Cover image for John Gardner : literary outlaw
John Gardner : literary outlaw
Silesky, Barry, 1949-
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Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, [2004]

Physical Description:
356 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
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PS3557.A712 Z85 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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For a decade--from 1973 to 1982--John Gardner was one of America's most famous writers and certainly its most flamboyantly opinionated. His 1973 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, was on the New York Times bestseller list for fourteen weeks. Once in the limelight, he picked public fights with his peers, John Barth, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer among them, and wrote five more bestsellers.

Gardner's personal life was as chaotic as his writing life was prolific. At twenty, he married his cousin Joan, and after a long marriage that was both passionate and violent, left her for Liz Rosenberg, a student. Only a few years later, he left Rosenberg for another student, Susan Thornton. Famous for disregarding his own safety, he rode his motorcycle at crazy speeds, incurred countless concussions, and once broke both of his arms. He survived what was diagnosed as terminal colon cancer only to resume his prodigious drinking and to die in a motorcycle accident at age forty-nine, a week before his third wedding.

Biographer Barry Silesky captures John Gardner's fabulously contradictory genius and his capacity to both dazzle and infuriate. He portrays Gardner as a man of unrestrained energy and blatant contempt for convention and also as a man whose charisma drew students and devoted followers wherever he went. Amazingly, Gardner published twenty-nine books in all, including eleven fiction titles, a book-length epic poem, six books of medieval criticism, and a major biography. Twenty-one years after his death, his On Moral Fiction and The Art Of Fiction are still read and debated in MFA programs across the country.

This is a full-scale biography of a writer who was, for ten years, almost bigger than life. It lives up to its subject magnificently.

Author Notes

Barry Silesky is the author of Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time, a biography of poet and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as two collections of poems and a book of "short shorts," One Thing That Can Save Us. Editor of the literary journal ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), he teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Reviews 5

Booklist Review

Wouldohn Gardner have been as driven a man --as prolific, innovative, and philosophical a writer, as controversial a literary critic, as hard-drinking and reckless --had he not felt responsible for the accidental childhood death of his younger brother? This is the touchstone of Silesky's groundbreaking portrait of the mercurial and brilliant Gardner, a book exceptional in its momentum, focus, and empathy. The biographer, too, of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Silesky follows Gardner from the New York State farm on which he learned the meaning of work, the solace of art, and the infinity of sorrow, to the various colleges at which he developed his love for classical mythology and honed his skills as a great translator and popularizer of medieval poetry, inspiring teacher, and powerful writer. Silesky dramatically and succinctly charts Gardner's turbulent marriage to his cousin; the writing of his resounding books, including Grendel, Nickel Mountain, and The Art of Fiction; and his legendary misadventures. For all his prodigiousness, Silesky reveals, Gardner was riven with guilt, hated to be alone, and routinely attracted physical injury, culminating in the motorcycle accident that claimed his life in 1982 before he even turned 50. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the 1960s and '70s, when literary authors had the widespread appeal of rock stars, John Gardner was the perfect icon of the era: a highly regarded novelist who partied hard and rode a motorcycle. Silesky's briskly paced biography follows the controversial author of The Sunlight Dialogues and other bestselling and critically acclaimed novels from his rural beginnings near Batavia, N.Y., to the motorcycle accident that killed him at the age of 49, days before his third wedding. In between, Gardner led an intense, active life, producing enormous amounts of fiction and medieval scholarship, writing librettos and children's books, and editing academic journals, all the while building a highly successful teaching career in which he mentored dozens of young writers. At the root of Gardner's frenetic race toward literary greatness was, according to Silesky (Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Times), a tragic childhood accident-his younger brother was killed by a 1,500-pound farm machine that John was driving-that left him with a deep sense of guilt and of his own mortality. In Silesky's book, the alcoholic, emotionally and physically reckless Gardner plows into his success at full speed and then summarily self-destructs. Drawing from Gardner's interviews, lectures and autobiographical fiction, as well as the testimony of friends and relatives, Silesky's account is well researched, though his dull, expository writing never delves deep. But Gardner's combination of genius and excess makes him a powerfully compelling character, and this book will pique renewed interest in his vast body of work. Agent, Nat Sobel. (Jan. 23) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

John Gardner's motorcycle death in 1982 silenced one of the most visible and vocal authors of the middle of the last century. Silesky's biography of this prominent American author tells of a man driven to recklessness and alcoholism after killing his younger brother in an accident on the family farm in rural New York. Gardner lived his life at full speed, writing 29 books (including 11 novels and six works of medieval criticism) and sparring publicly with his contemporaries, including Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer. His 1972 novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list. He died at the age of 49 just days before his third wedding. While Silesky (Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Times) fails to capture Gardner's charisma (or that of his times), this biography does bring to life a remarkable author who lived and wrote in an interesting era. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries.-Michele McGraw, Hennepin Cty. Lib., Edina, MN (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-From writing to drinking to preaching for moral art to his death at age 49 in a motorcycle accident, Gardner's life was nothing if not mythic. This fast-paced, highly readable biography draws a clear portrait of the writer as a human being. The book opens with the accidental death of his brother, Gilbert. According to Silesky, this tragedy became a source of pain that Gardner would always carry with him and one that would continually impact his fiction. After a brief detour into family background, the book traces the major points of its subject's artistic, critical, and academic life. It spends some time describing his major works, such as Grendel (Knopf, 1971), but these explications are simplified and may disappoint those looking for a more critical approach. They do, however, work well for general readers and will hopefully inspire some to search out Gardner's once-popular books. While Silesky obviously admires his subject's enormous drive and intense dedication to his art, he takes care to show how destructive this passion could be. He includes substantial quotations from family members, colleagues, and rivals, providing a balanced look at the man and his actions. He proves the real Gardner to be significantly more compelling than any myth.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is the first book-length biography of Gardner, which is curious since Gardner died 22 years ago. Perhaps this book will stimulate a reappreciation of this literary "outlaw." The life Silesky examines was a full one, though it ended in a motorcycle accident when the energetic Gardner was but 49 years old. The biography is replete with detail concerning Gardner's origins in rural Batavia, New York, especially the central incident of his childhood: the death of his younger brother in a farming accident for which Gardner blamed himself. The chronicle of Gardner's graduate studies, academic positions, and marriages--especially to his first wife (and cousin)--is remarkable and useful in understanding this mercurial artist-academic. Silesky reveals that Gardner survived serious illness, endured domestic upheaval related to his promiscuity, and produced an impressive if contentious body of fiction and serious criticism--all without making much money until his final years. Silesky includes useful descriptions of Gardner's connections with artists and academics. Copious notes on archival material allow for further research, and a complete bibliography rounds out this compelling and informed effort. Those taking or teaching literature courses involving Gardner will find in this biography much that contextualizes the life and therefore the work. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. All levels. D. L. Hadaller Dutchess Community College

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
Prologuep. 1
1 A Great Roarp. 7
2 Intimationsp. 19
3 West of New Yorkp. 38
4 A Whisper Behindp. 69
5 City on the Edgep. 98
6 A Different Farmp. 118
7 Rulesp. 145
8 The Epic Conversationp. 175
9 Illinois Talesp. 194
10 Old Benningtonp. 216
11 Moral Fictionp. 233
12 A New Housep. 253
13 Killing the Dragonp. 272
14 The Oldest Storyp. 297
15 The Last Tripp. 318
Selected Bibliographyp. 329
Indexp. 337