John (Champlin) Gardner (Jr.) 1933–1982
American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, dramatist, and editor.
Gardner's career, although relatively short, was diverse and distinguished. He worked in nearly every genre, including children's fiction, opera libretti, and scholarly criticism, and his writings reflect the rich legacy of Western culture. Some of Gardner's fictional works are set in his birthplace of Batavia, New York, and also in New England, while others have such historical settings as ancient Greece or medieval Scandinavia, in which he recreated historical and fictional narratives as well as inventing his own. Gardner is often called a "philosophical novelist," for regardless of the setting, his works address timeless philosophical questions. For example, in Grendel (1971), Gardner retells the fourteenth-century Scandinavian legend of Beowulf and also explores the relationship between good and evil, the necessity of facing death, and the value of art. In his contemporary novels, Gardner often incorporates philosophical ideas from the past in order to show their relevance to the present. Gardner also made use of stylistic traits of others. He cited Chaucer as his greatest influence, yet also acknowledged the importance of William Gass and the creations of Walt Disney to his work.
Gardner was a professor of medieval literature and creative writing at several American universities before his first novels were published, and he continued teaching throughout his literary career. The Resurrection (1966) and The Wreckage of Agathon (1970) earned a modest amount of critical attention, but the publication of Grendel established Gardner's reputation as an important new novelist and was followed by such critical and popular successes as The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and October Light (1976), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Gardner explained his enormous productivity during the 1970s by observing, "When you're sitting writing for fifteen years, and nobody liking you, you do build up a backlog. I've been publishing an early work, a late work, an early work…." Gardner's popularity diminished somewhat in the late 1970s. On Moral Fiction (1978), a controversial book of critical theory, was unflattering to many of his literary colleagues and perhaps can be blamed for the largely negative reviews of his last books, The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981) and Mickelsson's Ghosts (1982). Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months after the publication of Mickelsson's Ghosts.
Gardner's novels and short stories follow the philosophy of art delineated in On Moral Fiction. Gardner believed that an artist is responsible for creating works which affirm life and present inspirational visions, and he criticized nearly all of his contemporaries for being more concerned with "technique" than "truth" and presenting the "creepy" side of life without holding out any hope to their readers. The Art of Living and Other Stories illustrates fictionally the critical principles espoused in On Moral Fiction. Characteristically, the ten stories contain a wide variety of settings and include both realistic and fantastic approaches, but nearly all of the stories treat a single theme: the value of art as a life-affirming moral force. In "Nimram," for example, a dying girl befriends an older, prestigious orchestra conductor and is uplifted when she hears his symphony. Gardner's concern with art can be seen in his earlier works as well. In some of his novels, the protagonists are professional or amateur philosophers, which allows Gardner to discuss many provocative issues. In Grendel, Gardner explicitly argues the primacy of art. The monster Grendel witnesses several phases in the emergence of Western civilization, but dismisses all of the various cultural innovations, with the exception of poetry, as unhealthy. Gardner calls the poet in Grendel "the Shaper," and Grendel realizes that the poet is the guiding force in society.
On Moral Fiction can be seen as an apologia for Gardner's earlier works. Although the protagonists in each of his first four novels face their own deaths, these works are not pessimistic. James Chandler, the terminally ill protagonist in The Resurrection, achieves a "resurrection" by performing a compassionate act shortly before his death. In The Wreckage of Agathon, a historical fantasy set in the fifth century B.C., an aging philosopher reflects upon the chances for good to triumph in an already corrupt society after he is imprisoned and sentenced to death. The Sunlight Dialogues, set in modern-day Batavia, parallels Wreckage in that the central character, The Sunlight Man, is jailed and about to be killed. The Sunlight Man is an insane visionary whose spirited personality is contrasted favorably with that of his jailer and persecutor, Fred Clumly, to whom order is all-important. In all of these novels, Gardner presents characters who are close to death as metaphors for all humankind, and assures his readers that salvation can be found in the artistic creations of the human mind.
Although Gardner was unquestionably one of contemporary literature's most important authors, many critics complain that his novels are weighted down by philosophizing, are overly long, and do not read well. These accusations are made especially about The Resurrection and Mickelsson's Ghosts, in which the central characters are philosophy professors. Critics have often made negative use of On Moral Fiction in interpreting Gardner's later works. Some contend that the themes of the stories in The Art of Living, taken directly from On Moral Fiction, overpower the stories themselves. Initial reviews of Mickelsson's Ghosts were largely negative and sometimes hostile. Many critics saw the novel as Gardner's attempt to answer the commentaries elicited by On Moral Fiction and charged that he was expressing his philosophy at the expense of writing an interesting novel. On Moral Fiction itself was judged as arrogant, self-serving, and wrongheaded. Critics disputed Gardner's contention that art can radically change people's lives. Nevertheless, Gardner is widely respected for presenting artistically the principles in which he believed and for creating an ambitious and innovative body of work.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68, Vol. 107 [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 31 [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)