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Known for his unique writing style and opinionated literary views, john Champlin Gardner was a philosophical novelist, a medieval scholar, a university professor, and a controversial critic. He worked in a multitude of genres, including children’s fiction, opera libretti, translations, and scholarly criticism, and his writings reflected the rich legacy of Western culture. Believing that an artist is morally obligated to create works that offer hope for mankind, Gardner criticized many of his contemporaries for being more concerned with technique than truth, while he himself addressed such timeless questions as the nature of good and evil and the power of guilt and redemption in people’s lives.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Music and Literature
Gardner was born in Batavia, New York, on July 21, 1933. With a mother who taught high school English and a father who was well versed in the Bible and Shakespeare, Gardner was surrounded by literature throughout his childhood. A frequent listener to Metropolitan opera radio broadcasts, Gardner cultivated a taste for serious music and proved to be a talented musician himself by playing the French horn and singing in various choirs. As an adult, he remained a loyal devotee to opera, and among his many literary productions are libretti for three operas composed by Joseph Baber.
A Haunting Tragedy
As a boy, Gardner worked on his father’s dairy farm. When Gardner was eleven, he was driving a tractor that was towing a one-ton cultipacker, a machine used for flattening fields before planting. When the tractor suddenly stalled, his younger brother, who had been riding on the tractor’s tow-bar, was thrown under the cultipacker and crushed. Blaming himself for his brother’s death, Gardner was haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of the tragedy throughout his life, and much of his work reflects his struggles with questions of guilt, responsibility, and redemption.
Drawn to its liberal arts and music programs, Gardner attended DePauw University from 1951 to 1953. After marrying Joan Louise Patterson in 1953, Gardner transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 1955, and then began his graduate work at the University of Iowa, where he studied medieval literature and creative writing. In 1956, he received his master’s degree in English from the University of Iowa, and a PhD two years later. Although his doctoral dissertation was a novel, Gardner did not begin his career as a novelist. Initially, he taught medieval literature and creative writing at Oberlin College in Ohio. Because of his controversial literary ideas and teaching methods, however, he moved from one university to another throughout his teaching career. Nevertheless, he became a prominent creative writing professor.
Success in the Fiction Genre
During the early 1960s, Gardner’s writing consisted primarily of scholarly articles. When his first novel, The Resurrection, was published in 1966, Gardner received little notice. His second novel, The Wreckage of Agathon (1970), gained more critical attention, but he was still not established as a writer of major importance.
As a professor of English specializing in medieval literature, Gardner had been teaching the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf(c. 1000) for several years. In 1969, Gardner received a grant to work on a retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. Published in 1971, Grendel was the first of Gardner’s novels to bring him critical acclaim as well as popular success. The work was praised as a literary tour de force and named a book of the year by both Time and Newsweek magazines in 1971.
The overwhelming success of Grendel established Gardner’s reputation in the literary world, and his publisher agreed to print The Sunlight Dialogues, a novel that had previously been rejected for publication. Again, Gardner’s work was met with praise, and the book remained on the New York Times best-seller list for sixteen weeks. Additionally, Gardner was awarded the National Education Award, followed by the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for 1973-1974. This grant allowed Gardner to give up teaching to focus on his writing. The result was the award-winning novel October Light (1976).
In addition to novels, Gardner wrote a number of thought-provoking works on the purpose and craft of fiction. His criticism was hailed, as were his novels, as unsettling. On Moral Fiction, written in part before his novels were published, contains many pointed statements that negatively assess the works of other major novelists. Many of Gardner’s peers were insulted, and some offended critics evaluated Gardner’s subsequent works from a fighting stance.
In addition to novels, Gardner wrote children’s books based on such stories as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375). Drawing on his knowledge of medieval literature, Gardner’s children’s books are fairy tales retold with original twists, modernized stories in which recognizable characters speak in today’s cliches, or unlikely contemporary characters are revived by the magic of the past. The result is a collection of books that has been instrumental in familiarizing children with sophisticated classic literature.
Commissioned to translate the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 B.C.E.) into a work that would be accessible to modern readers, Gardner studied the Mesopotamian story, one of the oldest major epics in literature, from 1974 to 1976. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent two operations that left him weak and unable to devote all of his time to writing. Nonetheless, he taught classes at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he met fellow professor Liz Rosenberg. Recently divorced from his first wife, Gardner became involved with Rosenberg, and the two married in 1980, only to divorce two years later when he fell in love with Susan Shreve, a writer.
On September 14, 1982, a few months after the publication of the novel Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Twelve years after his death, a volume of Gardner’s literary reviews and essays appeared as On Writers and Writing (1994). The collection includes Gardner’s critical response to the fiction of John Steinbeck, John Cheever, and Bernard Malamud, among others, as well as an autobiographical essay.
Works in Literary Context
Gardner’s earliest influences came from his family, as his parents’ appreciation of literature and music were a guiding force in his development as a writer and critic. Specifically, he cited the work of Geoffrey Chaucer as his greatest writing inspiration from childhood. Thematically, the unfortunate personal tragedy Gardner experienced early in his life—his role in the death of his brother—motivated him to explore repeatedly the question of human responsibility versus chance, as well as issues of guilt and redemption in his works.
The Purpose of Literature
In On Moral Fiction, Gardner presents what he believes is the purpose of literature: to promote moral values, to be life-affirming, and to tell a story. Gardner attempts to follow William Faulkner’s lead toward some kind of credible, meaningful confirmation of life, something beyond the mere fantasies of wish fulfillment he saw in many of his contemporaries. Artists, Gardner contends, are responsible for creating inspirational works that celebrate life—not give voice to despair—as they address timeless philosophical questions. Several of his novels, in fact, feature protagonists who are professional or amateur philosophers, characters allowing Gardner to discuss such issues as the nature of chaos, good and evil, and mortality.
Gardner’s works also demonstrate the power of art and its role in Western culture, most notably in Grendel, in which Gardner explicitly asserts the significance of art and the artist as a means of affirming the moral meaning of life. In Beowulf, Grendel is a terrible beast that terrorizes a kingdom; however, Gardner transforms the monster into a lonely, intelligent outsider with a weakness for poetry. Juxtaposing Grendel with his mother, Gardner emphasizes, through her inarticulateness, the importance of language in the development of civilization. Fittingly, Gardner names the poet in Grendel ”the Shaper,” and Grendel, haunted by the Shaper’s words, comes to realize that the poet is the guiding force in society, for he is the one who inspires hope in the hearts of his listeners. Such is the power of art, Gardner shows, that even a monster can be moved by it.
Works in Critical Context
Gardner’s novels provoked a wide range of critical responses and, unlike many academic fictions, were appreciated by a large audience, as evidenced by his three best sellers. ”Very few writers . . . are alchemist enough to capture the respect of the intellectual community and the imagination of others who lately prefer [Jacqueline] Susann and [Judith] Krantz,” observed reviewer Craig Riley. He continues, Based on critical acclaim, and sales volume, it would seem that this man accomplished both.” Although Gardner is unquestionably one of academic literature’s most commercially successful authors, many critics consider his novels unwieldy and overly philosophical, in particular The Resurrection and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.
Critics have often made negative use of On Moral Fiction in interpreting Gardner’s later works, reading Gardner’s complex, philosophically provocative novels from an uncompromising moral perspective. On Moral Fiction itself was judged as arrogant, self-serving, and wrongheaded, and many critics disputed Gardner’s contention that art can radically change people’s lives. Nevertheless, his work is widely respected for its innovative approach to addressing questions of universal human concern.
The Wreckage of Agathon
Attracting more attention than its predecessor, Gardner’s second published novel, The Wreckage of Agathon, was met with harsh criticism by those detractors who felt the book was little more than boring melodrama. Other critics, however, declared that The Wreckage of Agathon proved Gardner’s skill as an antiquarian, as a writer who could weave elements from ancient history 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,” as reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it. Composed mostly of dialogue, the novel exposes Gardner’s manic glee in disputation,” or delight in forensic and rhetorical fashiness for its own sake,” scholar David Cowart observed. With themes including the relation between individuals and the social orders they encounter, The Wreckage of Agathon, said academic Paul West:
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 insistences—the things brought into being at our own expense to protect us against ourselves, other people, and, putatively, other societies.
- Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
- Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
- Howell, John M. Understanding John Gardner. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner. Boston: Twayne, 2004.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Looking for the Novelist.” New York Times (September 24,1970): 45.
- Locke, Richard. ”Grendel is a Beauty of a Beast.” New York Times (September 4, 1971): 19.
- Maddocks, Melvin. ”Making Ends Meet.” Time (December 20, 1976): 74.
- Riley, Craig. John Gardner.” Best Sellers (April 1984): 267-269.
- West, Paul. Black Comedy in Ancient Sparta: The Wreckage ofAgathon.” New York Times Book Review (November 15, 1970): BR3.
- Murray, Kim. Gardner, John Champlin, Jr.. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from http://www.pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Gardner_John.html.
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