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Gardner, John 1933–1982

Gardner, John 1933–1982

(John Champlin Gardner, Jr.)

PERSONAL: Born July 21, 1933, in Batavia, NY; died in a motorcycle accident, September 14, 1982, in Susquehanna, PA; son of John Champlin (a dairy farmer) and Priscilla (a high school literature teacher; maiden name, Jones) Gardner; married Joan Louise Patterson, June 6, 1953 (divorced, 1976); married Liz Rosenberg, 1980 (divorced); children: Joel, Lucy. Education: Attended De Paul University, 1951–53; Washington University (St. Louis, MO), A.B., 1955; State University of Iowa, M.A., 1956, Ph.D., 1958.

CAREER: Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, instructor, 1958–59; Chico State College (now California State University), Chico, CA, instructor, 1959–62; San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), San Francisco, CA, assistant professor of English, 1962–65; Southern Illinois University—Carbondale, professor of English, 1965–74; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, instructor, 1974–76; Williams College, Williamstown, MA, and Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, instructor, 1976–77; author, 1976–82; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, instructor, 1977–78; founder and director of writing program, State University of New York—Binghamton, 1978–82. Distinguished visiting professor, University of Detroit, 1970–71; visiting professor, Northwestern University, 1973.

MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, American Association of University Professors.

AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1955–56; Grendel named one of 1971's best fiction books by Time and Newsweek; National Education Association award, 1972; Danforth fellowship, 1972–73; Guggenheim fellowship, 1973–74; October Light named one of the ten best books of 1976 by Time and New York Times; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, 1976, for October Light; Armstrong Prize, 1980, for The Temptation Game.



The Resurrection, New American Library (New York, NY), 1966.

The Wreckage of Agathon, Harper (New York, NY), 1970.

Grendel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.

The Sunlight Dialogues, Knopf (New York, NY), 1972.

Jason and Medeia (novel in verse), Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.

Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1973.

October Light, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.

Freddy's Book, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

Mickelsson's Ghosts, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.


Dragon, Dragon, and Other Timeless Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.

Gudgekin the Thistle Girl, and Other Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.

In the Suicide Mountains, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.

A Child's Bestiary (light verse), Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.

King of the Hummingbirds, and Other Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.

Vlemk, the Box Painter, Lord John Press, 1979.


(Editor, with Lennis Dunlap) The Forms of Fiction, Random House (New York, NY), 1961.

(Editor and author of introduction) The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet in a Modern English Version with a Critical Introduction, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1965.

(Editor, with Nicholas Joost) Papers on the Art and Age of Geoffrey Chaucer, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1967.

(Editor and author of notes) The Gawain-Poet: Notes on Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with Brief Commentary on Purity and Patience, Cliffs Notes, 1967.

Morte D'Arthur Notes, Cliffs Notes, 1967.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Notes, Cliffs Notes, 1967.

(Editor and author of notes) The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale and Five Other Middle English Poems (modern English version), Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1971.

The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1974.

The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1975.

The Life and Times of Chaucer, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.

The Poetry of Chaucer, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1978.

On Moral Fiction, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1978.

On Becoming a Novelist, Harper (New York, NY), 1983.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

On Writers and Writing, foreword by Stewart O'Nan, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1994.


The King's Indian and Other Fireside Tales (novellas), Knopf (New York, NY), 1974, published as The King's Servant, J. Cape (London, England), 1975.

(Contributor) Matthew Bruccoli and C.E. Frazer Clark, Jr., editors, Pages, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

William Wilson (libretto; also see below), New London Press, 1978.

Poems, Lord John Press, 1978.

Three Libretti (includes William Wilson, Frankenstein, and Rumpelstiltskin), New London Press, 1979.

MSS: A Retrospective, New London Press, 1980.

The Art of Living and Other Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.

(Editor, with Shannon Ravenel) The Best American Short Stories of 1982, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1982.

(Translator, with Nobuko Tsukui) Kikuo Itaya, Tengu Child, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1983.

(Translator, with John R. Maier) Gilgamesh: A Translation, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

Stillness and Shadows, edited by Nicholas Delbanco, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.

Lies! Lies! Lies!: A College Journal of John Gardner, University of Rochester Libraries (Rochester, NY), 1999.

Also author of The Temptation Game (radio play), 1980. Contributor of short stories to Southern Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, and Perspective; of poetry to Kenyon Review, Hudson Review, and other literary quarterlies; and of articles to Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines. Founder and editor, MSS (literary magazine).

ADAPTATIONS: An animated film version of Grendel called Grendel, Grendel, Grendel was produced by Victorian Film Corporation in Australia in 1981. Nickel Mountain was loosely adapted for film as Heavy. In the Suicide Mountains was adapted by Michael Keck as the musical stage play A Village Fable, Dramatic Publishing, 2001.

SIDELIGHTS: John Gardner was a philosophical novelist, a twentieth-century medievalist well versed in the classics, an educator, and an opinionated critic. Described by Village Voice contributor Elizabeth Stone as "Evel Knievel at the typewriter," Gardner was an advocate of conservation of values from the past, yet he also maintained a lifelong love-hate relationship with "the rules." Though he championed the moral function of literature, his long hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle classed him with the nonconformists of the baby boom generation. The typical conflict in Gardner's work pits individual freedom against institutions that dominate by means of cultural "myths." In Gardner's novels and stories, Paul Gray summarized in Time, "Gardner sets conflicting metaphysics whirling, then records the patterns thrown out by their lines of force. One situation consistently recurs,… an inherited past must defend itself against a plotless future."

Gardner's novels have provoked a wide range of critical responses, but, unlike many academic fictions, also gained him a large audience, three even going on to become bestsellers. "Very few writers, of any age, are alchemist enough to capture the respect of the intellectual community and the imagination of others who lately prefer [Jacqueline] Susann and [Judith] Krantz. Based on critical acclaim, and sales volume, it would seem that this man accomplished both," Craig Riley wrote in Best Sellers. As Carol A. MacCurdy reported in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982, "Many critics consider Grendel (1971) a modern classic, The Sunlight Dialogues an epic of the 1970s, and October Light a dazzling piece of Americana." October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976.

Gardner's notes on Morte D'Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Gawain poet have helped younger readers appreciate these classics, while also drawing from the author's knowledge of medieval literature. Gardner's retellings of ancient stories for children are fairy tales retold with original twists, "hip" tales in which familiar characters speak in modern cliches or where unlikely contemporary characters are revived by the magic of the past. For example, in Dragon, Dragon, and Other Timeless Tales losers win and heroes lose. "Kings prove powerless, young girls mighty. The miller wins the princess, but she proves to be a witch. Tables are turned this way and that, with consequences that are hilarious and wonderful," Jonathan Yardley related in the New York Times Book Review. Like most of Gardner's fairy tales, In the Suicide Mountains—the story of three outcasts who find happiness after hearing some old folktales—is for adults as well.

Gardner, who always worked on several book projects at a time, did not publish his novels in the order that they were completed. His first published novel, The Resurrection, traces a philosophy professor's thoughts after he learns his life will be shortened by leukemia. As David Cowart observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The book asks the question Gardner would ask in every succeeding novel: how can existential man—under sentence of death—live in such a way as to foster life-affirming values, regardless of how ultimately provisional they may prove?" The Resurrection introduces features that recur in other books by Gardner: an embedded second narrative, usually a "borrowed" text; a facility with fictional techniques; and an emotional impact Cowart described as "harrowing."

Gardner's second published novel, The Wreckage of Agathon, showcases his skill as an antiquarian, as a writer who can bring forward materials from ancient history and weave them into "a novel transcending history and effectively embracing all of it, a philosophical drama that accurately describes the wreckage of the twentieth century as well as of Agathon, and a highly original work of imagination," according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Built of mostly dialogue, The Wreckage of Agathon reveals its author's "manic glee in disputation," or "delight in forensic and rhetorical flashiness for its own sake," as Cowart observed. The novel's themes include the relation between individuals and the social orders they encounter. The Wreckage of Agathon "delineates the mental motion of the individual as sacred, whether he's a seer or not … and it exuberantly calls into question society's categorical insistances—the things brought into being at our own expense to protect us against ourselves, other people, and, putatively, other societies," as Paul West wrote in the New York Times Book Review.

The Sunlight Dialogues also grapples with this theme. In a Washington Post Book World review, Geoffrey Wolff called this novel "an extended meditation on the trench warfare between freedom and order." The Sunlight Man—a policeman-turned-outlaw embittered by the loss of his family—and Police Chief Fred Clumly, who is obsessed with law and order, duel to the death in this novel. Emerging in the conflict between them is Gardner's examination of how these two forces impinge on art. Wolff commented, "While all men wish for both—freedom and order—the conflict between them is dramatized by every decision that an artist makes. The artist will do what he will…. No: the artist does what he must, recognizes the limits, agrees to our rules so that we can play too. No;… it's his cosmos. And so it goes."

Gardner's well-known Grendel retells the Beowulf tale from the monster's point of view. This new take on the sea of the familiar hero myth allows the author a canvas on which to fathom new insights into the conflict between order and chaos. In the New York Times, Richard Locke explained how the uncivil behavior of "civilized" man contributes to Grendel's murderous career: "Though twice he attempts to shed his monsterhood, become human, join these other verbal creatures,… he's misunderstood on both occasions, and the rat-like humans attack him in fear. So, racked with resentment, pride and vengeful nihilism, outraged by mankind's perversity (for the noble values of the poet's songs are betrayed in a trice by the beery warlords), Grendel commences his cynical war." Though confirmed in cynicism, the monster remains haunted by the words of the Shaper, the poet who revives inspiration and hope in the hearts of his listeners. In this way, Gardner demonstrated the power of art and its role in Western culture.

Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel explores again the complex relationship between order and chaos, particularly as they relate to human responsibility for events in a world that seems to give random accident free play. Narrator Henry Soames, proprietor of an all-night diner, has a ringside seat to the "horror of the random," to cite Cowart, in the lives of his patrons. Slow-moving and dominated by routine, the pastoral life around the diner is interrupted by a series of fatal accidents, including auto wrecks and house fires, as well as emotions sparked by Soames' love for a young woman. Touching Soames more closely is the man who fell to his death on the stairs while recoiling from the diner-owner's shout. Debates ensue about limits to the assignment of blame, and some of Gardner's characters express the belief that the assignment of guilt, though painful, is preferable to viewing themselves as victims of mere chance. "Here, as in his other fiction," wrote Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books, "Gardner shows a marvelous gift for making stories ask balanced, intricate questions, for getting his complex questions into tight stories."

Henry's bout with guilt in Nickel Mountain has its roots in a personal tragedy Gardner suffered early in his life. At age eleven the author was at the wheel of a tractor which ran over and killed his seven-year-old brother David. Though it was an accident, Gardner believed he could have prevented it. Daily flashbacks to the accident troubled him until he wrote "Redemption," a 1979 story based on his memory of the accident. Because writing this story demanded concentration on the scene in order to take narrative control of it, Gardner's terror was diffused. However, the question of human responsibility versus chance continued to surface in many of Gardner's novels and stories, suggesting that this question had become, for him, a habit of mind.

What functions as an internal conflict in Nickel Mountain is openly debated in Gardner's next bestseller. October Light pits American conservativism against liberalism via a seventy-year-old Vermont farmer and his eighty-year-old feminist sister. In a characteristic rage about declining morals, James Paige shoots Sally's television set and locks her into an upstairs room. While the pair shout their arguments through the closed door, Sally finds a store of apples in the attic and parts of a trashy book about marijuana smugglers, The Smugglers of Lost Soul's Rock, in which she find parallels in the plot to her conflict with James. More vulnerable to the old man's intimidating anger is James's son Richard, who commits suicide. Gardner exposes the regrettable stubbornness of both sides of their conflict and at the same time implies the paucity of absurdist literature in the "trashy" parody of postmodern literature Sally reads.

By the novel's end, James has revised his opinions to accommodate a wider range of sensibility. "In October Light, then," reasoned Cowart, "we have a rustic world where the same horrors obtain as in the black-comic, nihilistic, 'smart-mouth satirical' novels typified by Smugglers, but Gardner convinces us that James Page can, at the age of seventy-two, come to self-knowledge—and that the thawing of this man's frozen heart holds much promise for all people who, bound in spiritual winter, have ever despaired of the spring."

While writing Mickelsson's Ghosts, Gardner deliberately tried to make the novel radically different from his prior works. The result, by comparison, said Curt Suplee of the Washington Post, "is a highbrow potboiler…. And it takes a wide-bodied and fast-moving narrative to carry all Gardner's themes, aiming them at the totalitarian threats in modern culture (metaphorically embedded in the Mormons and tax men) and a grand theological synthesis." As Gardner once explained to Suplee, "The two sort of big ghosts in the thing are [Friedrich] Nietzsche and [Martin] Luther: Luther's saying none of your works mean anything; and Nietzsche's saying works are everything. And if you get those two things together, you have courtly love. The lover does the most that he can possibly do, and then the grace of the lady saves him."

The title character of Mickelsson's Ghosts is a philosophy professor who is troubled with a proliferation of "ghosts." The farm on which he has taken refuge from the world is haunted by apparitions of its previous owners, including Mormonism founder Joseph Smith and the still-living Hell's Angel gang member who sold the professor the farm. Harassed by the Internal Revenue Service and the Sons of Dan—a fictional group of fanatic assassins—Mickelsson is haunted by his own crimes. After a teen he sleeps with gets pregnant, he robs an elderly man, hoping to pay the girl not to have an abortion, but during the robbery his victim dies of a heart attack. Should Mickelsson think of himself as the murderer of the elderly miser? This and other questions of ethics—including how to assess the worth of individual human lives, are the center of what Jack Miles dubbed a "huge and ambitious book" in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

In addition to novels, Gardner wrote a number of thought-provoking works on the purpose and craft of fiction, and his criticism was hailed—as were his novels—as "disturbing." On Moral Fiction, written in part before Gardner's own novels were published, contains many blunt and occasionally contradictory statements that negatively assess the works of other major novelists. Gardner's view is sometimes overstated, understated, or unclear, and some took his judgments as insults, causing certain critics to evaluate Gardner's own creative works from a fighting stance. Other critics have forgiven the book its faults because they find merit in Gardner's overall assessment about the essentially humane quality of great literature.

On Becoming a Novelist expresses Gardner's thoughts about his vocation and also outlines what it takes to be a professional novelist. Most important, he claims, are "drive"—an unyielding persistence to write and publish; and faith—confidence in one's own abilities and belief in one's eventual success. The book also restates its author's moral aesthetic. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Rodriguez was struck by Gardner's passionate rejection of fictions that substitute "inconclusiveness," "pointlessly subtle games," or obsessive "puzzle-making" for essential storytelling. A similar work, Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers "originated as the so-called 'Black Book,' an underground text passed from hand to hand in university creative-writing departments," Stuart Schoffman explained in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. John L'Heureux remarked in the New York Times Book Review that "Gardner was famous for his generosity to young writers, and The Art of Fiction is his posthumous gift to them."

Twelve years after Gardner's death in a motorcycle accident, a volume of his literary reviews and essays was published as On Writers and Writing. The collection includes Gardner's critical response to the fiction of John Steinbeck, William Styron, John Cheever, Walker Percy, and Bernard Malamud, among others, as well as an autobiographical essay and a posthumously discovered plan for The Sunlight Dialogues. According to William Hutchings in World Literature Today, "Gardner's essays are remarkable for his astringent intelligence, his pugnaciousness, his lucid style, and his relentless pontifications about The True Nature of Art and the 'great persons' who create it." Commenting on Gardner's extreme "seriousness" and daunting standards, New York Times Book Review contributor Brooke Allen concluded of the late author and scholar: "what Gardner always sought was great art, something to place alongside Melville and Tolstoy, the literary yardsticks against which he continually measured lesser writers. Needless to say, he was usually disappointed, therefore unnecessarily harsh in his judgements."



Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press, 1974, pp. 169-193.

Burns, Alan, and Charles Sugnet, The Imagination on Trial: British and American Writers Discuss Their Working Methods, Allison & Busby (London, England), 1981.

Chavkin, Allan, Conversations with John Gardner, University Press of Mississippi (Jacksonville, MS), 1990.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 5, 1976, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 28, 1984, Volume 34, 1985.

Cowart, David, Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1983.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1982, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Ekelund, Bo G., In the Pathless Forest: John Gardner's Literary Project, Coronet Books, 1994.

Henderson, Jeff, editor, Thor's Hammer: Essays on John Gardner, University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985.

Howell, John M., John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1980.

Howell, John M., Understanding John Gardner, University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Morace, Robert A., John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography, Garland Publishing (New York, NY), 1984.

Morace, Robert A., and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, editors, John Gardner: Critical Perspectives, Southern Illinois University Press (Urbana, IL), 1982.

Nutter, Ronald Grant, A Dream of Peace: Art and Death in the Fiction of John Gardner, Peter Lang (New York, NY), 1997.

Plimpton, George, editor, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.

Short Story Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1991.

Winther, Per, The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1992.


Atlantic, May, 1977, pp. 43-47; January, 1984.

Best Sellers, April, 1984.

Chicago Review, spring, 1978, pp. 73-87.

Chicago Tribune, March 16, 1980; April 13, 1980.

Chicago Tribune Book World, May 24, 1981; June 13, 1982; April 1, 1984.

Choice, October, 1994, p. 280.

Contemporary Literature, autumn, 1979, pp. 509-512.

Critique, number 2, 1977, pp. 86-108.

Esquire, January, 1971; June, 1982.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 30, 1982; December 5, 1982; June 12, 1983; May 30, 1982; February 12, 1984.

Midwest Quarterly, summer, 1979, pp. 405-415.

Mosaic, fall, 1975, pp. 19-31.

National Review, November 23, 1973.

New Republic, February 5, 1977; March 10, 1979, pp. 25, 28-33.

Newsweek, December 24, 1973; April 11, 1977.

New York Review of Books, March 21, 1974; June 24, 1982.

New York Times, September 4, 1970; November 14, 1976; December 26, 1976; January 2, 1977.

New York Times Book Review, November 16, 1975; March 23, 1980; May 17, 1981; May 31, 1981; June 20, 1982; February 26, 1984; July 20, 1986; March 27, 1994, p. 26.

New York Times Magazine, July 8, 1979, pp. 13-15, 34, 36-39.

Paris Review, spring, 1979, pp. 36-74.

Prairie Schooner, winter, 1980–81, pp. 70-93.

Sewanee Review, summer, 1977, pp. 520-531.

Time, January 1, 1973; December 30, 1974; December 20, 1976.

Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 1981; October 22, 1982; July 29, 1983.

Village Voice, December 27, 1976.

Washington Post, July 25, 1982; March 1, 1983.

Washington Post Book World, December 24, 1972; March 23, 1980; May 3, 1981; May 14, 1982.

World Literature Today, autumn, 1994, p. 819.

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