bottom troubled by the feeling that the form is hokey and "literary." The second condition is even harder to come by. Few and scattered are the writers who can still believe that the moral intent of their product is in any way efficacious.

But George Garrett is the ideal man to set down your parables. He likes the form. In fact, he likes all sorts of forms and he is famous, if not notorious, for his eclecticism. Just in his fiction you can find every kind of genre and device: naturalism, realism, fantasy, myth, and parable; the epistle, the sermon, the fabliau, the exemplum, the quotation, the epigraph. And not only literary forms and devices, but those from other areas of endeavor as well….

Amazingly, Garrett also fulfills the second requirement. He is a genuine and serious moralist. Somewhere there is an essay in which he traces a good part of the beauty of rhetorical Southern fiction to the earnest rhetoric of Southern evangelism. His fiction abounds with impassioned preachers and dutiful phlegmatic guardians of the law. I have reason to believe—from personal knowledge as well as literary evidence—that George more than slightly identifies himself with his perfervid disturbed evangelist, Red Smiley. It's hard—isn't it?—to imagine what it must be like to be a moralist in the present social and literary context. I can tell you flat out that it's not easy and it's not profitable. Not a marketable value; a hammer-handed pagan like Irving Wallace has got it all over a sprightly Hawthorne every time.

But despite his occasional complaints, I think that this situation actually doesn't annoy Garrett very much. After all, it's a simple fact that he's one of the very best short story writers of our time; and, considering that the short story is probably the most difficult of literary forms, surely the man is to some degree consoled by justifiable pride. I know of a few writers who would dispute with me my use of the superlative, and they would point to a certain unfinished quality about almost all of Garrett's stories. Perhaps too they might point to a few stories, like "The Blood of Strangers" or "Goodbye, Goodbye, Be Always Kind and True," which honestly aren't very good. But Good Lord! Not Tolstoy or Chekhov or Flaubert escaped publishing some work that doesn't rise much above the level of facile junk. All God's children got failures. When Garrett fails it's generally because (as with these two stories) of truncation; he hasn't allowed himself enough space or time to develop his important themes. That's a mistake, right enough, but it's a mistake infinitely preferable to its obverse: inflating and overdeveloping the trivial….

The other "fault" that is pointed out is I think not properly a fault at all. There is a kind of unfinished rugged tone about most of the stories, but it's a necessary part of one of his most admirable qualities, the feeling of freshness and spontaneity….

Garrett's stories … are usually immediately attractive. Even when they are the results of the most deliberate artifice, they never lose the atmosphere of being told, of starting out at one point, and then proceeding to another, and so on until the end….

Finally, there is one kind of achievement which I think ought to be pointed out as belonging pre-eminently to George Garrett. The treatment of physical action. Any novelist can lecture at mournful length on the difficulties of presenting violence in a novel. Ours is still the age of the "psychological" story, which consists for the most part in presenting believably the attitudes of a character as they cluster around a single complex of events (events which often have taken place before the actual time of the story begins). And consider the advantages on the problem the novelist has over the short story writer. He has breadth and length, space and time; he can surround the action with reverberation, resonance, reaction, all the means by which the reader comes to be convinced that the reported events really did take place, were not just made up. The short story writer has no such opportunity; if he has a violent physical action to convince us of—and Garrett's stories are filled with violence—he's got to do it in a moment, he has only a few pages at his disposal. Garrett succeeds at this brilliantly, in the ways he succeeds at everything else: by means of his art, his seriousness, and his plentiful enduring courage.

Fred Chappell, "The Lion Tamer: George Garrett's Short Stories," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, pp. 42-6.

I would like to say something about the excellence of George Garrett's poetry—for he seems to me one of the few good poets now writing in English—and in the process I would like to try to explain why this excellence is not more generally recognized than it is, why one hears so much of certain fashionable mediocrities and so little of this quiet master of many voices, all his own.

Through all his changes, what strikes me most about Garrett is his gusto….

For all his unexpected turns, Garrett is a curiously old-fashioned poet. His best poems are superb in the same way that poems since Homer (with the exception of some few modern oddities and some acrostics of the late Roman Empire) have always been superb….

The book of Garrett's to get is For a Bitter Season, which contains his most recent poems, plus selections from his three previous volumes, The Reverend Ghost, The Sleeping Gypsy, and Abraham's Knife. There is so much variety of tone and feeling in it that I can find no general statement that will apply to all of it, and yet the book as a whole projects a single powerfully present personality—just as the fourteen individual portraits in the long poem, "Some Women," all seem to blend into a single central woman, who is somehow in and behind all the portraits. One of the sources of unity, perhaps, is the recurrence of themes and imagery from the Protestant Bible, particularly the Old Testament, which tends to give a tone of underlying pessimism to the often gay surfaces. But the use of the Bible is highly original and sometimes shocking. Who but Garrett could compare buzzards (in the opening poem of that title) to angels and to the prayers of religious hermits—or give Salome (in the poem about her) a secret longing for the holiness of John The Baptist? Sometimes he can be brutal and terrifying in his grim appraisal of the facts of life and decay, as in "Meditation on Romans," "Solitaire," and "For a Bitter Season." More often he is inclined to turn the despair and bitterness into a strange gaiety, all his own, as in "In Tuscany," "Bathing Beauty," "Postcard," or the quiet Horation humor of "Egyptian Gold." There are some marvelously lyrical love poems too: my favorites are "Some Women," parts 5 and 6.

It will have been noticed that Garrett's metaphors are illustrative rather than metaphysical or symbolic. Typically the comparison is of thing with thing, rather than thing with idea or thing with some otherwise inexpressible quiddity that the reader is expected to supply. This, together with their emphasis on the downright, the rational, and the comic, gives his poems a curiously 18th Century quality. In an Age when all have the Romantic Sickness and tirelessly accuse each other of having it, Garrett makes us feel uncomfortable by lacking it completely.

Richard Moore, "The Poetry of George Garrett," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, pp. 47-50.

Garrett above all, has integrity, and he has turned his back on the "cultural zoo". At the beginning of his career he had many advantages going for him—passports into the world of literary fashionability: some fine work published and some prestigious literary prizes and awards to his credit. Yet deliberately he turned his back on the stench of the literary lions' den and sought the cleaner air of his own countryside. He chose to live and work in the South. It entailed sacrifices; but it offered other opportunities. First, he had elected to live and work among his own people, out of whom his work, he knew, must come. Secondly, he chose to speak in his own voice….

Garrett's tireless energy, his encouragement and generosity to other writers and especially aspirant writers, have in large measure helped to make the difference that I now see in the South.

During the past thirty years the United States has been too often at war. Leonard Woolf in Downhill All the Way says of the consequences of World War One on England that corruptio optimi pessima—the corruption of the best was the worst. During this last period of the Viet Nam War it is indeed fortunate for the South that Mr. Garrett's influence has increased, for he has set his face against corruption, and he is indeed one of the best.

F. H. G. Taylor, "'Murder Your Darlings!'," in Mill Mountain Review (copyright © by Irv Broughton, 1971), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1971, pp. 119-21.

How shall I begin to praise Death of the Fox without sounding drunk and incapable? I read the professional ravings on the dustjacket flap, stared balefully at the 738 pages of type, and decided prematurely that this was yet another historical blockbuster. Also, the author had penned a modest Note, asking why an American should presume on our English heritage. I liked his sensitivity, but mentally agreed with him, and set off steadfastly on this vast saga of Sir Walter Ralegh. I closed the book, 'quiet as a cut rose', and my humility is endless.

George Garrett has spent nearly 20 years on this exacting labour of love, so admiration for his research seems mere impertinence. Nevertheless, having researched history myself for similar purposes, I am drop-jawed at the amount of knowledge he has acquired. Because one never uses half of it, and a morning's toil can be condensed into a single sentence which may later be crossed out. But work starts when research is finished, and over a quarter of a million words take some typing, let alone writing. Even then, it is so much dead print if one has not inwardly smelled, touched, tasted, seen, heard and digested the era. Even then, one has produced nothing if life, passion, wit, fancy and philosophy have not been knitted into it. Even then, there must be a process of osmosis with the central character, so that he emerges new-minted and entire.

The author has achieved all this, and added a unique ingredient of his own. He is a born writer. I do not mean that words pour from him without effort on his part—though they sound as though they do—but his magical obsession with the beauty of language, with verbal impressions and images, is certainly a gift. No one can learn talent. One reads him as he must write, in thrall, in pursuit of something elusive and wholly absorbing….

A fine writer requires intellect and imagination, but of the two I place imagination higher. So, I think, does George Garrett, because he has pondered fancy quite as much as he has honoured and used it….

I believe in spiritual rather than physical heritages. Ralegh was born an Englishman but that does not mean we own his ghost, nor that we should feel possessive because an American lecturer can raise it in all its former glory. Your literary seance, Mr. Garrett, is uncannily splendid. Your nationality does not matter. By your leave, Sir Walter Ralegh is with us in Death of the Fox. Why should we mind who dreamed him again, if we can participate in the reverie? How can we be less than awed that you and he understood each other so superbly, nearly half a millenium apart?

Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookmen, October, 1972, p. 75.