Authors: John Nichols

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Sterile Cuckoo, 1965

The Wizard of Loneliness, 1966

The Milagro Beanfield War, 1974

The Magic Journey, 1978

A Ghost in the Music, 1979

The Nirvana Blues, 1981

American Blood, 1987

An Elegy for September, 1992

Conjugal Bliss: A Comedy of Martial Arts, 1994

The Voice of the Butterfly, 2001

Screenplays:

The Sterile Cuckoo, 1969 (adaptation of his novel; with Alvin Sargent)

Missing, 1981 (adaptation of Thomas Hauser’s book; with Constantin Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart)

The Milagro Beanfield War, 1988 (adaptation of his novel; with Robert Jones, Frank Pierson, and David S. Ward)

Nonfiction:

If Mountains Die: A New Mexico Memoir, 1979

The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, 1982

On the Mesa, 1986

A Fragile Beauty: John Nichols’ Milagro Country, 1987

The Sky’s the Limit: A Defense of the Earth, 1990

Keep It Simple: A Defense of the Earth, 1992

Armageddon and New Mexico: Writing for Fun and Profit in the Poorest State in America, 2000

Dancing on the Stones: Selected Essays, 2000

An American Child Supreme, 2001

Biography

John Treadwell Nichols is an accomplished novelist and essayist whose work shows a deep concern for progressive politics. A deeply committed Marxist, Nichols expresses in his writings a belief that the earth will not become ecologically sound until there is economic justice and equality.{$I[A]Nichols, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Nichols, John}{$I[tim]1940;Nichols, John}

Nichols grew up in a world of contradictions. His paternal ancestors were quintessentially American. They helped settle colonial New England, and one of his forebears, William Floyd, signed the Declaration of Independence. Nichols’s mother, Monique Le Braz, was French and a descendant of Anatole Le Braz, a renowned writer. Nichols’s father, David G. Nichols, was a naturalist and a liberal, yet he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and moved his family to segregated Virginia. Many of Nichols’s relatives were wealthy, but the author’s immediate family was of the middle class and had strong working-class sympathies.

In 1942 Nichols’s mother died of endocarditis while his father was fighting in the Solomon Islands. David Nichols remarried, and his son grew up in many states, including Florida, New York, California, and Connecticut. John Nichols attended Hamilton College near Utica, New York. After graduation, he lived for a year with his maternal grandmother in Spain, where he wrote his first novel, The Sterile Cuckoo.

Back in New York City, Nichols rented an apartment on West Broadway and worked on five novels at once, drew cartoons, and played folk music on Bleeker Street. His carefree existence was about to be radically transformed. In 1964, he sold his novel of young love, The Sterile Cuckoo, and traveled to Guatemala, where the violence and crushing poverty shocked him into becoming a Marxist. After the 1966 appearance of The Wizard of Loneliness, he turned to writing highly political novels that lacked artistic merit. As a result, he did not publish another book for eight years.

Meanwhile, Nichols plunged into the anti-Vietnam War effort, married, and started a family. In 1969, the same year in which the film version of The Sterile Cuckoo appeared, he settled in Taos, New Mexico, to escape the tensions and the high cost of New York City. There, Nichols’s conflict between writing and politics began to resolve in his articles for the New Mexico Review, an activist publication. Writing these articles taught Nichols how to balance style and politics and also inspired the composition of The Milagro Beanfield War, his most widely read novel. Depicting the struggle of a New Mexican village against a corrupt state government and big-money interests, The Milagro Beanfield War broke Nichols’s publishing dry spell. Appearing in 1974, the book led to the other two novels of the New Mexico trilogy: The Magic Journey and The Nirvana Blues.

In the mid-1980’s, Nichols wrote the script for the film version of The Milagro Beanfield War. Working on this project was not his first exposure to film writing, as he had collaborated on the screenplays of The Sterile Cuckoo and director Constantin Costa-Gavras’s Missing, a Cannes Festival award-winning film about an American father’s search for a son who vanishes during a Latin American coup.

Just before contributing to Missing, Nichols wrote If Mountains Die, a collaborative nonfiction project with photographer William Davis. The essay form became an important vehicle for Nichols, who went on to write The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, On the Mesa, A Fragile Beauty, The Sky’s the Limit, and Keep It Simple–all nonfiction. He also continued to publish novels, including A Ghost in the Music, American Blood, An Elegy for September, and Conjugal Bliss.

It seemed that Nichols had broken his publishing hiatus, despite the personal turmoil of two divorces and a troublesome heart condition. However, in 1994 he required open-heart surgery. Even though he did not give up writing in the wake of his recovery, publishers ignored his work for the following six years. His second dry spell finally ended in 2000, with two books of nonfiction: Armageddon and New Mexico and Dancing on the Stones. In 2001, two more books appeared–The Voice of the Butterfly, a novel about an aging radical’s efforts to save an obscure species of butterfly from highway construction work, and An American Child Supreme, a memoir.

While none of his books would achieve the popularity of The Milagro Beanfield War, critics regard his work as important to the development of regional, ethnic, and environmental literature as well as a rare example of North American Magical Realism. He is one of the few authors to emerge from the United States with a significant body of work with progressive political themes.

BibliographyNichols, John. “John Nichols.” Interview by Phyllis Thompson. In This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by John F. Crawford, William Balassi, and Annie O. Eysturoy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. This is one of the finest interviews available with Nichols, focusing on the inspiration and creative processes involved with the composing of American Blood.Nichols, John, and Patrick Baron. “Bibliography of John Nichols’ Work.” In An American Child Supreme, by John Nichols. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2001. An exhaustive bibliography of all of Nichols’s works to 2001, as well as interviews, articles, and reviews by other writers about Nichols’s life and work.Pfeil, Fred. “Down the Beanstalk.” The Nation, June 20, 1987, 857-860. Pfeil reviews the entire New Mexico trilogy as well as American Blood, giving an overall literary and political view of Nichols’s work.Shirley, Carl. “John Nichols.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: Yearbook 1982, edited by Richard Ziegfeld. Detroit: Gale, 1983. Shirley largely focuses on Nichols’s literary influences, with special attention to the New Mexico novels and Latin American Magical Realism.Slovic, Scott. “John Nichols: A Portrait.” In An American Child Supreme, by John Nichols. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2001. Slovic, a close friend of the author, combines personal experiences with a critical and biographical approach to Nichols’s entire literary career.Wild, Peter. John Nichols. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1986. A pamphlet exploring the author’s life and work. Examines the relationship between Nichols’s writings and the character and political issues of the American Southwest.
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