John Gardner

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was one of the most prolific and certainly one of the most protean and controversial major American writers of the postmodernist period. He was born in 1933 in the western New York town of Batavia, an area that was to play an important role in Gardner’s later fiction, both as setting and as source of the rural values to which he held throughout his life. Gardner possessed and propounded a particularly strong but by no means narrow-minded set of traditional values that owes much to the influence of his father, a dairy farmer, opera lover, and lay preacher, and his mother, a teacher of English. Even more important, however, was the part Gardner believed he had played in the death of his younger brother, Gilbert, in a farm accident that occurred when Gardner was twelve. Gilbert’s death left Gardner with a burden of guilt that he was never quite able to overcome but that he transformed into a narrative art quite unlike any other of its time.

First at Washington University, in St. Louis, and later as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Gardner devoted himself to the twin pursuits that remained his lifelong preoccupations: the writing of fiction and the study of medieval literature. Until his death in 1982 Gardner managed to combine academic and nonacademic careers, settings, and characters with a degree of success that few other American “academic novelists” achieved.

His first published novel, The Resurrection, deals with the return of a dying professor of philosophy to his hometown of Batavia. Despite Gardner’s adroit handling of the novel’s shifting point of view and brilliant but understated mixing of realism and grotesquerie, The Resurrection attracted little attention. The Wreckage of Agathon fared better, thanks in large part to the appropriateness of Gardner’s story of law and order in ancient Sparta to the situation in the United States at the time of the Vietnam War. The third novel, Grendel, the Beowulf story told from the monster’s point of view, brought its author to national attention, and The Sunlight Dialogues became his first best-seller. These two works represent the diverse strains that make up the unity of Gardner’s distinctive narrative art: the one a brief, seemingly cynical, postmodern pastiche, the other an apparently affirmative, densely woven family saga in the tradition of William Faulkner and the nineteenth century realists. Appearances in Gardner are, however, often deceptive, particularly in matters of intent and technique. For all of its self-regarding existential angst and postmodern playfulness, Grendel turns out to be no less affirmative and no less intricately structured than The Sunlight Dialogues, a work whose realistic surface masks a host of nonrealistic (or postrealistic) techniques. The final effect is one in which realism and irrealism challenge each other in more or less dialogic fashion; the same holds true for all Gardner’s fiction.

Gardner’s chief strength and preoccupation, as well as the raison d’être of his essentially parodic narrative style, was to test traditional forms and values in order to discover their appropriateness and usefulness to life in the contemporary age. He strove to juxtapose divergent, even antagonistic forms, styles, viewpoints, belief systems, and values within individual works as well as between them. Grendel, for example, vacillates between Gardner’s desire to believe in the Shaper’s poetic vision of what may be and the existential Dragon’s more empirical and more cynical description of what is. In The Sunlight Dialogues police chief Fred Clumly’s law-and-order approach is pitted against the Sunlight Man’s magic and mayhem in a contest that can be decided only on the basis of hope and forgiveness; it is a conclusion that Gardner makes surprisingly convincing and unsentimental. The same pattern reappears in the works published in the mid-1970’s: the imposing of a modern narrator and sensibility on ancient materials in the “epic poem” Jason and Medeia; the updating of the pastoral mode in Nickel Mountain; the parodic variations on the themes and styles of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Franz Kafka, John Updike, and others in The King’s Indian; and the insertion of a parodic mass-market novel within the pages of October Light, Gardner’s bicentennial examination of values old and new, literary and cultural.

The plagiarism charge brought against one of the two Chaucer books Gardner published in 1977 and the appearance of On Moral Fiction, his indictment of the contemporary arts and criticism, brought Gardner into sudden disfavor. On Moral Fiction earned a number of approving notices from those who had been dismayed by the death of the traditional novel and the rise of the postmodern “text,” but it evoked far more rage from the avant-garde and its supporters. Whatever its virtues and vices, On Moral Fiction brought about a distinct change in the way Gardner’s fiction began to be read (and, some would say, the way the works were written). He was pegged as a moral absolutist, a writer of didactic fiction, and a narrative traditionalist, and his later works, Freddy’s Book, The Art of Living, and Other Stories, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts, elicited surprisingly hostile responses from both reviewers and critics, who often took the opportunity to denigrate the earlier works as well.

In 1977 Gardner underwent surgery for cancer of the colon. He recovered sufficiently to continue his prodigious output; at the time of his death in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, he was in the midst of many projects, and several books were published posthumously, including The Art of Fiction, a distillation of his experience as a writer and teacher of fiction. A complex vision informs Gardner’s novels and, to a lesser extent, his stories, books for children, poetry, and criticism.

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