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John Gardner (American writer)

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John Gardner
Gardner in 1977
Gardner in 1977
BornJohn Champlin Gardner Jr.
(1933-07-21)July 21, 1933
Batavia, New York, U.S.
DiedSeptember 14, 1982(1982-09-14) (aged 49)
Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • essayist
  • literary critic
  • professor
CitizenshipUnited States
EducationWashington University in St. Louis
University of Iowa (MA, PhD)
Notable worksThe Sunlight Dialogues, On Moral Fiction, Grendel, Mickelsson's Ghosts
SpousesJoan Louise Patterson (1953–1980),
Liz Rosenberg (1980–1982)
PartnerSusan Thornton

John Champlin Gardner Jr. (July 21, 1933 – September 14, 1982) was an American novelist, essayist, literary critic, and university professor. He is best known for his 1971 novel Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf myth from the monster's point of view.

Early life and education[edit]

Gardner was born in Batavia, New York. His father was a lay preacher and dairy farmer, and his mother taught third grade at a small school in a nearby village. Both parents were fond of poetry, and would often recite their favorite poetry and poetry they wrote about life on the farm at friends' homes. Gardner was active in the Boy Scouts of America and achieved the Eagle Scout rank. As a child, Gardner attended public school and worked on his father's farm, where in April 1945, his younger brother Gilbert was killed in an accident with a cultipacker. Gardner, who was driving the tractor during the fatal accident, carried guilt for his brother's death throughout his life, suffering nightmares and flashbacks. The incident informed much of Gardner's fiction and criticism — most directly in the 1977 short story "Redemption," which included a fictionalized recounting of the accident as an impetus for artistic inspiration.[1]

Gardner began his university education at DePauw University, and received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955. He received his MA (1956) and PhD (1958) from the University of Iowa.[2] He was a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Detroit in 1970.[3]


Gardner's best-known novels include The Sunlight Dialogues, about a disaffected policeman asked to engage a madman fluent in classical mythology; Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster's point of view, with an existential subtext; and October Light, about an embittered brother and sister living and feuding with each other in rural Vermont (the novel includes an invented "trashy novel" that the woman reads). This last book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.[4]

The Life and Times of Chaucer[edit]

In 1977, Gardner published The Life and Times of Chaucer. In a review in the October 1977 issue of Speculum, Sumner J. Ferris pointed to several passages that were allegedly lifted either in whole or in part from work by other authors without proper citation. Ferris charitably suggested that Gardner had published the book too hastily, but on April 10, 1978, reviewer Peter Prescott, writing in Newsweek, cited the Speculum article and accused Gardner of plagiarism, a claim that Gardner met "with a sigh."[5]

On Moral Fiction[edit]

In 1978, Gardner's book of literary criticism, On Moral Fiction, sparked a controversy that excited the mainstream media, vaulting Gardner into the spotlight with an interview on The Dick Cavett Show (May 16, 1978) and a cover story in The New York Times Magazine (July, 1979).[6] His judgments of contemporary authors—including John Updike, John Barth and other American authors—harmed his reputation among fellow writers and book reviewers. Gardner claimed that lingering animosity from critics of this book led to unflattering reviews of what turned out to be his last finished novel, Mickelsson's Ghosts, although literary critics later praised the book.[citation needed] Gore Vidal found On Moral Fiction, as well as Gardner's novels, sanctimonious and pedantic, and called Gardner the "late apostle to the lowbrows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university."[7]


Gardner was a life-long teacher of fiction writing. He was associated with the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. His two books on the craft of writing fiction—The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist—are considered classics[citation needed]. Gardner inspired and, according to Raymond Carver, sometimes intimidated his students. At Chico State College (where he taught from 1959 to 1962), when Carver mentioned to Gardner that he had not liked the assigned short story, Robert Penn Warren's "Blackberry Winter," Gardner said, "You'd better read it again." "And he wasn't joking", said Carver, who related this anecdote in his foreword to Gardner's book On Becoming a Novelist. In that foreword, he makes it clear how much he respected Gardner and also relates his kindness as a writing mentor.

In addition to Chico State, Gardner taught at Oberlin College (1958–1959), San Francisco State College (1962–1965), Southern Illinois University Carbondale (1965–1974) Bennington College, and Binghamton University (1974–1982).[8]

Family life[edit]

Gardner married Joan Louise Patterson on June 6, 1953; the marriage, which produced children, ended in divorce in 1980.[8] Gardner married poet and novelist Liz Rosenberg in 1980; this marriage ended in divorce in 1982.[2]


Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident about two miles from his home in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on September 14, 1982. He was pronounced dead at Barnes-Kasson Hospital in Susquehanna.[9][10] The crash was four days before his planned marriage to Susan Thornton[11]: 269  He was buried next to his brother Gilbert in Batavia's Grandview Cemetery.



  • The Resurrection. New American Library, 1966; Vintage Books, 1987, ISBN 978-0-394-73250-3
  • The Wreckage of Agathon. Harper & Row, 1970; Dutton, 1985, ISBN 978-0-525-48180-5
  • Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971, illustrated by Emil Antonucci, ISBN 0-679-72311-0
  • The Sunlight Dialogues. Knopf, 1972, ISBN 978-0-394-47144-0; reprint New Directions Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-8112-1670-5
  • Jason and Medeia. Knopf, 1973, ISBN 978-0-394-48317-7; Vintage Books, 1986, ISBN 978-0-394-74060-7 [epic narrative poem]
  • Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel, Knopf, 1973, ISBN 978-0-394-48883-7; reprint New Directions Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8112-1678-4
  • The King's Indian. Knopf, 1974, ISBN 978-0-394-49221-6; reissue Ballantine Books, 1983, ISBN 978-0-345-30372-1 [stories]
  • October Light, Knopf, 1976 ISBN 978-0-394-49912-3; reprint New Directions Publishing, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8112-1637-1
  • In the Suicide Mountains. Knopf, 1977, ISBN 978-0-394-41880-3
  • Vlemk the Box Painter. Lord John Press, 1979, ISBN 978-0-935716-02-3 [fairy tale]
  • Freddy's Book. Knopf, 1980, ISBN 978-0-394-50920-4; White Pine Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-893996-84-7
  • The Art of Living and Other Stories. Knopf, 1981; reprint, Vintage Books, 1989, ISBN 978-0-679-72350-9
  • Mickelsson's Ghosts. Knopf, 1982, ISBN 978-0-394-50468-1; reprint New Directions Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8112-1679-1
  • Stillness and Shadows. Knopf, 1986, ISBN 978-0-394-54402-1 [uncompleted novels]



Children's stories[edit]

Criticism and Instruction[edit]


  • The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet (1965)
  • The Alliterative Morte Arthure and Other Middle English Poems (1971)
  • Tengu Child (with Nobuko Tsukui) (1983)
  • Gilgamesh (with John Maier, Richard A. Henshaw) (1984)


  1. ^ Allan Chavkin, ed. (1990). Conversations with John Gardner. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 0-87805-422-7.
  2. ^ a b Gardner, John Champlin, Jr. Archived 2013-11-27 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "John C. Gardner Appreciation Page". Archived from the original on September 10, 2010.
  4. ^ "October Light by John Gardner". www.fictionawardwinners.com.
  5. ^ "The Art of Fiction No. 73". Paris Review. Vol. Spring 1979, no. 75. October 11, 1979.
  6. ^ Garner, Dwight (September 14, 2007). "John Gardner, Pugilist at Rest". ArtsBeat.
  7. ^ Vidal, Gore (1986) "Calvino's Death." From At Home.
  8. ^ a b "The Twenty - Five Things That Made Genesee County Famous: John Gardner". Archived from the original on March 3, 2009.
  9. ^ United Press International (15 September 1982), "John Gardner Killed on His Motorcycle", Schenectady Gazette, Oakland, Pennsylvania, p. 2, retrieved 2010-09-03
  10. ^ "Novelist Gardner dies in crash", The Milwaukee Journal, Binghamton, New York, Associated Press, pp. 1–8, September 15, 1982, retrieved 2010-11-09[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ Thornton, Susan (2000), On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner, New York: Da Capo Press

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]