John Gardner (1933-1982)

John Champlin Gardner was born in Batavia, New York, on July 21, 1933, to John Champlin, a dairy farmer and lay Presbyterian preacher, and Priscilla Gardner, an English teacher. A few months before his twelfth birthday, Gardner inadvertently killed his younger brother Gilbert in a gruesome accident, running him over with a heavy farm machine. The incident haunted Gardner for the rest of his life in the form of nightmares and flashbacks, and the deep psychological wound it caused inspired and informed much of Gardner’s work, particularly the posthumously published novel Stillness (1986).

In his youth, Gardner developed an interest in cartoons and comics, and that medium’s fantastic, over-the-top quality pervades his fiction. Gardner often uses grotesque, cartoonish imagery to distance readers emotionally from his characters, to avoid overly sentimental interpretations. An avid cartoonist and illustrator himself, Gardner insisted that all his novels written for the Knopf publishing firm be illustrated. Grendel (1971), for example, features the nearly abstract woodcuts of Emil Antonucci, which serve to enhance the novel’s surreal, fanciful tone.

Gardner graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955 and then attended the University of Iowa for graduate study. At Iowa he studied medieval literature and creative writing, eventually combining his two academic interests in his doctoral dissertation, a novel called The Old Men. Gardner accepted a teaching position at Oberlin College in Ohio directly after leaving Iowa and continued to teach at various universities for the rest of his life. He gained prominence as a teacher of creative writing, particularly at institutions such as the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.

Gardner was a prolific and mercurial writer, producing a remarkable thirty-five volumes in just twenty-five years. The breadth of his output is equally impressive: though most noted for his novels, Gardner also published poetry, plays, short stories, opera librettos, scholarly texts, and children’s picture books. Even his novels do not share a coherent, sustained style or tone: they vary from the highly stylized, densely allusive Grendel to more traditionally realist works such as Nickel Mountain (1973). Critical response to Gardner’s work was equally divided, and throughout his publishing career the release of a new Gardner work was an occasion for much critical debate. Grendel was, in fact, the first and only Gardner volume to receive near-unanimous critical acclaim, though three of his novels—The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain, and October Light (1976)—were popular bestsellers.

Gardner’s perhaps most vexing publication is his literary manifesto On Moral Fiction (1978), in which the author calls for art that uplifts and celebrates faith, decrying the mass of contemporary literature as too cynical and fatalistic. The book’s self-aggrandizing, moralistic tone enraged and inflamed the normally rarefied literary community, and it sparked a nationwide debate that was played out in the popular media. Reviewers attacked not only what they saw as smugness in Gardner, but also what they perceived as shoddy reasoning and messy scholarship. Perhaps the most damaging effect of the publication of On Moral Fiction, though, has been the subsequent tendency to read Gardner’s own philosophically provocative and complex novels through the straitlaced moral frameworks presented in the poorly received On Moral Fiction.

Gardner published several more works after the publicity disaster of On Moral Fiction, but, apart from Freddy’s Book (1980), none were particularly well received. Gardner died in a motorcycle accident near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, on September 14, 1982.

Read about whether it is accurate to call Gardner as a postmodern author.

Background on Grendel

Grendel, one of Gardner’s more stylistically and thematically postmodern novels, is an example of a metafiction—fiction about fiction. The plot and characters of the novel come from the 6th-century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a text that Gardner had been teaching at the university level for some time. Beowulf is a heroic epic chronicling the illustrious deeds of the great Geatish warrior Beowulf, who voyages across the sea to rid the Danes of a horrible monster, Grendel, who has been terrorizing their kingdom.

Gardner’s twist on the tale is his choice to narrate the story from the monster’s point of view, transforming a snarling, terrible beast into a lonely but intelligent outsider who bears a striking resemblance to his human adversaries. In his retelling of the Beowulf story, Gardner comments not only on the Anglo-Saxon civilization and moral code the original poem depicts, but also on the human condition more generally.