John Irving was born on March 2, 1942, in the town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Irving never knew his father; his stepfather taught history at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Exeter. As the stepson of a faculty member, John grew up in and around the academy. Despite his dyslexia, he became an avid reader and writer, and also developed a great love of wrestling. After briefly attending the University of Pittsburgh, he studied at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna under the tutelage of the acclaimed German novelist Gunter Grass. He eventually returned to the US and graduated from the University of New Hampshire, following which Irving studied at the highly prestigious Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he was mentored by Kurt Vonnegut.
Irving became a teacher himself, working at Mount Holyoke College, but he continued to write, and began to publish novels in the late 1960s. Irving has always aspired to be a storyteller in the Dickensian sense, and his novels--frequently long, sprawling narratives featuring fantastical plots and memorable characters--are written for the intelligent general reader. In that sense, Irving's work lies somewhere between literary and popular fiction: he has not been widely accepted as an artistically important American writer, but his work is critically acclaimed and beloved by millions of people. His fourth novel, 1978's The World According to Garp, became a popular sensation--as well as a movie starring Robin Williams--and since then his novels have consistently become bestsellers. In addition to Garp, Irving has written Setting Free the Bears (1968), The Water-Method Man (1972), The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules, A Son of the Circus (1994), A Widow for One Year (1998), and the work widely considered to be his finest, 1989's A Prayer for Owen Meany. A symbolic and often comic study of religious doubt and faith, Owen Meany also featured Irving's dark reflections on American history from the 1960s to the late 1980s.
Though most of its events are fictional, the broad contour of Owen Meany's storyline conforms to the contour of Irving's life; it is probably his most autobiographical novel. The town in which the novel is set--Gravesend, New Hampshire--is modeled explicitly on Irving's childhood town of Exeter, and Gravesend Academy is simply a literary version of Phillips Exeter Academy. Like Irving, John Wheelwright grows up on Front Street, is the stepson of an academy history teacher, and does not know who his real father is. Like Irving, Wheelright is dyslexic, and attends the academy and the University of New Hampshire; like Irving, Wheelright becomes a teacher, and teaches at an all-girls school (Irving taught at Mount Holyoke College). At the time of the novel's narration, John lives in Toronto, where Irving now spends part of each year. Still, Owen Meany is hardly autobiography; though it features Irving's reflections on small-town life and on the events of American history during his lifetime, its central character, the miraculous Owen Meany, is entirely a product of Irving's imagination.
In addition to his career as a novelist, Irving has also written screenplay adaptations of several of his works. In 1999, he won an Academy Award for The Cider House Rules, which was made into a film starring Michael Caine. Irving's newest work, a novel entitled The Fourth Hand, will be published in the summer of 2001.
I think that Owen's being swaddled too tightly to move his arms in "The Little Lord Jesus" is another instance of the armlessness motif, especially considering the religious setting of the pageant.