John Gardner: Evaluating His Legacy
by Scott Brown, editor, Fine Books & Collections magazine
Few literary stars have blazed as brightly or burned out as fast. John Gardner roared into the public spotlight in 1972 with his surprise bestseller, The Sunlight Dialogues. For 10 years, his fiction, based on myth and legend, and provocative nonfiction made him one of the most famous literary writers in America, and his out-sized personality was ideally suited to life as a controversial and outrageous writer.
A business card from the early 70s suggested his accomplishments and confidence. He billed himself as “Prof. John C. Gardner, Jr., A.B., M.A., Ph.D., D.V.P.; Medievalist, Novelist, Banjoist, Lyric & Epic Poet; Consultant on All Subjects.” The services he offered were “Occasional Poems for All Occasions. Lectures for Ladies’ Clubs, Etc. & General Good Advice.” He could have added that he was a devoted teacher, a prodigious drinker, and the life of the party.
Algonquin Books published the first biography of Gardner, John Gardner: The Life & Death of a Literary Outlaw by Barry Silesky, in 2004. Silesky, the editor of the independent literary journal Another Chicago Magazine for the last 20 years and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s biographer, conducted extensive interviews to build his portrait of one of the most important writers in the 1970s. Few people who met Gardner were unaffected by his charisma and zeal for life and art. He inspired passionate responses, often admiring but sometimes unflattering.
Silesky describes him as “a guy who looked like some wild counter-culture hippy figure, with shoulder length white hair, smoking his pipe and riding his motorcycle.” Stephen Singular was similarly vivid, but less charitable, when he described the writer in the New York Times Magazine as “a small, potbellied man [whose] white hair falls over his shoulder so he looks something like a pregnant woman trying to pass for a Hell’s Angel.”
Before he found commercial success as a novelist, Professor Gardner was best known in academic circles for his books of translations and commentaries on medieval texts like The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet and The Alliterative Morte Arthure.
Everywhere he went - Oberlin College, Chico State, San Francisco State, Southern Illinois University - Gardner and his first wife Joan were the center of the literary scene. They hosted parties attended by students, faculty and other writers. Most everyone who knew the Gardners commented on John’s drinking. “It does seem clear,” Silesky says, “that he had an enormous capacity to drink. He could drink everyone under the table and then sit down and work, which is an amazing thing. And he slept only five or six hours a night.” His commitment to writing was legendary. He once told an interviewer that most writers say they work all day, “but really they are only at it three or four hours a day. I work all the time.” While battling colon cancer in 1977, his second wife, Liz Rosenberg, described him as “literally hooked up to an intravenous machine and waiting to go into surgery and typing away.”
In the early 1970s, after more than a decade as a medieval literature and writing professor, Gardner was a major figure in a decidedly small field. He had also published a few novels The Resurrection, The Wreckage of Agathon and Grendel - all of which received good reviews, but sold indifferently.
The Sunlight Dialogues, the second book on the Grendel contract, was much longer and more complex, layered with allusions to ancient texts, particularly the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, with references to the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. The novel details a conflict between a small town police chief and a young drifter who defaced a public street with the word “love.” In a series of four dialogues, Chief Clumly espouses conservative, orderly Judeo-Christian values while the youth, the Sunlight Man, argues a Babylonian ideal of spontaneity and dabbles in magic. In the waning days of the Vietnam War, when youth culture was in open conflict with the establishment, Gardner’s unusual novel found an audience.
Throughout the decade, Gardner published one critically acclaimed novel after another. October Light put him on the bestseller lists again and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. This novel, regarded at the time as perhaps his best, uses pulp fiction as a source of inspiration. The book begins just after a character called James has killed his TV with a shotgun and has locked his sister Sally in her room for spending too much time watching it. The characters’ relationship was loosely based on Gardner’s disintegrating marriage with his first wife. Sally, unable to leave her room, begins to read The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, a trashy novel. Sally’s copy has missing pages, and Gardner uses the imaginary book’s fragmented narrative to explore the nature of fiction itself. During this same period, Gardner was also at the peak of his career as a scholar, producing four volumes of criticism and translation. He also completed two books on writing and a collection of essays called On Moral Fiction.
Gardner’s early draft of On Moral Fiction was written in the mid-60s; he dusted it off and began polishing the essays in 1976. In the book, Gardner criticizes the trend toward experimental or metafiction, fiction that played games with the form of the novel but which were, in Gardner’s opinion, morally empty. He believed that fiction, like all art, should affirm life.
His views expressed in the book, and Gardner’s willingness to name names, once again put him in the limelight. On Moral Fiction attacked popular and even canonical novelists. He called Barthelme and Vonnegut “minor” writers because they wrote trivial entertainments; Bellow was castigated for succumbing to philosophical argument. John Barth’s fiction was “secondary,” because it only commented on moral fiction without a moral foundation of its own. Knopf declined the manuscript because too many of the authors Gardner mentioned were in the publishing house’s stable of writers.
Even before the book was published, Gardner was accused of hypocrisy for using many of the techniques of metafiction in his own novels: allusions to classical texts, novels within novels, non-linear forms. But as Silesky explains, “his position in Moral Fiction - what he was complaining about - was fiction that saw its nature as just an artifact, fiction that emphasized the artificial and invented nature of writing.” For Gardner, Silesky says, “Fiction was not some kind of peculiar game. While he used those techniques, his fiction is grounded, like magical realism, in a very naturalistic setting.”
The biography of John Gardner arrived at an interesting time. Despite his literary and commercial success, Grendel, a book that had lackluster sales in hardcover, was the only novel in print in 2004 (New Directions has reissued many of the novels with critical introductions). Gardner’s books on writing, especially On Moral Fiction, have fared better, becoming staples in college creative writing classes. His other nonfiction and translations remain available, even though the books were not always well received at the time of publication. But Gardner’s passion was fiction, and he saw himself as a serious novelist. Somehow, though, the popularity of his novels seemed to be bound together with his life, and when he died in 1983 in a motorcycle accident, the novels faded away. He was 49.
For book collectors, Gardner presents an interesting challenge. As National Book Award winner Charles Johnson put it, “He was a polymath [who] wrote in all these different categories of creative expression…” Gardner’s three dozen or so books include children’s books, opera librettos, literary criticism, translation, books on writing, novels, stories, essays, and poetry. Silesky says simply, “He was another species,” to explain Gardner’s prodigious literary output.
Bookseller Cameron Northouse of Library Books knew Gardner and also commented on the breadth of his studies. “He was a thoroughly curious individual who became excited about knowing as much as he could know. He also used his position as a bestselling author to write about and promote topics that generally are not in the normal, popular discourse, Chaucer, for example.”
Northouse says that collecting Gardner requires a person willing to buy books on subjects outside of the collecting mainstream. “ Gardner is a fairly difficult writer. Not only are his works intellectually challenging, but the full-range of his interests from medieval literature to contemporary opera to contemporary critical theory are more demanding on the reader and collector than is typical.”
Dan Gregory with Between the Covers Rare Books is another bookseller who actively stocks Gardner’s books. Gregory notes that Gardner is less-widely collected today than at his peak in the early 1980s, although he still has a small and “particularly loyal” following.
In recent years, Gregory says, “a number of collectors have stated that, in reviewing authors of the 1970s, he’s the one whose work they think will really last.” One key to long-term collectability, Gregory says, is to have a book, like Gardner’s Grendel, taught in high school and college. “Whether Grendel will keep some interest in Gardner afloat to the extent that people search out his other books is hard to say. But the mere fact that people are asking, ‘Will Gardner be collected in the long run?’ more than 20 years after his death says a lot in itself. When I say he’s undergone and passed the hardest posthumous test an author can take, I mean that he’s somehow already refused to slip into obscurity, a test most of his contemporaries have yet to truly face.
Gardner seems ready for a reevaluation. Silesky says his work “reawakened in his readers the force of ancient mythic texts and ideas, back to Homer and Gilgamesh. He brought them back into the contemporary parlance. In a certain way, his books are saying, ‘See how these ancient ideas are played out in our time.’” Now that two decades have passed since Gardner last wrote a novel, it’s time for a new generation to decide whether the ideas in his books spoke only to his time or for all time.
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