Authors: John Gardner (1933-1982)

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and critic

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Resurrection, 1966

The Wreckage of Agathon, 1970

Grendel, 1971

The Sunlight Dialogues, 1972

Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel, 1973

October Light, 1976

In the Suicide Mountains, 1977

Freddy’s Book, 1980

Mickelsson’s Ghosts, 1982

“Stillness” and “Shadows,” 1986 (with Nicholas Delbanco)

Short Fiction:

The King’s Indian: Stories and Tales, 1974

The Art of Living, and Other Stories, 1981


The Temptation Game, pr. 1977 (radio play)

Death and the Maiden, pb. 1979

Frankenstein, pb. 1979 (libretto)

Rumpelstiltskin, pb. 1979 (libretto)

William Wilson, pb. 1979 (libretto)


Jason and Medeia, 1973

Poems, 1978


The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle, 1974

The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English, 1975

The Poetry of Chaucer, 1977

The Life and Times of Chaucer, 1977

On Moral Fiction, 1978

On Becoming a Novelist, 1983

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 1984

On Writers and Writing, 1994

Lies! Lies! Lies! A College Journal of John Gardner, 1999

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Dragon, Dragon, and Other Tales, 1975

Gudgekin the Thistle Girl, and Other Tales, 1976

A Child’s Bestiary, 1977

The King of the Hummingbirds, and Other Tales, 1977


Gilgamesh, 1984 (with John Maier)

Edited Texts:

The Forms of Fiction, 1962 (with Lennis Dunlap)

The Complete Works of the Gawain-Poet, 1965

Papers on the Art and Age of Geoffrey Chaucer, 1967 (with Nicholas Joost)

The Alliterative “Morte d’Arthure,” “The Owl and the Nightingale,” and Five Other Middle English Poems, 1971


John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was one of the most prolific and certainly one of the most protean and controversial major American writers of the postmodernist period. He was born in 1933 in the western New York town of Batavia, an area that was to play an important role in Gardner’s later fiction, both as setting and as source of the rural values to which he held throughout his life. Gardner possessed and propounded a particularly strong but by no means narrow-minded set of traditional values that owes much to the influence of his father, a dairy farmer, opera lover, and lay preacher, and his mother, a teacher of English. Even more important, however, was the part Gardner believed he had played in the death of his younger brother, Gilbert, in a farm accident that occurred when Gardner was twelve. Gilbert’s death left Gardner with a burden of guilt that he was never quite able to overcome but that he transformed into a narrative art quite unlike any other of its time.{$I[AN]9810001124}{$I[A]Gardner, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gardner, John}{$I[tim]1933;Gardner, John}

John Gardner

(©Joel Gardner)

First at Washington University, in St. Louis, and later as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, Gardner devoted himself to the twin pursuits that remained his lifelong preoccupations: the writing of fiction and the study of medieval literature. Until his death in 1982 Gardner managed to combine academic and nonacademic careers, settings, and characters with a degree of success that few other American “academic novelists” achieved.

His first published novel, The Resurrection, deals with the return of a dying professor of philosophy to his hometown of Batavia. Despite Gardner’s adroit handling of the novel’s shifting point of view and brilliant but understated mixing of realism and grotesquerie, The Resurrection attracted little attention. The Wreckage of Agathon fared better, thanks in large part to the appropriateness of Gardner’s story of law and order in ancient Sparta to the situation in the United States at the time of the Vietnam War. The third novel, Grendel, the Beowulf story told from the monster’s point of view, brought its author to national attention, and The Sunlight Dialogues became his first best-seller. These two works represent the diverse strains that make up the unity of Gardner’s distinctive narrative art: the one a brief, seemingly cynical, postmodern pastiche, the other an apparently affirmative, densely woven family saga in the tradition of William Faulkner and the nineteenth century realists. Appearances in Gardner are, however, often deceptive, particularly in matters of intent and technique. For all of its self-regarding existential angst and postmodern playfulness, Grendel turns out to be no less affirmative and no less intricately structured than The Sunlight Dialogues, a work whose realistic surface masks a host of nonrealistic (or postrealistic) techniques. The final effect is one in which realism and irrealism challenge each other in more or less dialogic fashion; the same holds true for all Gardner’s fiction.

Gardner’s chief strength and preoccupation, as well as the raison d’être of his essentially parodic narrative style, was to test traditional forms and values in order to discover their appropriateness and usefulness to life in the contemporary age. He strove to juxtapose divergent, even antagonistic forms, styles, viewpoints, belief systems, and values within individual works as well as between them. Grendel, for example, vacillates between Gardner’s desire to believe in the Shaper’s poetic vision of what may be and the existential Dragon’s more empirical and more cynical description of what is. In The Sunlight Dialogues police chief Fred Clumly’s law-and-order approach is pitted against the Sunlight Man’s magic and mayhem in a contest that can be decided only on the basis of hope and forgiveness; it is a conclusion that Gardner makes surprisingly convincing and unsentimental. The same pattern reappears in the works published in the mid-1970’s: the imposing of a modern narrator and sensibility on ancient materials in the “epic poem” Jason and Medeia; the updating of the pastoral mode in Nickel Mountain; the parodic variations on the themes and styles of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Franz Kafka, John Updike, and others in The King’s Indian; and the insertion of a parodic mass-market novel within the pages of October Light, Gardner’s bicentennial examination of values old and new, literary and cultural.

The plagiarism charge brought against one of the two Chaucer books Gardner published in 1977 and the appearance of On Moral Fiction, his indictment of the contemporary arts and criticism, brought Gardner into sudden disfavor. On Moral Fiction earned a number of approving notices from those who had been dismayed by the death of the traditional novel and the rise of the postmodern “text,” but it evoked far more rage from the avant-garde and its supporters. Whatever its virtues and vices, On Moral Fiction brought about a distinct change in the way Gardner’s fiction began to be read (and, some would say, the way the works were written). He was pegged as a moral absolutist, a writer of didactic fiction, and a narrative traditionalist, and his later works, Freddy’s Book, The Art of Living, and Other Stories, and Mickelsson’s Ghosts, elicited surprisingly hostile responses from both reviewers and critics, who often took the opportunity to denigrate the earlier works as well.

In 1977 Gardner underwent surgery for cancer of the colon. He recovered sufficiently to continue his prodigious output; at the time of his death in a motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, he was in the midst of many projects, and several books were published posthumously, including The Art of Fiction, a distillation of his experience as a writer and teacher of fiction. A complex vision informs Gardner’s novels and, to a lesser extent, his stories, books for children, poetry, and criticism.

BibliographyChavkin, Allan, ed. Conversations with John Gardner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Although the nineteen interviews collected here represent only a fraction of the number that the loquacious Gardner gave, they are among the most important and are nicely complemented by Chavkin’s analysis of the larger Gardner in his introduction.Cowart, David. Arches and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Like so many Gardner critics, Cowart is too willing to take Gardner at his (moral fiction) word. Cowart is, however, an intelligent and astute reader. He devotes separate chapters to The King’s Indian, the children’s stories, and The Art of Living and Other Stories.Fenlon, Katherine Feeney. “John Gardner’s ‘The Ravages of Spring’ as Re-creation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Summer, 1994): 481-487. Shows how Gardner re-creates Poe’s story and Americanizes its details, providing a comprehensive interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Argues that Gardner’s story, which compares dreaming to artistic creation, interprets what happens in Poe’s story as the construction of the art work.Henderson, Jeff. John Gardner: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Henderson provides a detailed and comprehensive analysis of The King’s Indian, The Art of Living and Other Stories, the tales for children, and Gardner’s last published story, “Julius Caesar and the Werewolf.” Henderson includes previously unpublished Gardner materials and excerpts from previously published studies.Henderson, Jeff, ed. Thor’s Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1985. Of the fifteen original essays collected here, two will be of special interest to students of the short fiction: John Howell’s excellent and groundbreaking essay on “Redemption” and Robert A. Morace’s overview of Gardner’s critical reception.Howell, John M. Understanding John Gardner. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Provides a thorough discussion of the history and criticism of Gardner.McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. McWilliams includes little biographical material and does not try to be at all comprehensive, yet he has an interesting and certainly original thesis: that Gardner’s fiction may be more fruitfully approached via Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism than via On Moral Fiction. Unfortunately, the chapters (on the novels and Jason and Medeia) tend to be rather introductory in approach and only rarely dialogical in focus.Morace, Robert A. John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984. Morace lists and annotates in detail all known speeches and interviews with Gardner and reviews and criticism of his work.Morace, Robert A., and Kathryn Van Spanckeren, eds. John Gardner: Critical Perspectives. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982. This first book devoted to criticism of Gardner’s work includes a discussion of “Vlemk the Box-Painter” (in Morace’s introduction), separate essays on The King’s Indian and the children’s stories, and Gardner’s afterword.Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984. In his chapters on The King’s Indian and The Art of Living and Other Stories, Morris, like David Cowart, stays within the framework that Gardner himself established; unlike Cowart, however, Morris contends that moral art is a process by which order is discovered, not (as Cowart believes) made.Winther, Per. The Art of John Gardner: Instruction and Exploration. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Explores the philosophy and technique of Gardner.Yardley, Jonathan. “The Moral of the Story.” The Washington Post, April 17, 1994, p. X3. A review of Gardner’s On Writers and Writing, a collection of his reviews and literary essays. Discusses Gardner’s controversial insistence on fiction that was moral and affirmative and his distaste for fiction that celebrated technique for its own sake or for the sake of the author’s personal amusement.
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