John Gardner (1933-1982) was an important American writer and academic whose talent was so great, in so many disciplines, that when one looks back on his lengthy career as novelist, poet, essayist, dramatist, translator and teacher, it is tempting to quit--just quit, cold turkey--even trying
to write. He was that good.
He was born John Champlin Gardner Jr. on July 21, 1933. The eldest son of a dairy farmer and lay Presbyterian preacher, Gardner inherited his love of words from his mother, an English teacher in the schools of his home town, Batavia, New York.
His childhood nickname was "Budd," a Welsh word for poet, and the seriousness with which he approached literature may have had something to do with the fact that he accidentally killed his brother Gilbert in 1945, when he ran over him with a heavy farm machine. The author wrote about the incident years later in his short story Redemption.
He was a musical child and studied the French Horn at the Eastman School of Music's Preparatory School in the nearby city of Rochester while attending Batavia High School.
He entered DePauw University, intending to study chemistry, but the lure of writing proved too strong for him as an undergraduate. He published a short story in the college magazine, wrote the book and lyrics for a musical comedy, and began a journal which was published posthumously in 1999. He called it Lies! Lies! Lies!, as if to remind himself that his ideas were those of a young man, still finding his way in life. He reserved the right to change his mind about everything, a healthy trait for a man with such overpowering curiosity about the world.
In June of 1953 he married his second cousin, Joan Louise Patterson, and that fall transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met Jarvis Thurston, editor of Perspective and--according to Gardner--one of the finest teachers he ever had. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1955, and enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. He received his M.A. there, writing four short stories for his thesis, and earned his Ph.D. in 1958, writing the unpublished novel The Old Men in partial fullfillment for the degree.
During the next four years Gardner taught at Oberlin, Chico State College, and San Francisco State College. He taught the young Raymond Carver at Chico and founded the prestigious literary magazine MSS, publishing the work of Joyce Carol Oates and W.S. Merwin. He completed The Resurrection and an early draft of Nickel Mountain.
In 1963 he published The Edge of the Woods in the Quarterly Review of Literature and translated The Alliterative Morte Arthure and The Complete Works of Gawain-Poet, and also managed to complete a thousand-page study on the life and works of Geoffrey Chaucer.
In 1964 New American Library agreed to publish The Resurrection and expressed an interest in Nickel Mountain as well. In short order, Gardner began The Sunlight Dialogs, taught at Southern Illinois University, and published Nickel Mountain in 1966.
A long productive life of teaching and writing fiction ensued. John Gardner wrote:
and many more short stories and scholarly treatises, while teaching at the University of Detroit, Northwestern, The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Bennington, Skidmore, Williams, George Mason University, and finally at the State University of New York at Binghampton, where he headed the creative writing program until his death.
It is safe to say that an entire generation of American writers has benefited from John Gardner's love for literature and his unique ability to translate the quotidian processes of the working author into meaningful dialog and example in the classroom.
Gardner is perhaps most famous for two books about writing, On Moral Fiction and The Art of Fiction, works that should grace any serious writer's bookshelf.
In On Moral Fiction he wrote most tellingly:
"Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial and immoral. Let a state of total war be declared not between art and society but between the age-old enemies, real and fake."
And, regarding his theory of fiction in The Art of Fiction
"The most important single notion in the theory of fiction I have outlined--essentially the traditional theory of our civilized literature--is that of the vivid and continuous fictional dream."
Throughout his lengthy literary career, John Gardner's personal life was less-than-neat. He married and divorced again, and it was on the way to his third wedding, to Susan Thornton in 1982, that he died in a motorcycle accident
in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, at the age of 49.
A friend of mine, author and educator Barry Sanders (The Private Death of Public Discourse, Sudden Glory, A is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word) considered John Gardner his friend and mentor. Barry tells me that the poet who gave the world Beowolf from the monster's point of view in Grendel, and such beautiful creations as October Light, In the Suicide Mountains, and The Sunlight Dialogues was an expert motorcyclist.
He failed to make a turn and he died "with a tree through his heart."