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Gardner, John (Champlin, Jr.)

GARDNER, John (Champlin, Jr.)

Nationality: American. Born: Batavia, New York, 21 July 1933. Education: DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, 1951-53; Washington University, St. Louis, A.B. 1955; University of Iowa (Woodrow Wilson Fellow, 1955-56), M.A. 1956, Ph.D. 1958. Family: Married 1) Joan Louise Patterson in 1953, one son and one daughter; 2) Liz Rosenberg in 1980. Career: Teacher, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1958-59; teacher, California State University, Chico, 1959-62; teacher, San Francisco, 1962-65; teacher, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1965-74; teacher, Bennington College, Vermont, 1974-76; teacher, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts; teacher, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1976-77; teacher, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, 1977-78. Visiting professor, University of Detroit, 1970-71; visiting professor, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1973; member of the English department, State University of New York, Binghamton, 1978-82. Editor, MSS and Southern Illinois University Press Literary Structures series. Awards: Danforth fellowship, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1972; American Academy award, 1975; National Book Critics Circle award, 1976. Died: 14 September 1982.


Short Stories

The King's Indian: Stories and Tales. 1974.

The Art of Living and Other Stories. 1981.


The Resurrection. 1966.

The Wreckage of Agathon. 1970.

Grendel. 1971.

The Sunlight Dialogues. 1972.

Jason and Medeia (novel in verse). 1973.

Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel. 1973.

October Light. 1976.

In the Suicide Mountains. 1977.

Vlemk, The Box-Painter. 1979.

Freddy's Book. 1980.

Mickelsson's Ghosts. 1982.

Stillness, and Shadows, edited by Nicholas Delbanco. 1986.


William Wilson (libretto). 1978.

Three Libretti (includes William Wilson, Frankenstein, Rumpelstiltskin). 1979.


Poems. 1978.


The Gawain-Poet. 1967.

Le Mort Darthur. 1967.

The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle. 1974.

Dragon, Dragon and Other Timeless Tales (for children). 1975.

The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English. 1975.

Gudgekin the Thistle Girl and Other Tales (for children). 1976.

A Child's Bestiary (for children). 1977.

The Poetry of Chaucer. 1977.

The Life and Times of Chaucer. 1977.

The King of the Hummingbirds and Other Tales (for children). 1977.

On Moral Fiction. 1978.

On Becoming a Novelist. 1983.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. 1984.

Editor, with Lennis Dunlap, The Forms of Fiction. 1962.

Editor, The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet in a Modern English Version with a Critical Introduction. 1965.

Editor, with Nicholas Joost, Papers on the Art and Age of Geoffrey Chaucer. 1967.

Editor, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale, and Five Other Middle English Poems, in a Modernized Version, with Comments on the Poems, and Notes. 1971.

Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1982. 1982.

Translator, with Nobuko Tsukui, Tengu Child, by Kikuo Itaya. 1983.

Translator, with John Maier, Gilgamesh. 1984.



Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile by John M. Howell, 1980; Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography by Robert A. Morace, 1984.

Critical Studies:

Gardner: Critical Perspectives edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, 1982; Arches and Light: The Fiction of Gardner by David Cowart, 1983; A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of Gardner by Gregory L. Morris, 1984; Thor's Hammer: Essays on Gardner edited by Jeff Henderson and Robert E. Lowrey, 1985; The Novels of Gardner by Leonard C. Butts, 1988; Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction by Jeff Henderson, 1990; Understanding John Gardner by John Michael Howell, 1993; In the Pathless Forest: John Gardner's Literary Project by Bo G. Ekelund, 1995; A Dream of Peace: Art and Death in the Fiction of John Gardner by Ronald Grant Nutter, 1997.

* * *

Best known for his novels and controversial, almost evangelical advocacy of "moral fiction," the prolific John Gardner published just two collections of short fiction (five additional stories remain uncollected). Yet unlike the varied forms in which he tried his hand—librettos, translations, academic books and articles, poetry, children's stories, and a radio play—Gardner's two collections are not mere literary curiosities but essential texts and are remarkably representative of his larger concerns. Together they embody the conflicting aesthetic tendencies that characterize not only Gardner's own writing but more generally American fiction from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Like his novels, the stories mix postmodern techniques, especially parody and pastiche, and personal experiences, like the rural settings of his western New York youth, and the cultural and intellectual ambience of the colleges and universities where he taught. He was a medievalist at Southern Illinois University and, just before his death in a motorcycle accident, a director of the writing program at State University of New York at Binghamton. His first book was the textbook-anthology The Forms of Fiction. One of his writing students at Chico State was Raymond Carver, whose own later fiction, so different from Gardner's, would become a major influence on American writing in the 1980s.

The stories in The King's Indian underscore the significant differences between Carver's reticent, gritty working-class realism and Gardner's overblown tales and crafty fabulations. Clearly related to the preoccupation with parody and pastiche that characterized the work of so many other postmodernist writers, including John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, and Robert Coover, The King's Indian seems at once more accessible, more wide ranging, and more protean. Gardner was, in the words of one reviewer, "the Lon Chaney of contemporary fiction." Yet despite their wildly varied settings and the range of parodic styles, the collection's nine stories and tales achieve a subtle and surprising unity of effect. "Pastoral Care," the first of the five stories in "The Midnight Reader" section, is written in a quasi-realistic style lightly reminiscent of John Updike, but does not entirely lack the cartoonishness present in so much of Gardner's writing. The story is set in contemporary Carbondale, Illinois, where Gardner was then teaching, and introduces one of Gardner's most important themes, that of personal responsibility and commitment in the face of uncertainty. "The Ravages of Spring" is also set in southern Illinois but in the nineteenth century, and includes Kafka and cloning as well as Gothicism and Edgar Allan Poe. The collection includes stories set in several different time periods, from the Middle Ages ("The Temptation of St. Ivo") to the contemporary ("John Napper Sailing through the Universe"). In "John Napper" the characters are all real—John Gardner and his family and John Napper, illustrator of Gardner's 1972 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues—and the theme, overtly presented here but implicit throughout the collection, is the power of art to transform, indeed to redeem the world.

In the three "Tales of Queen Louisa" Gardner combines the metafictionist's self-conscious and anachronistic retelling of familiar stories and recycling of familiar forms to serve new, which is to say postmodern, purposes with this same interest in the ability of the artist (here the mad queen) to redeem the world. (This also characterizes Gardner's stories for children.) Following the inter-lude, of these three tales, the story "The King's Indian" explodes into a Joycean omnium-gatherum of stories and styles. Drawing on material borrowed from Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and a host of other writers (and presaging the novel Middle Passage by the former student Charles Johnson), and employing a narrative approach reminiscent of Coleridge ("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") and Conrad (Heart of Darkness), "The King's Indian" raises the issue of art as artifice, and as hoax, to new, dizzying heights.

The collection comes full circle with the story "Illinois the Changeable," back to the setting of "Pastoral Care," having traversed the entire narrative spectrum, from realism to fabulism. Gardner offers two equally plausible possibilities of the story and of the collection overall (and indeed of all his fiction), as a reflection of "the magnificence of God and of all his Creation" or as "mere pyrotechnic pointlessness."

It is this "pyrotechnic pointlessness" that Gardner condemns in On Moral Fiction, his "table-pounding" call for an art of affirmation to counter what he saw as fiction's having strayed into the false ways of cheap nihilism and "linguistic sculpture." Gardner's best fiction—short and long—derives its power from the conflict between the desire to affirm and the possibility of "pyrotechnic pointlessness." The problem with the majority of the ten stories collected in The Art of Living is that they are too pointed and as a result not pyrotechnic and parodic enough. At worst they degenerate into the long-winded didacticism of "Vlemk the Box-Painter" and the sophomoric play of "The Library Horror," or else seem the product of an enfeebled fabulism ("The Art of Living"). "The Joy of the Just," originally published the same year as The King's Indian but written much earlier as part of Nickel Mountain (when it was still a collection of related stories and not yet "A Pastoral Romance"), is decidedly weak. The stories that return to the rural realism that served Gardner so well throughout his career (The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, October Light, and Mickelsson's Ghosts) are by far the collection's strongest. Much of their interest and power derives from their autobiographical wellsprings (which is also the case in the less successful title story). "Come on Back" draws on the Welsh community in western New York in which the Gardner family had long taken an active part. "Stillness" is drawn from a novel Gardner wrote shortly before the failure of his first marriage. And "Redemption," written at the suggestion of a psychiatrist as a form of bibliotherapy, concerns the guilt its young narrator—and Gardner—felt as the result of the accidental death of a younger brother. What these three stories share is a quiet assurance that did not so much replace as complement the stylistically different yet thematically related art of The King's Indian. Gardner ultimately was neither a metafictionist nor (as the term has come to be understood) a moral fictionist, neither a conventional realist nor a postmodern fabulist. He was, or tried to be, all of the above, and that may be the reason why, even a decade after his death, his literary reputation remains uncertain.

—Robert A. Morace

See the essay on "Redemption."

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