George (Palmer) Garrett 1929-
American short story writer, poet, novelist, critic, and editor.
A prolific author of short fiction, novels, poetry, and literary criticism, Garrett has been lauded both for the diversity of his works and for the breadth of his literary talent. Although most of the critical attention he has received has been focused upon his novels, which include Death, of the Fox (1971), Garrett's short stories and novellas have been hailed by critics for their masterfully written and dynamic narratives, as well as for their insightful social commentary. Garrett's short stories have appeared in numerous periodicals and have been collected in several volumes, including King of the Mountain (1958), Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night (1964), and An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories (1985).
Garrett was born in Orlando, Florida, on June 11, 1929, one of four children of George Palmer and Rosalie Toomer Garrett. Garrett's father was an idealistic and widely-respected attorney who fought such intimidating entities as the Ku Klux Klan and large railroad companies. His maternal grandfather, Colonel William Morrison Toomer, was a capricious Southern aristocrat given to ostentation and wild spending sprees. Two of Garrett's siblings, both sisters, survived, but Garrett's older brother died at birth, and according to Garrett remained what he called "a haunting presence" in his life; Garrett has questioned whether his deceased brother's "presence" has motivated his preoccupation with duality in his fiction. Garrett was reared as an Episcopalian, and his religious beliefs have informed many of his works.In 1946 Garrett graduated from the Sewanee Military Academy and in 1947 he graduated from the Hill School; he went on to earn a bachelor's degree in English at Princeton University in 1952. Also in 1952, Garrett married Susan Parrish Jackson, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Following his graduation from Princeton, Garrett served for two years in the Free Territory of Trieste and in Linz, Austria, as a member of the United States Army Active Reserves. Garrett earned a master's degree in English at Princeton in 1956, and although he began his doctorate studies in the late 1950s, he did not complete his doctorate in English at Princeton until 1985. While continuing his writing career, Garrett has served as an educator at a number of colleges and universities since 1957, including Wesleyan University, Rice University, Hollins College, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Virginia.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Garrett's short stories vary tremendously in terms of plot, characters, and settings, but in general concern a changing contemporary society in which an established social and personal order is giving way to uncertainty and confusion. As W. R. Robinson commented, Garrett's short stories are marked by an "energy . . . 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." In his first collection of short fiction, 1958's King of the Mountain, the final five stories, which are grouped under the title "What's the Purpose of the Bayonet?", are semi-autobiographical and reflect Garrett's army experience. Treating the themes of morality and order versus disorder as manifested in the military arena, the "Bayonet" stories are recounted by anonymous narrators who undergo an assortment of harrowing experiences and learn about the pain and brutality that underlie everyday human life. In the last story, "Torment," the narrator witnesses the savage beating of a group of prostitutes by police in Linz and concludes: "The things God has to see because He cannot shut his eyes! It's almost too much to think about. It's enough to turn your stomach against the whole inhuman race." The other stories in this first collection present a variety of themes and viewpoints, including "The Rivals," which details a father-son relationship, and a group of stories titled "Four Women" that present realistic narratives from the perspective of women characters.
The stories in In the Briar Patch, Garrett's 1961 collection, which includes such titles as "The Gun and the Hat," "Thus the Early Gods," and "The Last of the Spanish Blood," are all set in the South, which is presented as a symbol of a defeated empire in which kindness and compassion are requisite qualities for survival. In the title story, a young boy observes the predicament of a black soldier named Leroy, who after being revealed as a deserter, uses the same strategy employed by folktale character Br'er Rabbit to avoid the "briar patch," that is to avoid being sent back to live in the poverty he escaped by joining the military. Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night contains a novella of the same title and nine short stories, including "The Old Army Game," which treats corruption in the military. Published in Great Britain in 1969, A Wreath for Garibaldi and Other Stories collected some of the stories that had previously appeared in Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night, including the title novella from that volume, which was also featured, under a new title "Noise of Strangers," in Garrett's next volume of short fiction, The Magic Striptease (1973). The Magic Striptease also included two other novellas, The Satyr Shall Cry and an eponymous novella that relates a humorous tale revolving around the main character Jacob Quirk, who possesses the ability to change into other people as well as into inanimate objects.
In his 1985 collection, An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories, Garrett included "A Record as Long as Your Arm," which, as William Peden termed it, "begins as apparently another romp in a cuckold's bedroom [and] ends in a maggoty, blood-spattered, vomit-stained basement." Garrett followed An Evening Performance with 1992's Whistling in the Dark: True Stories and Other Fables, a volume that includes autobiographical and fictional elements, which, Garrett asserted, "turned out to be about my memories and how other people's memories blend into your own. . . . Memories distort and change with time, so it also has to do with the different ways we remember things." The book contains widely varying stories, fables, memories, excerpts from lectures, and poetry, in which Garrett comments upon the creative process, as well as on the human condition.
Garrett has been highly praised by critics for his works in all genres, but his novels have received the most notice. Nevertheless, Garrett's short fiction has been critically acclaimed since the time he began publishing it; in a review of his first collection, King of the Mountain, Paul Engle commented: "Garrett is exactly the sort of writer getting his start who deserves wide support, just the kind who will enrich the life of the country with his writing." Commentators have responded favorably to the insight and intelligence displayed in Garrett's short stories and novellas, and have applauded his economy with words, as well as his ability to depict characters and situations with clarity, accuracy, and compassion. Although most critics agree that Garrett's brand of short fiction is unique and not closely related to the style of any particular American writer, he has been characterized as a Southern writer and has been compared—in terms of the effectiveness and quality of his writing rather than for its style or subject matter—to such writers as Flannery O'Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Noel Perrin asserted that Garrett's writing "has a cleanness, a clarity, an utter thereness, that I have encountered only a few times in my life. One of those times was when I first read Hemingway; another came with Willa Cather. If you think I mean to compliment George Garrett by putting him in such company, you are right. . . . [H]e is in their league." Garrett has received numerous accolades for his works, including the T. S. Eliot Award for creative writing, which he received in 1989, and the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction, with which he was honored in 1991. In addition to these two prizes Garrett has received several fellowships, grants, and literary awards.