And, without further ado, I'll turn the blog over to Laura De Silva from Open Road:
“You’re flying to Rochester to collect materials from the archives of John Gardner," my boss informs me.
Frantic typing in Google ensues.
Like many of my twenty-something peers, I had never read John Gardner. Suddenly, I needed to learn everything about him.
Because I was born after a motorcycle accident cut short the author’s life in 1982, I’ve never read a review of Gardner’s latest work or attended one of his creative writing workshops with the likes of Raymond Carver. Since I had all my secondary and post-secondary education in the twenty-first century, Gardner simply was not on my literary radar; many of his titles were out of print in the years when I was discovering his contemporaries. It was, it turns out, my loss.
Through conversations with Gardner's archivists and his son, Joel (pictured at left), I quickly learned he was a writer’s writer and an academic of the first order. He was the sort of man who wrote the highly respected The Life and Times of Chaucer on the one hand, and the metafiction(!) title that won him a National Book Critics Circle award, October Light, on the other. A rebel to the core, he turned the literary community on its head when he criticized contemporary writers in On Moral Fiction for failing to live up to his claim that “true art is by its nature moral.” His novel The Sunlight Dialogues was called “a novel in the grand line of American fiction” by The Boston Globe. Big words.
He was the exact sort of writer—exciting, surprising, forever experimenting—I should have read.
Gardner’s archives reflect his unparalleled levels of eccentricity, creativity, and output. The John Gardner Papers in the Department of Rare Books/Special Collections at University of Rochester contain some ninety boxes of material ranging from a cleverly illustrated notebook of his high school poetry to Christmas cards from Joyce Carol Oates. They have notes from his lectures as a professor of medieval literaturefamily photographs from his childhood, and even his pipe. One folder contains an early typed and hand-edited draft of what would become “Redemption,” a semi-autobiographical short story addressing a horrible accident with a cultipacker that killed his brother when both were children. The initial title was “Escape he had crossed it out and renamed it “Acceptance” before settling on the title that eventually stuck. Entire theses have been written on authors’ writing processes with less information.
As I looked through and scanned treasures of Gardner’s life with the tireless folks who manage the archives, a larger picture began to emerge outside of his writing. I saw the day-to-day management of a literary magazine that required constant correspondence; the piles of bills, some overdue, that every writer dreads; and an invitation from Princeton to spend a semester teaching creative writing workshops in New Jersey (he never did; a Guggenheim Fellowship interceded). I saw sonnets written to his first wife, Joan; wedding photos with his second wife, Liz; and their divorce papers with a processing stamp dated after his death. I even came across a lock of his famously long, blond hair, cut in 1979 for a performance and preserved beneath plastic. Weird — but also a really interesting connection to the days when locks of hair were standard keepsakes. He was a medievalist, after all. (For a look at that crazy, long hair — check out his author video.)
Writers don’t write in a vacuum. All of this — the flattering, the challenging, the devastating, and even the downright odd — is a joy to explore explor. As readers, we wonder aboutthe author behind the novels. Seeing pictures of Gardner with his brother as a child and then reading “Redemption” makes it immeasurably more poignant. Knowing that Gardner was a consummate teacher of great writers allows us to look at the story-within-a-story structure of October Light in an entirely new, technical way. Maybe we finally pick up that copy of On Becoming a Novelist
The Gardner ebooks, for me, are no longer just a collection of texts that received good reviews in 1972. They’re more than an opportunity to increase literary street cred by reading an esoteric author. They’re the product of a man who took a controversial stand on the function of art — and put his money where his mouth was by publishing novels that reflected that stance. In a world where it takes us seconds to Tweet, it was refreshing to meet — through his papers and his family — a writer who truly believed in spending months on a single page. Read him, and you’ll see that it paid off.
Video and photos available at http://openroadmedia.com/author_gardner.html.
Images courtesy of John Gardner Papers, Department of Rare Books/Special Collections, University of Rochester.