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Picture of John Gardner, poet (Jason and Medeia), short-story writer, critic (On Moral Fiction), and novelist (The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel, and others); twentieth century American Literature and poetry

September 14, 1982
John Gardner, Raymond Carver
John Gardner, Raymond Carver
by Steve King

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On this day in 1982 the novelist and scholar John Gardner died at the age of forty-nine in a motorcycle accident. Academically, Gardner was a medievalist, as is reflected in his first popular novel, Grendel (1971), which retells the Beowulf story from the point of view of the monster. Other novels include The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and the award-winning October Light, all set in upstate New York, where Gardner was born, or New England, where he did much of his teaching.

Among writers at least, Gardner is also much-remembered for On Moral Fiction, his denunciation of modern literature for having given up on the search for "life-giving" morality. This is a theme which the novels explore with more humor. October Light opens with the crotchety New England hero having just taken a shotgun to his television for its "hell made visible," Even the growly Grendel, a creature one part old bloodthirst and one part new doubt, can be funny. He knows there is more to life, and he spends time which is not occupied by kill-or-be-killed trying to puzzle it out. In this, he gets no help from mother, who shares his cave, smells, and is not Plato:
    She smells of wild pig and fish. "My mother smells of wild pig and fish," I say. What I see I inspire with usefulness, I think, trying to suck in breath, and all that I do not see is useless, void. I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. "Then I am not that which observes!" I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter! I listen to the underground river. I have never seen it.
Stories abound of Gardner as an inspiring and demanding teacher. Raymond Carver was one of his creative writing students; in an essay on literary and life influences in Fires, Carver wrote thankfully of Gardner "giving me the key to his office so I would have a place to write on weekends," or explaining "the difference between saying something like, for example, 'wing of a meadow lark' and 'meadow lark's wing,'" or "drumming at me the importance of using -- I don't know how else to say it -- common language, the language of normal discourse, the language we speak to each other in."

One thing Carver did not take away from Gardner's class is an interest in literary theory. Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, etc.) was in turn a student of Carver's, and he tells this amusing anecdote from Carver's classroom:
    One semester, a very earnest Ph.D. candidate found his way into this class, composed mainly of writers. At that time, the English department, like many around the country, had become a battleground between theorists and humanists, and post-structuralism lay heavy upon the campus. After a few weeks of Carver's free-ranging and impressionistic approach to literature, the young theorist registered a strong protest: ''This class is called Form and Theory of the Short Story but all we do is sit around and talk about the books. Where's the form and the theory?''

    Ray looked distressed. He nodded and pulled extra hard on his cigarette. ''Well, that's a good question,'' he said. After a long pause, he said, ''I guess I'd say that the point here is that we read good books and discuss them.... And then you form your own theory.'' Then he smiled.

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