John Gardner (American writer)

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Not to be confused with John Gardner (British writer)
John Gardner
Gardner in 1977
Gardner in 1977
BornJohn Champlin Gardner Jr.
(1933-07-21)July 21, 1933
Batavia, New York
DiedSeptember 14, 1982(1982-09-14) (aged 49)
Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania
OccupationNovelist, essayist, literary critic, professor
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materWashington University in St. Louis,
University of Iowa
Notable worksThe Sunlight Dialogues, On Moral Fiction, Grendel
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 English at a local school. Both parents were fond of Shakespeare and often recited literature together. He 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, but received his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955. He received his M.A. (1956) and Ph.D. (1958) from the University of Iowa.[2] He was 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" the woman reads). This last book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976.[4]

Teaching and controversies[edit]

Gardner was a lifelong teacher of fiction writing. He was a favorite at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.[5] His two books on the craft of writing fiction—The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist—are considered classics[citation needed]. He was famously obsessive with his work, and acquired a reputation for advanced craft, smooth rhythms, and careful attention to the continuity of the fictive dream. His books nearly always touched on the redemptive power of art.

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 such luminaries of American fiction as John Updike and John Barth—which could be termed either direct, courageous, or unflattering, depending on one's perspective—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. What was seemingly lost in the furor over On Moral Fiction was Gardner's central thesis: that fiction should distinguish right from wrong.

Gore Vidal found the book, 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 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) and Binghamton University (1976-1982).[5]


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."[8]

He is the author of the famous saying : "There are only two plots in all literature : a person goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town".[9]

Health problems[edit]

On December 10, 1977, Gardner was hospitalized with colon cancer. He remained in Johns Hopkins Hospital for about a month and a half. He struggled with substance abuse (alcoholism and smoking) late in his life.

Family life[edit]

Gardner married Joan Louise Patterson on June 6, 1953; the marriage, which produced children, ended in divorce in 1980.[5] Gardner married poet and novelist Liz Rosenberg in 1980, but this marriage also ended in divorce in 1982.[2]


Gardner was killed in a motorcycle accident about two miles from his home in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, September 14, 1982. State Police said that at about 2:30 pm Gardner completed a curve on Route 92 about 3 mi (4.8 km) north of Oakland (41.986246, -75.601200). Passing the home of photographer John Wood, he lost control of his 1979 Harley-Davidson, went into the dirt shoulder, struck the guard rail, and was thrown from the motorcycle, suffering blunt force trauma to his body from his handlebars. He was pronounced dead at Barnes-Kasson Hospital in Susquehanna.[10][11] Gardner's fiancée, Susan Thornton, stated that Gardner had been drinking the night before the accident.[12] An autopsy revealed Gardner had a blood alcohol level of 0.075; the legal limit for driving at the time was 0.08.[12] Thornton also mentioned exhaustion from overwork as a contributing factor, and that the curve on Route 92 had been freshly-oiled gravel.[12]:267 The crash was four days before his planned marriage to Thornton.[12]: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]



  • Poems, Lord John Press, 1978

Children's stories[edit]

Criticism and Instruction[edit]

  • The Forms of Fiction (1962) (with Lennis Dunlap) Random House, anthology of short stories
  • The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle (1974)
  • The Poetry of Chaucer (1977)
  • On Moral Fiction, Basic Books, 1978, ISBN 978-0-465-05226-4
  • On Becoming a Novelist (1983)
  • The Art of Fiction (1983)


  • 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)

Essays and reviews[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  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 2010-09-10 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ October Light - Fiction Award Winners
  5. ^ a b c The Twenty - Five Things That Made Genesee County Famous: John Gardner Archived 2009-03-03 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ John Gardner, Pugilist at Rest
  7. ^ Vidal, Gore (1986) "Calvino's Death." From The Essential Gore Vidal.
  8. ^ John Gardner, The Art of Fiction No. 73
  9. ^ garson. "There Are Only Two Plots: (1) A Person Goes on a Journey (2) A Stranger Comes to Town | Quote Investigator". Retrieved 2017-01-30.
  10. ^ United Press International (15 September 1982), "John Gardner Killed on His Motorcycle", Schenectady Gazette, Oakland, Pennsylvania, p. 2, retrieved 2010-09-03
  11. ^ Associated Press (September 15, 1982), "Novelist Gardner dies in crash", The Milwaukee Journal, Binghamton, New York, pp. 1–8, retrieved 2010-11-09
  12. ^ a b c d Thornton, Susan. On Broken Glass: Loving and Losing John Gardner. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000, p. 282.

External links[edit]