Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mickelsson’s Ghosts was Gardner’s last novel before his untimely death in a motorcycle accident, not far from the university where both he and his protagonist were professors. Most early reviewers disapproved of the novel. Gardner had gained few friends by his forthright criticisms of fellow writers in On Moral Fiction, and the novel preceding Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Freddy’s Book (1980), was not well received, partly a result of backlash against Gardner’s low view of typical academics. As longer, more considered assessments of Mickelsson’s Ghosts began to appear, however, it became clear that the novel was a substantial achievement, and indeed it may prove to be one of Gardner’s most enduring works.

It is clear that Gardner increasingly regarded himself as a maverick. He makes Mickelsson an ethics teacher at a time when condescending tolerance is all that he can expect from his colleagues. Yet anyone familiar with Gardner’s fiction, from Grendel (1971) to this last work, knows how isolated his characters usually are, and it would be facile to conclude that Mickelsson is simply Gardner self-dramatized. The novel faces problems that gripped the novelist in all of his work, problems about the tragic structure of the world and human life. Also, as in his other fiction, Gardner asserts wonder in Mickelsson’s Ghosts, establishing mystery as the air his character breathes, whether...

(The entire section is 477 words.)