George Garrett Garrett, George (Palmer) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

King of the Mountain 1958

In the Briar Patch 1961

Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night 1964

A Wreath for Garibaldi and Other Stories 1969

The Magic Striptease 1973

To Recollect a Cloud of Ghosts: Christmas in England 1979

An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories 1985

Other Major Works

The Reverend Ghost (poetry) 1957

The Sleeping Gypsy and Other Poems (poetry) 1958

The Finished Man (novel) 1960

Abraham's Knife and Other Poems (poetry) 1961

Which Ones Are the Enemy? (novel) 1961

Garden Spot, U.S.A. (drama) 1962

Sir Slob and the Princess: A Play for Children (drama) 1962

The Young Lovers (screenplay) 1964

Do, Lord, Remember Me (novel) 1965

The Playground (screenplay) 1965

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster [with R. H. W. Dillard and John Rodenbeck] (screenplay) 1966

For a Bitter Season: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1967

Death of the Fox (novel) 1971

The Sounder Few: Essays from "The Hollins Critic" [editor with R. H. W. Dillard and John Moore] (essays) 1971

Welcome to the Medicine Show: Flashcards / Postcards / Snapshots (poetry) 1978

Enchanted Ground: A Play for Readers' Theater (drama) 1981

Luck's Shining Child: A Miscellany of Poems and Verses (poetry) 1981

The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James (novel) 1983

The Collected Poems of George Garrett (poetry) 1984

James Jones (biography) 1984

Poison Pen; or, Live Now and Pay Later (novel) 1986

Understanding Mary Lee Settle (criticism) 1988

Entered from the Sun (novel) 1990

Eric Clapton's Lovers and Other Stories from the Virginia Quarterly Review [editor with Sheila McMillen] (short stories) 1990

My Silk Purse and Yours: The Publishing Scene and American Literary Art (criticism) 1992

The Sorrows of Fat City: A Selection of Literary Essays and Reviews (essays and criticism) 1992

Whistling in the Dark: True Stories and Other Fables (essays, nonfiction, memoir) 1992

The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You (novel) 1996

Kenneth Eble (review date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of King of the Mountain, in Western Humanities Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1958, p. 193.

[In the following review, Eble provides a mixed evaluation of King of the Mountain.]

"I shall never finish a symphony," Brahms wrote. "You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven." Such a candid admission applies to all artists whose creativity is shaped not only by their own hands but by the hands of one or more of their predecessors. For American short story writers, the tramp of the giant has likely as not been that of Ernest Hemingway. Since Hemingway, one might say, it has been impossible for a young writer to work...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

James Stern (review date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "With a Whimper and a Bang," in The New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1958, p. 4.

[In the following review, Stern offers a highly favorable assessment of King of the Mountain.]

This first book by George Garrett begins in innocence, with a boy's whimper, and ends in evil, with a bang. Long before the bang comes you will know that the author is out of the top of the literary drawer.

Mr. Garrett is aware, as was the young Hemingway, of the attraction of the first person singular and the second plural ("Ask me why I pick that time and I'll tell you"), of the sense of immediacy and intimacy the confidential technique can produce, of the power it...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Marvin Mudrick (review date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is Fiction Human?", in The Hudson Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1958, pp. 294-301.

[In the following excerpt, Mudrick provides a mixed review of King of the Mountain, reserving his praise only for the story "What's the Purpose of the Bayonet?".]

George Garrett is another writer who has read his homework in Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, and The New Yorker. "They were sitting in a little trattoria beside the Arno," he says abruptly [in a story in King of the Mountain]', and the befuddled reader, not yet informed that the latest American Bohemia is the land of the Caesars, may be excused for wondering what a...

(The entire section is 557 words.)

Wallace Stegner (review date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of King of the Mountain, in Saturday Review, Vol. 41, No. 24, June 14, 1958, p. 38.

[In the following review, Stegner responds positively to King of the Mountain.]

Counting as separates the twelve vignettes which are grouped under the titles "Four Women," "Comic Strip," and "What's the Purpose of the Bayonet?" there are twenty stories in George Garrett's first collection, King of the Mountain. They are enough to mark him as more than a writer of promise. In seriousness, intelligence, economy, in their knack for people and places and their ear for talk, above all in the illusion of reality upon which, Henry James said, all the other...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

J. A. Bryant, Jr. (review date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In the Briar Patch, in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, January-March, 1963, pp. 115-22.

[In the following excerpt, Bryant offers a highly favorable review of In the Briar Patch.]

George Garrett, a young writer whose publications in verse and fiction should leave no doubt about the high quality of his gift, seems to share O'Connor's attitude toward the short story. The rough spots that characterize even the best of the stories in this collection testify to his ability to let a story discover itself; for if Garrett's stories are sometimes not quite finished, they are also never finished off. The title story, "In the Briar Patch," wanders...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

T. A. Hanzo (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Two Faces of Matt Donelson," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1965, pp. 106-19.

[In the following excerpt, Hanzo examines Garrett's treatment of the human condition in Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night]

George Garrett's stories exhibit [a] kind of concern for the moral predicament, though not for the difficulties or impossibilities inherent in the acceptance of ethical norms. Garrett tells the story in "The Old Army Game" of the tough First Sergeant who is in all of us. Sergeant Quince, who teaches Sachs the stupid game, is the old Nick himself. We go on to the Professor in "My Picture Left in Scotland." He envies the talent of the bright...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

George Garrett with Charles Israel (interview date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interview: George Garrett," in South Carolina Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, November, 1973, pp. 43-8.

[In the following excerpt, Garrett discusses various aspects of his writing in general and his literary career in particular.]

[Israel]: What do you think are the major problems faced by the beginning writer in our time?

[Garrett]: I'll dodge that one a little. All serious writers, with a few exceptions, are in the same boat. Each book is a beginning. Look at this. Wright Morris and Philip Roth, for example, are in the position of starting a new thing every time. The mechanics of the literary marketplace are such that a Wright Morris,...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)

Susan Heath (review date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Magic Striptease, in Saturday Review/World, Vol. 1, No. 9, January 12, 1974, p. 52.

[In the following review, Heath offers a laudatory assessment of The Magic Striptease.]

George Garrett's latest work [The Magic Striptease], a tidy fictional threesome, shows him to be a refreshing and casual yarn spinner of no little imagination. Distinctive in matter and manner, ranging in mood from comic to grim, these vignettes might have been written by different authors, except for the constants of Garrett's realistic, imaginative dialogue and dazzling quick-sketch portraiture.

The title story is a comic-strip fable...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

David Tillinghast (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "George Garrett," in South Carolina Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, November, 1976, pp. 21-4.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast analyzes Garrett's writing style and surveys several of his works, including The Magic Striptease.]

Offhand observations often reveal truths about people and the times. When I was a child it was quite common to witness someone strolling along the street whistling a tune. No one whistles (or strolls) today.

Whistling is an unconscious gesture, usually a positive signal that everything is satisfactory. We all recognize, however, that there's little worth whistling about anymore. And each has his own way of handling this...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

George Garrett with Allen Wier (interview date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with George Garrett, in Transatlantic Review, No. 58/59, February, 1977, pp. 58-61.

[In the following interview, Garrett explains his approach to writing.]

George Garrett is a friend and helper to many of his fellow writers, a kind man who has been generous with his time and his energies, a warm, wild, funny man, a great storyteller, a vital person. A list of all his publications would take fifteen pages. In addition to books edited, articles, book reviews, poems and stories in periodicals, he has published four books of poems, five books of stories and four novels: The Finished Man; Which Ones Are the Enemy; Do, Lord, Remember Me; Death of...

(The entire section is 1712 words.)

William Peden (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Fiction of George Garrett," in Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1978, pp. 83-90.

[In the following essay, Peden surveys Garrett's short fiction, praising the author's writing skills and treatment of universal themes.]

George Garrett has written four volumes of short fiction along with about thirty uncollected pieces including "A Record As Long As Your Arm," which appears in this issue of Ploughshares. He's had his share of praise along the way, but not as much as his short fiction warrants. In a very real way, he's been a story-teller all his life, talking them before he could read, he tells me in some very recent conversations via cassette and...

(The entire section is 2509 words.)

Mary Peterson (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of To Recollect a Cloud of Ghosts, in North American Review, Vol. 265, No. 1, Spring, 1980, p. 69.

[In the following review, Peterson provides a synopsis and favorable review of To Recollect a Cloud of Ghosts.]

This is a wonderful book—quite literally, full of wonder. The occasion is Christmas in England, 1602-1603. The narrative begins its fine curve through the countryside from London, when an annual procession moves to the vast palace and grounds of Whitehall. As Queen Elizabeth I comes home, so does the season: the candles and flowers, Yule Log, fire and light and evergreens, rich cloths and tapestries, the Lords and Ladies of the Court....

(The entire section is 505 words.)

George Garrett (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Plain and/or Fancy: Where the Short Story Is and May Be Going," in The Teller and the Tale: Aspects of the Short Story, edited by Wendell M. Aycock, Texas Tech Press, 1982, pp. 133-41.

[In the following essay, Garrett comments on the short story, examining the history of the genre and predicting its future.]

In his Harvard commencement speech of 1978, a speech which outraged a good many prominent people, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a pertinent remark concerning what he had noticed about intellectual life in the United States:

Without any censorship in the West, fashionable trends of thought and ideas are fastidiously...

(The entire section is 3428 words.)

Josephine Jacobsen (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories From a Lifetime," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XV, No. 37, September 15, 1985, p. 5.

[In the following review, Jacobsen applauds An Evening Performance, referring to "Noise of Strangers," the final story in the collection, as "a contemporary classic."]

The short story is popularly supposed to be having a renaissance. Those who never envisaged or foretold its death, and who are familiar with the brevity of popular rebirths, are little impressed by this announced resurgence. Good short fiction has continued to appear in the better literary magazines and university quarterlies which have always been, as George Garrett points out in his...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Greg Johnson (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of An Evening Performance, in the New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1985, p. 28.

[In the following review, Johnson provides a mixed assessment of An Evening Performance.]

Though best known for his historical novels—Death of the Fox and The Succession—George Garrett has also produced a large body of short fiction encompassing the American experience of the last 30 years. The stories collected [in An Evening Performance] describe the conflicts of adolescence, romantic and domestic turmoil, life in small Southern towns, academic life and wartime experiences, and they range in manner from the naturalistic to the...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

Peter La Salle (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of An Evening Performance, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 205-06.

[In the following review, La Salle characterizes the stories in An Evening Performance as compelling and well-written.]

Surely the only ill effect of the critical acclaim granted George Garrett's big, haunting novels about Elizabethan England (Death of the Fox in 1974, and The Succession in 1983) was that it seemed to eclipse the fact that he has waged a long and important career in the genre of the short story, where for the last thirty years he has been chronicling in detail how Americans live.

Which is why...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

George Garrett with Richard Easton (interview date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview with George Garrett, in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 33-40.

[In the following excerpt, Garrett discusses contemporary literature and explains various aspects of his own approach to writing.]

Celebrate the sixty years of author George Garrett, a national treasure. As artist, George Garrett has always had the courage to go beyond mastered skills to explore new genres and techniques. He is novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, and satirist. With patience and humility he has become the very model of how to cultivate insight and craft throughout a career to achieve master works. In the rich narrative portraits and...

(The entire section is 3527 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Whistling in the Dark, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 22, May 11, 1992, p. 64.

[In the following brief review, the critic provides a favorable assessment of Whistling in the Dark.]

Much is enjoyable and uplifting in this farrago of memoir, fable, poem and essay, most of which previously appeared in such journals as Kenyon Review and Virginia Quarterly Review. [In Whistling in the Dark] Garrett, author of novels, poetry, short fiction, biography and criticism, strides down the paths his narratives take him with careful, assertive writing. In the reflective pieces, he often allows himself the heroic poise of...

(The entire section is 279 words.)