Born into a happy New England family, John Winslow Irving enjoyed the benefits of his father’s position as teacher of Russian history and treasurer of Phillips Exeter Academy. He attended that prestigious school himself, which under various disguises serves as a setting for many of his novels, including The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). After several false starts in college, including a year at the University of Vienna, he received his B.A. in 1965 from the University of New Hampshire. Following graduate work in the writing program at the University of Iowa, he became an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1969 and received more critical attention than most first novels. It is a picaresque novel and a Bildungsroman. Irving made use of his Austrian experiences in this novel, and he introduced many of the themes and motifs that were to reappear in his canon, such as caged bears, motorcycles, and bizarre deaths. He continued to write, relying on academic salaries from small New England colleges, writer residencies, and grants from large institutions. Although his next novels, The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), sold only about six thousand copies each, he had gained a reputation as an academic writer and was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1972...
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In order to write about the real world, Irving has tried to meet the extraordinary in combat and beat it at its own game. Throughout his sometimes echoing, recurring, and reflective novelistic worlds, a rightness prevails, guided by the hand and eye of the novelist, whose real job is “freeing the bears” of natural human impulses. There is no such thing as seediness or sin in Irving’s novels—all smallness is strengthened by the largeness of life’s positive value, and all sin is washed away by uplifting human emotions.
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John Winslow Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., on March 2, 1942, in Exeter, New Hampshire. His parents were Colin F. Irving and Frances Winslow Irving. A biological father had departed, and Irving was adopted by his stepfather and renamed when his mother remarried. His adoptive father taught Russian history at Exeter Academy, where Irving attended school. At Exeter, he developed two lifelong interests, writing and wrestling, and became convinced that both required the same skills: practice and determination. Though not an outstanding student, he developed an appreciation of hard, steady work and a love of literature. Of his early apprenticeships Irving remarked in a Rolling Stone interview, “I was a very dull kid. But I really learned how to wrestle and I really learned how to write. I didn’t have an idea in my head.” After graduating from Exeter at the age of nineteen, Irving spent a year at the University of Pittsburgh, where the wrestling competition convinced him that writing was a better career choice.
In 1962, Irving enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, where he began to work with authors Thomas Williams and John Yount, but a desire to see more of the world caused him to drop out. After an intensive summer course in German at Harvard University, he left for Vienna, where he enrolled at the Institute of European Studies. During his two years in Vienna, Irving married Shyla Leary, a painter whom he had met at Harvard, studied German, and became seriously devoted to writing. Living in an unfamiliar place sharpened his powers of observation; as he said in a 1981 Time interview, “You are made to notice even the trivial things—especially the trivial things.” He returned to the University of New Hampshire, worked again with Thomas Williams, and graduated cum laude in 1965. From there, with his wife and son, Colin, Irving went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing in 1967. During his time at Iowa, Irving continued wrestling with Dan Gable, the Iowa coach who won a medal at the 1976 Munich Olympics. Encouraged by writer-in-residence Kurt Vonnegut, he also completed his first published novel, Setting Free the Bears, which is set in Austria.
Setting Free the Bears was well...
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