John Gardner’s Tricksy Death and Tangled Legacy

From the cover of John Gardner’s Grendel.

I think it has given a few readers pleasure. And I suppose it may have depressed a few. I hope it does more good than harm.

—John Gardner, when asked what effect he thinks his writing has had on people, in conversation in The Paris Review, issue no. 75 (Spring 1979).

Two weeks before his third wedding, John Gardner, novelist and writing teacher, was drifting in a small boat on a lake in the middle of the night, despairing. He’d lost control of his personal life, his health, and his finances. Once made rich by his best sellers, he now owed five hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. Once a literary darling, he’d made himself an outcast. That night on the lake, he told his friend he was afraid he was going to die. And days later—thirty-five years ago to the day—he did. John Gardner was only forty-nine when his motorcycle crashed along the Susquehanna River in New York. 

Today, we’ve mostly forgotten about Gardner. But in the sixties and seventies, he was a star: a regular at Bread Loaf, and an advocate for a kind of mimesis he called “the vivid and continuous dream.” He taught writers such as Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver, and many others, many of whom went on to great success. He made himself into an icon of the postwar realist-fiction boom and of the nascent creative-writing industrial complex. And then, just as his career was reaching top speed, it tipped over. The wreckage, you can imagine, was fiery.

As a boy, John Gardner Jr., who everyone then called “Bud,” learned about the realities of death on his family farm: he ran over his six-year-old brother with a cultipacker and killed him. That accident shaped his life for decades to come. Viewed in this context, his middle-age preoccupation with death seems less prescient. It was a part of who he was and of who he became; today, it’s a part of how we remember him, along with our idea of him as a fierce protector of young writers, the mentor of up-and-coming talents, and the author of books like On Becoming a Novelist (still a standard textbook for many introductory creative-writing courses). Although it’s unclear whether he was diagnosed as such, he certainly seems to have suffered from some kind of depression, and, like many people who do, especially those who hide their suffering behind jam-packed schedules and professional accomplishments, or who paper over the pain they feel with jokes, drinks, and affairs, Gardner was a complex man.

John Gardner in 1979

Here is another reason we remember Gardner: for his bitter, public fights with other writers. Gardner locked horns with his contemporaries in a way that few writers ever dare. He called the fiction of Saul Bellow and Donald Barthelme “second rate.” He once humiliated John Barth by giving a negative interview about Barth’s writing in the Baltimore Sun. Barth, a diplomatic man, was so enraged by these incidents that he punched a vending machine. Gardner also feuded with John Updike, Norman Mailer, William Gass, and Joseph Heller, among others. Although many remember him as a thoughtful writer and friend, many also remember him as arrogant. If Gardner thought your writing was trash, he was going to say so to your face, and perhaps to other people’s faces.

Four years before his death, John Gardner committed his negative opinions of his contemporaries to print. Gardner’s On Moral Fiction argues for a moral, life-affirming view of fiction and aims to continue the conversation left off at the end of Leo Tolstoy’s late-in-life screed What is Art? (in which the Russian master denounces everything he’s written as not being true art). Gardner railed against his contemporaries, such as Updike and Thomas Pynchon, accusing them of a tricksiness that elided fiction’s eternal verities. Most contemporary literature, he claimed, was “either trivial or false.” On Moral Fiction’s tone was perceived as deeply conservative—so much so that the American Nazi Party sent Gardner an invitation for membership (he sent back an expletive-filled reply saying, in effect, fuck off). Gardner’s publisher, Knopf, refused to print the manuscript, but Basic Books eventually did. In an essay published fifteen years after his death, Gardner’s second wife, Liz Rosenberg wrote, “Nearly overnight, he turned from darling of the literary establishment to its pariah.” She says she thinks Gardner named names in On Moral Fiction to prove to himself he wasn’t afraid. “Perhaps,” she wrote, “he should have been.”

On Moral Fiction cemented Gardner’s celebrity, which had grown throughout the seventies, but it also made him enemies. His subsequent novels were treated to lukewarm reviews. “Never do anything cheap with the reader,” Gardner told his students. “Don’t kill a kid.” But his own death came in the midst of his life’s most crucial moments—days before his wedding, with the IRS at his door and his career under attack. Its neatness violated his own rules of fiction, and it left his legacy in limbo, unresolved. Today, Gardner no longer occupies the central space he once did. But his work still appears on the syllabus. Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf, remains in print, as do Mickelsson’s Ghosts and October Light. One may hope that he has found a better resting place in American literature—remembered as a hardworking teacher, a combative novelist, and a dedicated friend—than he had feared that night on the lake.

Ben Pfeiffer has written for Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Kansas City Star, among others. He’s also an editor-at-large and a contributor at The Rumpus. He lives in Kansas City, where he’s writing his first book.

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