Hassler, Jon 1933-

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Hassler, Jon 1933-

(Jon Francis Hassler)

PERSONAL:

Born March 30, 1933, in Minneapolis, MN; son of Leo Blaise (a grocer) and Ellen (a teacher) Hassler; married Marie Schmitt, August 18, 1956; children: Michael, Elizabeth, David. Education: St. John's University, B.A., 1955; University of North Dakota, M.A., 1960. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: "Landscapes (gazing at them, walking through them, and painting pictures of them)."

ADDRESSES:

Home—Sauk Rapids, MN. Office—Department of English, St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

High school English teacher in Melrose, MN, 1955-56, Fosston, MN, 1956-69, and Park Rapids, MN, 1959-65; Bemidji State University, Bemidji, MN, instructor in English, 1965-68; Brainerd Community College, Brainerd, MN, instructor in English, 1968-80; St. John's University, Collegeville, MN, 1980—, began as writer-in-residence, became Regent's Professor.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Novel of the Year designation, Friends of American Writers, 1978, for Staggerford; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1980; Best Fiction of 1987 award, Society of Midland Authors, for Grand Opening; Colman Barry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and Society, Saint John's University, 2003; Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship; honorary degrees from Assumption College, University of North Dakota, and the University of Notre Dame; the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, MN, was named in honor of Hassler.

WRITINGS:

The Red Oak and Other Poems, privately printed, 1968.

Four Miles to Pinecone (young adult), F. Warne (New York, NY), 1977.

Staggerford, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.

Simon's Night, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.

Jemmy (young adult), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.

The Love Hunter, Morrow (New York, NY), 1981.

A Green Journey, Morrow (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1996.

Grand Opening, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.

North of Hope, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1990, reprinted, Loyola Press (Chicago, IL), 2006.

Dear James, Ballantine Books (New York, NY, 1993, reprinted with new introduction by Joan Wester Anderson, Loyola Press (Chicago, IL), 2006.

Rookery Blues, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1995.

The Dean's List, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Underground Christmas, Afton Historical Society Press (Afton, MN), 1998.

Keepsakes & Other Stories, with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec, Afton Historical Society Pres (Afton, MN), 1999.

My Staggerford Journal, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Rufus at the Door and Other Stories, with wood engravings by Gaylord Schanilec, Afton Historical Society Press (Afton, MN), 2000.

Good People—from an Author's Life (essays), Loyola Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

The Staggerford Flood, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

The Staggerford Murders [and] The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew (two novellas), Plume (New York, NY), 2004.

The New Woman, Viking (New York, NY), 2005.

Churches of Minnesota, photographs by Doug Ohman, Minnesota Historical Society Press (St. Paul, MN), 2006.

Also author of play adaptation of Simon's Night, produced in a drama workshop in Minnesota. Contributor of short stories to literary journals, including Prairie Schooner and Blue Cloud Quarterly. Manuscript collection held at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, MN.

ADAPTATIONS:

A Green Journey was adapted as a television movie by the National Broadcasting Company, 1988.

SIDELIGHTS:

"[Jon] Hassler is a very traditional writer with exciting, real, complex, and intriguing subject matter," writes Contemporary Novelists essayist C.W. Truesdale. "But," adds Truesdale, "[Hassler's] strengths are quiet and (on the surface) unremarkable…. He is not bold and audacious…. [His] presence is subtle, quiet, and apparently unobtrusive." "Hassler is a writer good enough to restore your faith in fiction," proclaimed Randolph Hogan in the New York Times Book Review, noting: "His subjects are life, love and death—what the best novels have always been about—and he writes with wisdom and grace." In his novels, Hassler explores the relationships, thoughts, and feelings of ordinary people in the small towns of midwestern America. John H. Hafner declared in an America review of Dear James: "Hassler does for his Catholic, upper-midwest world what John Cheever did for his WASP New England one, though Hassler seems to have more affection for his characters than Cheever had for his." This comparison is not surprising given what the Hassler once commented in an interview with CA: "[John Cheever] was my teacher. I never knew him, but when I decided I wanted to write, he was the one I centered on. I read him for style, not particularly for plot and obviously not for setting. He taught me a lot." Commenting on his choice of locale, Hassler once told CA: "Since I was a year old I have lived in Minnesota small towns, so it's no wonder that most of my fiction focuses on small-town culture, particularly the various gaps and bridges between the young and the old."

"As a mark of his traditional practice, Hassler never uses stream of consciousness … nor does he use first person singular narrative," declares Truesdale. "What Hassler does use with increasing mastery and fluidity are three other mnemonic techniques: flashbacks, journal entries, and letters," summarizes Truesdale. "Hassler's concentration on church themes has earned him a reputation as a Catholic novelist," reported Gerald M. Costello in a U.S. Catholic review of Dear James. "Hassler tackles church topics … soberly and thoughtfully … and his writing skills are … first-rate…. Hassler generally gets it just right when he's writing about the church and church people," wrote Costello, lauding Dear James as "a refreshing treat: a contemporary work of fiction that manages to handle church matters intelligently and without condescension." "[Hassler] takes no overt political position … even though he sometimes seems obsessed with Church politics and the behaviors of the priests, sisters, and laypersons who people may of his novels…. He is more fascinated with the political infighting and machinations of a huge and powerful Church that is in a state of transition than he is in the spiritual or mystical character of its clergy and laypeople," remarks Truesdale, noting: "In some cases, he defuses potentially explosive conflicts by turning them into high comedy." "Hassler is fascinated by richly compelling individuals who have sacrificed themselves to principle of one sort or another," adds Truesdale.

Hassler's first adult novel, Staggerford, concerns Miles Pruitt, a Minnesota high school English teacher. Miles's life is staid and boring; he spends his time regretting lost opportunities and old loves. His story is "a series of astoundingly vacuous conversations, journal entries that seek to clarify what went wrong with his plans, and classes that consist, for the most part, of students to whom the love poems of Rod McKuen would be too challenging," Joyce Carol Oates wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Although Oates felt that "Hassler's characters are rather close to being two-dimensional," she admitted that there is "something likable about the novel." Best Sellers reviewer R.C. Anderson found "too many stock characters" in Staggerford, but he believed that Hassler "succeeds in fleshing them out in witty detail." Anderson concluded that Staggerford compares favorably with Main Street, Sinclair Lewis's novel of small-town Minnesota life. "One cannot avoid comparing" the two books, Anderson wrote. "Hassler's passive, unevaluative tone softens considerably the heavy-handed ridicule to which Lewis subjects his characters, and if his work is less vivid, it lacks also Lewis's cloying self-righteousness."

Hassler fictionalizes some of the problems facing the elderly in Simon's Night. The title character, Simon Peter Shea, is a retired professor who, after accidentally setting his house on fire, decides to enter the Norman Home, a home for the elderly. "After a stay of only a few days," wrote Richard Bradford in the New York Times Book Review, "Simon realizes that the place will be the death of him—first intellectually and eventually in the clinical sense." With the help and advice of a young doctor, Simon finds the strength to leave the home and live in his cabin in the woods. Bradford praised the novel, indicating that Hassler's themes "are mature and important—the tenacity of mind and love, the unforgivable waste of good brains and useful people simply because they are no longer young, the unarguable fact that there is truly no half-way station, like the Norman House, between life and death. Yet the novel's style is colloquial and modest, full of anecdote, rich with scenes and characters of tremendous comic vitality." Bradford claimed that Simon's Night is "one of the most delightful novels I have read in years, a work of manifold virtues, felicitous, intelligent and very funny."

In The Love Hunter, Hassler explores the friendship between two colleagues, Chris MacKensie and Larry Quinn, at a small Minnesota college. Larry is dying from multiple sclerosis, and he and Chris go on a hunting trip to help him forget his pain. Chris has decided to kill Larry during the trip, to end his pain and in order to marry Larry's wife, with whom he is secretly in love. Hogan commented that this story "is always plausible, and [Hassler] never allows it to lapse into melodrama—which a less talented writer might have done." "You know you're in good hands immediately, from Hassler's masterly handling of exposition," praised Bruce Allen in the Chicago Tribune Book World, lauding: "The first five pages of this novel should be required reading for aspiring writers."

In A Green Journey, Hassler returns to the character Agatha McGee, who appeared in Staggerford and in previous short stories. Hassler explained in his interview with CA that "[by the time of A Green Journey] I knew [Agatha McGee] so well, I decided to … put her up against something she couldn't control, and I think it worked; I think it made her more interesting than ever." Agatha is an elderly Catholic school teacher with strong traditional religious beliefs. Her beliefs are challenged by a new bishop with modern ideas and by an unmarried pregnant woman Agatha befriends. During a church-sponsored trip to Dublin, Agatha's moral values are tested by these companions. The strength of the book, according to Chicago Tribune contributor Clarence Peterson, is in the "believable characters carefully observed." Victoria K. Musmann commented in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Hassler's characters have old-fashioned values and typical human failings; they make this a novel to restore your faith in humanity."

A Green Journey's "Miss Agatha McGee of Staggerford, Minnesota, and Father James O'Hannon of Ballybergs, north of Dublin … [became] soulmates through their correspondence over several years" and later resurface in the novel Dear James, stated Commonweal contributor Joseph Hynes. "In Dear James (as the title suggests), [Hassler] makes extensive and highly dramatic use of some of the letters that Agatha McGee writes to James O'Hannon (but only mails to him much later) and the letters that she has saved from him," recounts Truesdale. "In her correspondence with O'Hannon," noted Bill Peatman in the National Catholic Reporter, "Agatha reveals how confined she feels in her town and how bored she is with her friends [telling James] all the latest gossip." In this "popular and important" novel, wrote Hynes, the two protagonists "meet again … during Agatha's pilgrimage to Italy with American students [and an] intensely chaste love for each other … grows … most movingly, and Hassler is expert in persuading us that such love is possible and healing, spiritually and physically, even as he refuses to wax sentimental or soft-pedal the difficulties of any kind of attachment."

Dear James is "a contemporary love story with a ring of truth to it," summarized Costello. "The theme of Dear James is ‘forgiveness,’" according to Peatman, who believed that despite a flaw "with the redemption of Agatha," the novel "provided a collection of characters whose relationships succeed in bringing out critical issues of human life: friendship, love, faithfulness, conflict and reconciliation." "Characters often have to balance conflicting values, conflicting moods," stated Hafner, adding that "balancing tradition and change is a major theme of Dear James." Hafner contended that readers will overlook the "few unconvincing contrivances [of the novel's complex plot]" and maintained that the story's few, almost-stereotypical characters "have a quirk or two that makes them emerge as individuals." Also remarking on some of the novel's "loose ends" and noting that at times "Hassler leans in the direction of caricature," Costello positively concluded: "Hassler's warm and absorbing novel Dear James … adds up to: a good tale, well told, and a story peopled with multidimensional characters…. The dialogue sparkles."

Rookery Blues and its sequel The Dean's List follow Leland Edwards, a "journeyman professor of English, accomplished pianist and organizer of the short-lived but splendid Icejam Quintet," described Loren F. Schmidtberger in an America review of The Dean's List. A Publishers Weekly critic claimed that both novels are equally "droll and charming" presentations of "campus life" and "advancing middleage [concerns]," and in the critic's assessment of The Dean's List, the latter's characters are judged to be "a bit predictable and stuck in the 1960s … [yet] endearing." Rookery Blues portrays Rookery State College around the time of Vietnam. In it, claimed Christian Century contributor W. Dale Brown, "Hassler satirizes the pretensions and foibles of the academic community with uproarious humor and incisive accuracy." The Dean's List portrays Leland, now the Rookery State College dean, a quarter century later. "[It] is structured more like a journal than a traditional novel, and much of the material in it is not integrated into a unified plot, yet for the most part it coheres as the responses of a well-intentioned, mid-Western intellectual to the griefs, joys and routines that life grants him," indicated Schmidtberger, who believed that "Hassler's best scenes outweigh having to push through a labored chapter." With "humor … affection … [and] quirky, eccentric, but believable characters," commented Library Journal reviewer Barbara E. Kemp, Hassler writes of "the small gains and losses that make up daily life for most people."

Hassler published several volumes of stories and essays and then The Staggerford Flood, which brings together Agatha McGee, now eighty, and a number of old friends. The elderly schoolteacher's home is threatened when the worst spring flood in a century threatens to engulf it. In reviewing the novel in America, Ed Block wrote: "Few readers or reviewers have noticed the archetypal dimension in a number of Mr. Hassler's novels. His first, Staggerford, for instance, involves the ‘resurrection’ of a town and some of its citizens after the death of a random victim of violence. In The Staggerford Flood the archetypal dimension is even more subtly suggested. Only careful attention reveals that the flood takes place during the last week of Lent. Of course the pervasiveness of water is a further clue to a possible ethic pattern."

The Staggerford Murders [and] The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew consists of two novellas, the first of which is set in Staggerford and involves a murder and a disappearance, and which is narrated by five characters, one of whom is Grover, the elderly desk clerk of a dingy hotel. The second story, described as "much more dour" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor, is a reflection on life by turkey farmer W.D. Nestor, nephew of Nancy Clancy.

In The New Woman, Agatha, now eighty-seven, is living in an apartment building for seniors when she finds herself confronting a murder, a missing child, and a mysterious box. In reviewing the novel in the Detroit Free Press, Susan Hall-Balduf commented that her favorite Hassler story is North of Hope, which is about a priest who comes back to his hometown after being away for two decades to find that his former sweetheart has had a sad life without him. Hall-Balduf recommended the reading of The New Woman "if your heart needs lifting … The New Woman is very amusing. Agatha is funnier than she realizes, and yet she's so formidable in the way of old school teachers that the reader hardly dares to snicker."

Because of his realistic and compelling portraits of ordinary characters, some critics suggest that Hassler is a rising talent in American fiction. "Unlike so many contemporary writers," Hogan wrote, "[Hassler] creates characters you come to care about and believe in. He added that [perhaps what's] most striking about Mr. Hassler's writing is the voice. It makes you want to keep on reading just to remain in the company of such a wise man." Allen praised the "richness of the character portrayal" in Hassler's work and "his ability to make decent people both complicated and interesting." He concluded that Hassler is "one of our very best novelists." "What makes Hassler such an interesting and engaging novelist—and what will probably make him outlast all or almost all of his flashier contemporaries," assesses Truesdale, "is not just that he is unashamedly a traditional novelist but that he does so well what he does, that he involves the reader so deeply in his characters that no matter who we might be we really care about them, talk about them as if they were very real and interesting people…. I suspect that Jon Hassler will come to be recognized as a major 20th-century novelist."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

An Interview with Jon Hassler, Dinkytown Antiquarian Bookstore (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

PERIODICALS

America, September 25, 1993, John H. Hafner, review of Dear James, p. 20; October 18, 1997, Loren F. Schmidtberger, review of The Dean's List, p. 26; December 9, 2002, Ed Block, review of The Staggerford Flood, p. 21.

Best Sellers, September, 1977, R.C. Anderson, review of Staggerford, p. 166.

Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1985, Clarence Peterson, review of A Green Journey.

Chicago Tribune Book World, December 13, 1981, Bruce Allen, review of The Love Hunter.

Christian Century, August 28, 1996, W. Dale Brown, review of Rookery Blues, p. 822.

Commonweal, July 16, 1993, Joseph Hynes, review of Dear James.

Detroit Free Press, December 14, 2005, Susan Hall-Balduf, review of The New Woman.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of The Staggerford Flood, p. 979; October 1, 2004, review of The Staggerford Murders [and] The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew p. 931.

Library Journal, May 1, 1997, Barbara E. Kemp, review of The Dean's List; December, 1999, Mary Paumier Jones, review of My Staggerford Journal, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1985, Victoria K. Musmann, review of A Green Journey, p. 9.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1993, Bill Peatman, review of Dear James, p. 33.

New York Times Book Review, July 24, 1977, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Staggerford, p. 14; October 28, 1979, Richard Bradford, review of Simon's Night, p. 79; August 16, 1981, Randolph Hogan, review of The Love Hunter, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, April 14, 1997, review of The Dean's List, p. 54; August 23, 1999, review of Keepsakes & Other Stories, p. 48; July 29, 2002, review of The Staggerford Flood, p. 50; December 20, 2004, review of The Staggerford Murders [and] The Life and Death of Nancy Clancy's Nephew, p. 38.

Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, winter, 2003, Joseph Plut, "Conversation with Jon Hassler: North of Hope," p. 145.

U.S. Catholic, January, 1994, Gerald M. Costello, review of Dear James, p. 48.

ONLINE

BookPage Online,http://www.bookpage.com/ (November 28, 2006), Alden Mudge, "Finding Balance between the Ridiculous and Sublime: A Talk with Jon Hassler."

Jon Hassler Home Page, http://home.comcast.net/˜ktebo (November 29, 2006).