Authors: John Irving

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


John Winslow Irving–born John Wallace Blunt, Jr.– has the rare distinction of having achieved both critical acclaim and huge commercial success. He sprang from relative obscurity to fame with The World According to Garp, which became a best-seller, received the American Book Award as the best paperback novel of 1979, and was made into a film, starring Robin Williams, in 1982. His next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was also a best-seller and adapted for the screen.{$I[AN]9810001350}{$I[A]Irving, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Irving, John}{$I[tim]1942;Irving, John}

John Irving

(Marion Ettlinger)

Irving was born to Frances Winslow Irving, and in 1961 he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy (the school became the model for the Steering School in The World According to Garp), where his stepfather, Colin F. N. Irving, was treasurer and instructor of Russian history. There he was a much better wrestler than he was a student; in fact, wrestling also became a recurrent metaphor in his writing. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna, Austria, before his graduation cum laude in 1965 from the University of New Hampshire. In 1967 he received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he studied with the novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Irving’s years as a bohemian student in Vienna, in 1963 and 1964, informed his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. Caged or trained bears are one of the strongest motifs in his fiction, a central image associated with primal nature, wildness, and the soul. In this darkly picaresque novel of the 1960’s, the popular ideal of freedom is expressed by a plot to set free all the animals in the Vienna Zoo, where a spectrum of primal human nature is suggested by the contrast between timid Rare Spectacled Bears and brutal Famous Asiatic Bears. Underlying this and all Irving’s novels is World War II, when the Prussian bear was released by Adolf Hitler.

In 1963, while taking a summer course in German at Harvard University, Irving met Shyla Leary, a student at Radcliffe and a painter who later became a professional photographer. In August of 1964 they were married in Greece, and they subsequently had two sons, Colin and Brendan. Family became the center of value in Irving’s vision. His comic novel The Water-Method Man is about a doctoral student in literature at the University of Iowa named Bogus, who loses his family through his own folly, then matures in part through a trip to Vienna, where he learns lessons in the dark realities of history and human nature–something that happens recurrently in Irving’s novels. In The 158-Pound Marriage the narrator, a novelist and university teacher, loses his family through an experiment in mate swapping. Two of the sexual foursome come from Vienna and three end up there, leaving the American narrator behind, ironically, as the least perceptive of the four. Throughout his fiction Irving shatters middle-class illusions of security with violence, pain, and sudden death, while affirming courage, stoical realism, moral responsibility (especially to children), and transcendence through imagination. The world is a dangerous place in his novels, especially at home.

With his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, Irving set free the bear of his own soul in a style that was baroque, agonized, and bravely comic. A response to American feminism of the 1970’s, it generated a mass cultural reaction characterized in the popular media as “Garpomania.” Irving suddenly became a huge success, a cultural hero, even a sex symbol (he was featured on the cover of Time magazine, August 31, 1981, as the handsome “Garp Creator”). The World According to Garp provoked extreme reactions that confirmed its vision of extreme conflict between the sexes. Some readers disliked the exaggeration and violence, others disapproved of the explicit sex, and many hated the satire of feminist excesses. T. S. Garp is not Irving, but the novel does reveal the author in its tones and form, transcending autobiography but deriving its passion and satirical inspiration from what is deeply personal. Irving is a feminist in his public life, and the novel is feminist in a humanistic spirit that is critical of intolerance and fanaticism. Garp’s mother becomes a celebrated feminist leader, while Garp, as a male, is made to feel like garp, or vomit. The first story Garp writes, “The Pension Grillparzer,” is an allegory of how feminism is affecting society, represented by the pension; the male soul is represented by a trained bear who dies of mortification in a zoo. Though uneven in quality, the novel has a loosely allegorical form of great complexity.

Irving’s next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, idealizes the family in the way of a fairy tale. After its publication Irving was separated from his wife. The Cider House Rules is an allegorical polemic on the subject of abortion, as Irving continues to wrestle with moral and psychological problems important to his generation. A Prayer for Owen Meany details the Christlike actions of the eponymous Owen, a character so tiny that he can be lifted with one hand. Owen’s efforts to keep his best friend, Johnny (also the narrator), from going to Vietnam point to the tragedy of that war and allow Irving room for philosophizing about an era.

In A Son of the Circus Irving tells the story of Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, a Canadian citizen and middle-aged orthopedic surgeon who periodically returns to Bombay to treat crippled children. In the tradition of his earlier efforts, this novel underscores the author’s enduring interest in exploring moral and psychological dilemmas. Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, published in Europe in 1993, assembles several of Irving’s short stories and periodical pieces, including “Almost in Iowa” and “Weary Kingdom.”

A Widow for One Year present three pivotal moments in the life of its protagonist, Ruth Cole. The first occurs when four-year-old Ruth finds her mother having sex with her writer father’s sixteen-year-old assistant, the second is in 1990 when Ruth is now a successful writer herself, but her love life is in shambles, and the third is in 1995, when she finally is able to love. The novel is not only another entry in Irving’s depictions of dysfunctional families but also a meditation on the writing life and its effects on those who follow it. The Fourth Hand is the story of a handsome, shallow television reporter, Patrick Wallingford, who loses his hand to a lion while covering a circus. A widow, Doris Clausen, offers her recently dead husband’s hand to be grafted on to his arm, in return for his fathering a child with her. From this absurdist start, Patrick spends the rest of the novel slowly becoming the kind of man whom Doris will love.

Irving’s detractors have charged that his fiction lacks the complexity and depth of Charles Dickens, his most comparable model, and that it is ordinary in style and often structurally faulty, contrived, and sentimental. For some academic critics Irving’s traditionalism, generosity of spirit, moral sense, and belief in character and plot seemed unimportant in a postmodernist period of literary history. Others argue that such works as The World According to Garp would outlast such criticism. Certainly the unusual characteristics of Irving’s novels are popular: emphatic storytelling, emotional power, likable characters, humor, wholesome sentiments, and hopeful endings.

BibliographyCampbell, Josie R. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Part of the Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers series, Campbell’s book covers Irving’s career through A Widow for One Year, showing both the popular and the literary sources and appeal of his novels.Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Part of the Twayne United States Authors series, this clearly written study of Irving’s fiction through The Cider House Rules emphasizes the mixture of popular and artistic appeal in the novels. The volume includes an annotated bibliography.Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Part of the Ungar Modern Literature series, this is a useful biographical and critical study of Irving’s career through The Hotel New Hampshire. It includes a chronology through 1982, a 1981 interview with Irving, and a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.Priestley, Michael. “Structure in the Worlds of John Irving.” Critique 23, no. 1 (1981): 82-96. Priestley analyzes the ways the novelist–and his characters–seek to impose order on their fictional worlds in Irving’s first four novels.Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A concise exposition of Irving’s work through A Prayer for Owen Meany, Reilly’s volume is part of a continuing series devoted to world literature and situates Irving’s work with regard to both British and continental traditions.Van Gelder, Lindsy. Review of A Widow for One Year, by John Irving. The Nation 127 (May 11, 1998): 52-55. A thoughtful feminist reading of Irving’s sole novel with a female protagonist, Van Gelder’s review ends on an unexpectedly positive, if still ironic, note.
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