Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
George Paul Elliott, the son of Paul R. Elliott and Nita Gregory, was born in a small town in Indiana and raised on a Southern California farm. Elliott was educated at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his B.A. in 1939 and his M.A. in 1941. That same year, he married Mary Emma Jeffries; they had one daughter, Nora Catherine. In 1947, he began his academic career with a teaching position at St. Mary’s University in California. In 1955, he joined the faculty of Cornell University, at which time he began work on the anthology Fifteen Modern American Poets. In 1957, he moved to Barnard College, where he received a Hudson Review Fellowship that allowed him to concentrate more fully on his creative interests. One year later he published his first novel, Parktilden Village.
In 1960, he was offered a position with the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. While there, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1962, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley. That same year he received a D. H. Lawrence Fellowship to the University of New Mexico. In 1963, Elliott accepted a position at Syracuse University, where he remained until his death in 1980. While at Syracuse he served as director of the graduate writing program.
Elliott is one of the most diverse American writers, known for working in almost every imaginable genre, including science fiction, fantasy, psychological realism, satire, and romance. Much of his work first appeared in such periodicals as The American Scholar, The Nation, Atlantic Monthly, and the Times Literary Supplement. Many of his lectures were collected in A Piece of Lettuce and Conversions. These essays, which range in subject from religion to politics, usually have their foundation in personal experience.
Elliott’s poetry, like much of his prose, is concerned with issues of self-knowledge and the way in which humans can better know themselves within a moral framework. Elliott labeled such moral awareness “beauty,” and his verse attempts to draw readers into such experiences. His prose, on the other hand, exposes the moral ugliness of human behavior and the way humankind has become disconnected from the beautiful by emphasizing the tangible over the intangible. Writing during the age of nuclear discoveries, Elliott in his fiction was concerned with how empirical knowledge has become the only acceptable way of knowing. Because such knowledge lacks a moral dimension, it is often grotesque and dangerous. In much of Elliott’s fiction, then, the only way characters can truly know beauty is to peel away their layers of social and cultural being, exposing an innate spirituality that elevates their moral sense and leads them toward avenues of self-knowledge. Such is the concern of David Knudsen, for example, a work about the effects of nuclear warfare on individuals. This somewhat disturbing novel helped carve a place for Elliott among contemporary novelists.
None of Elliott’s novels, however, has met with the same critical acclaim as his first collection of short stories, Among the Dangs, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1962 and exemplified his moral vision. The title work, “Among the Dangs,” which is set in the remote Andes, relays the story of an anthropology professor who spends several years studying the bizarre, ritualistic behavior of the Dang tribe. At first, the professor is motivated by academic instincts, but once he becomes a member of the tribe, he begins a harrowing journey into his own moral and spiritual consciousness. In an ironic twist he reiterates biblical prophecies while in a drug-induced trance, and in so doing is forced to question his own disbelief, a process that becomes an avenue for self-discovery.
Not all of Elliott’s characters are able to achieve such knowledge. In “The NRACP,” Elliott’s most popular story from The Dangs, the main character, a writer, is swept up in a system that resembles that of National-Socialist Germany. Despite his insistence that he is “assisting at the birth of a new age,” he becomes automated, and his inability to act on his own conscience leaves him emotionally and spiritually bankrupt.
Many of Elliott’s characters find themselves in similar moral dilemmas, and as a result of the craft with which they are presented the reader cannot help but identify with the characters. Elliott warned his readers not to accept blindly what life seems to offer but instead to question and to let a moral consciousness be the guide. Whether Elliott’s characters succeed in this or not depends on how willing they are to know themselves.