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In Memory of George Garrett


[clock] 1-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: May 27, 2008

George Garrett as a young professor.

Prolific author, screenwriter, professor, and beloved Charlottesville figure George Garrett died on Sunday at the age of 78. VQR owes a great debt to George for reasons known to us and, given George’s habit of quietly aiding others, surely many more reasons that are unknown to us. Though the onetime Virginia poet laureate was well known for his writing, he will may be remembered best for the hundreds or likely thousands of writers whose careers began under the tutelage and extraordinary generosity of Professor Garrett.

We’ve published more than our fair share of George’s work over the years, from “In the Briar Patch” in our Summer 1957 issue to “The Crossover Beard; or, the True Story of Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Among Other Things)” in our Winter 2005 issue, and a dozen more works in the five decade span between those two. As is appropriate to keep up with his generosity, we’ve published not one but two appreciations of George and his work, R.H.W. Dillard’s “George Garrett: An Appreciation” in the Summer 1999 issue and Casey Clabough’s “George Garrett’s South” in our Spring 2006 issue, the latter dedicated to the work, the former dedicated to the man.

The funeral will be on Saturday, June 7 at 11:00am, at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on University Ave. A larger memorial service is being planned for the fall.

If you would like to record a few words about how George Garrett affected your life, you are welcome to do so in the form of a comment here.

Update: the Washington Post, Richmond Times Dispatch, and New York Times have obituaries.

41 Comments

Ted Genoways's picture
Ted Genoways · 7 years ago
I was one of George Garrett’s students—one of the thousands. The only formal course I took from him (when I was an MFA candidate at UVA) was called “Forms of Narrative.” It was a great list of reading, looking at the way identical narratives were treated in different genres. So we looked at Guy Lee’s dutiful translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, then at David R. Slavitt’s wild, irreverent versions. We read William Harrison’s “Roller Ball Murder,” then Harrison’s own screenplay for the movie Rollerball. And so on. Anyway, the course basically consisted of George assigning the reading then showing up and telling us the full story behind those texts from his personal memories. It was amazing for the writers in the class to be privy to such literary gossip, but some of the undergrads were disgruntled. One day before class began, they huddled together enumerating their grievances to each other and plotting how they would present them to George. Most of all, they wanted the lectures to end; they wanted to be able to participate, to be heard. Jeb Livingood, who went on to edit a book of George’s uncollected writings but was then an MFA candidate in fiction, was sitting to my left, and I could see he was fuming as he listened to all this complaining over his shoulder. Just then, George arrived in class, and Jeb couldn’t take it anymore. He wheeled in his chair to face the young students. “Do you know who that is?” he asked but didn’t pause for answer. “That’s George Garrett. What makes you think anyone wants to listen to you?” I feel as chastened and humbled today as those students did a decade ago. George left a legacy of thousands of pages of remarkable writing and many thousands more by the students he trained and young writers he encouraged. In the face of all that, what I can I possibly say? Maybe just this enjoinder: read George’s work—listen to his voice—and you’ll be shocked, amazed, amused, and moved each time by what he has to tell you. I know I am.
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Brendan Galvin's picture
Brendan Galvin · 7 years ago
I first met George at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference back about 1975. We worked together for a week, but it took about two weeks for my ribs to stop aching from that one week’s laughter. He was a funny man, grand with sound effects. If he was a friend of yours, you always suspected that when something good happened in your writing life he was behind it–the awards, the solicitations of your work, etc., etc., and nine times out of ten you were right, though he’d never tell you, never admit it if you asked him. In this as in so many things he was a Christian gentleman, but no puritan. And he brought upright people together. It would be a long list of the friendships he started among his friends. “We shall not see his like again,” the Irish say. A truism, but in George’s case the truth.
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Allen Wier's picture
I met George in the summer of 1972 at a writing conference at Eastern Washington State. I was twenty-five and a grad student; George was forty-three. I’d won a contest to attend the conference as the assistant to one of the writers on the faculty. Being assigned to be George’s helper was one of the best breaks of my life. From the first day, George treated me not as an assistant but as an equal. In fact, over the thirty-six years of our friendship George has assisted me more than I ever assisted him. He had a talent for bringing together disparate yet like-minded folks, people he intuited would enjoy one another. Through George, I met some of my dearest pals. And no one was better company than George; no one made me laugh harder or think deeper. The occasions when I got to make road trips with him remain among my very best memories. The originality and the range of his literary art is astounding, and the poems, stories, essays, plays, scripts, novels and everything else he wrote will be treasured and studied by readers and writers for many years to come. In his work, of course, but also in my memories, George abides with me, and he always will. I count his friendship as one of my greatest blessings.
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Kelly Cherry's picture
Kelly Cherry · 7 years ago
I met George when I was twenty-one, a second-year graduate student in philosophy and pretty much scared of everything except philosophy. My friends Henry Taylor and R.H.W. Dillard were part of his crew, and he kindly took me on too. He talked to us about writing in general, about his own writing, about the lives of other contemporary writers, and about the literary life and publishing. When we said we were going to be writers, he took us at our word, although no one had yet dreamed up a writers’ workshop, except in Iowa, which we all knew could not possibly be a real place. He set us to writing rejection letters for a magazine for which he served as poetry editor. He thought up the idea of The Girl in the Black Raincoat, an anthology to which we were all invited to submit. (By the way, the original black raincoat was a trench coat my mother had found for me in a department store. She certainly never imagined it would end up in a book but was rather please to see it.) He was a jokester, a prankster, and an extraordinarily erudite, generous, and kind gentleman. His wonderful wife, Susan, the anchor in his life, tolerated all of us and encouraged us. I recently published an essay titled “The Achievement of George Garrett,” available at www.blackbird.vcu.edu. In it, I argue that George’s work is major and lasting. As legendary as his extraordinary generosity is–and should be–I don’t think it will overwhelm his written legacy. We too shall follow in his way to that unknown, undiscovered country, but his books–the astounding novels, the huge range of short stories, the subtle poems that only appear to be simple and direct–will endure as long as people read, by whatever technology. The passion and intelligence of these works will keep them alive.
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Kelly Cherry's picture
Kelly Cherry · 7 years ago
I should probably have noted that the year in which I first met George was 1962. He was a visiting professor in the English department.
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Susan Tyler Hitchcock's picture
That I was never officially a student of George Garrett, and yet learned so much from him, speaks to his generosity and pertinence as a teacher of writing. There was one semester many years back when I talked my way into his living room and sat there, an oddball yeoman nonfiction freelancer among MFA candidates with grander aspirations. When, a few years later, I collected up my list of nuggets of wisdom about writing for the sake of a bookstore talk, two at the top came from George Garrett: 1) invoke all five senses; and 2) your most important decision as a writer is the order in which you share information with the reader. I think of these every time I write. Thank you, George, for letting me pretend I was part of that privileged cadre of people who were your students.
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David Slavitt's picture
David Slavitt · 7 years ago
I have known George since 1958 or 59, and we have been close friends since then. We addressed each other as Maestro in letters. He was partly kidding, I think; I wasn’t. One could say all kinds of things about his writing and his humor, but what I shall most miss is his decency and generosity. He was a devout and believing Christian, and there aren’t many of them. It was a privilege to have known him. Our friendship was the great ornament of my life.
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Robert Bausch's picture
Robert Bausch · 7 years ago
George Garrett was the first “real” writer I ever met. I remember being disappointed that he was wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t look like a writer. I was 26, he was 42. He’d just published “Death of the Fox.” I was a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College, and my creative writing teacher there had George in to give a reading. I’d just gotten out of the military. I knew of George’s work before I met him. I read “Which Ones are the Enemy,” while I was on a funeral detail in the Air Force. Reading that book helped me keep my sanity. From that first meeting, he treated me like a writer. I’d never published anything. It didn’t matter to him. I never took a class with him; never was his student formally. But I went to school in his work. I read the work and learned my craft from that. I agree that his work will survive long after most of us have passed into what he liked to refer to as “oblivion.” He was a master and it will last and last. What I will miss is his wit; his ability to swell a story, his absolute love of all things deeply human; his scorn for pomposity and fakery; his awareness of and contempt for cultural, critical, historical, social and educational “norms” of any kind. His regard for indivduality and ready dismissal of the commonplace and routine. He was so many things to me: a younger brother, an older brother, a friend, a mishievous comrade, a father, an errant son, a mentor and wise teacher. And balancing all that in him, was the love and friendship of Susan; her quiet charm and massive intelligence gave us all, even George, hope in our most disturbing moods, conviviality in our successes and welcoming joy in all our various intrusions. I celebrate them both. I know in years to come, when I go back to George’s work, that the world will somehow feel less diminished and small; he will be there. Maybe not the devilish grin, but I won’t soon forget that.
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Richard Bausch's picture
Richard Bausch · 7 years ago
I need a book. We all do, to describe this lovely man, this soul. I spent much of the nineties traveling with him–when people would call or write and ask me to come do a residency or a reading, I would say “I’ll split the honorarium, and bring George Garrett with me. Would that be all right?” The answer was always: “You can get George Garrett?” He took to doing the same thing, and I know people to him, “Sure, if you want to do that, George.” It was always clear who was the headliner in our duo–I was so proud to be his opening act. We called it “The Money Losing Author’s Tour.” There were trips to Florida, Seaside and Miami (a twenty-six hour train ride, to and fro), and to East Texas (four stops), North and South Carolina, and Sweetbriar, Virginia, and Atlanta, and Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, (at least four times), and Alabama, and the road trip back from Tuscaloosa, and all the rides up to Wesleyan in Connecticut, and New York (at least five times to New York), and of course the times in Chattanooga, with the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Each time we’d head out, carrying bags to put in the trunk of the car, Susan would say from the door: “Two words, guys. Be-have.” We’d laugh. And oh, all the talk, and the laughter and the serious rambling, too. I learned more from those times than in my whole college career. There are too many stories from those great years to tell here. But of course I will be telling them. The one I’ll tell here, though, involves my daughter Emily. She and I and George were flying to New York on a little prop plane–a sixteen seater. One of those kind with a row of single seats on one side of the aisle, and a row of two seats on the other side. George was in the aisle seat across from me, and two seats up; Emily, eighteen at the time, was in the window seat next to him. That plane pitched and bucked and actually turned sideways and dipped in the wind, and dropped altitude and gained it back and it was the roughest flight I’ve ever been on, and George and Emily were in an enthusiastic and animated discussion about the great torch singers and Chet Baker and Ella, and Nat King Cole’s piano trio, and Billy Holiday and Mel Torme, through the whole flight they talked, with George leading the way, really rattling at the girl. I sat on the other side of the aisle and went through the nasty little business of seeing the plane go down, and imagining what it was going to be like when we exploded on impact. I couldn’t believe Emily wasn’t as frightened as I was. Well, she was. But she didn’t have time to dwell on it because George was talking, talking, telling her things about these people she had been listening to, that she hadn’t known. And when we landed, George took a breath and confessed that it was the scariest flight he’d ever been on, and we laughed about it, and it took me a bit longer than Emily to see that he had perceived her fear and kindly went past his own to talk her out of hers, to distract her. It’s one of Emily’s favorite memories of him. I used to say that George Garrett drove all my neuroses back into the dark little corners–that there was no way to become prey to anxiety when I was with him, because there was always the next thing to be interested in. It was like that. He made interest, saw things no one else saw, and everything shone forth more brightly when you were with him. It’s that way in the work, too. I remember Glenway Wescott’s words to the critical establishment (I think it was him) upon the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Gentleman, there’s a time for taking one’s hat off, and I think you ought to start taking yours off now…” The work needs no apologist. We are now all going to have to get used to this world without him in it. I like it that painful increment less. Except that he wouldn’t want that, and I know it. I wanted to say to him, “Damn–but didn’t we have a party, my dear pal.” Instead I just blubbered and said I loved him. I said I wanted to make one more road trip. We need a book.
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Tom Hawkins's picture
Tom Hawkins · 7 years ago
I am very sorry to hear about George Garrett’s passing. He certainly left his mark and his expansive cohort of students and other young writers who he mentored and supported over the years. He was the editor who got my poem “His Own Shadow Turns the Frightened Horse” into the anthology Intro 6 in the 70s. He propelled people with his shear enthusiasm and warmth, but he also had a wonderful sardonic wit. Unlike so many writers, he seemed to thoroughly enjoy life; he had a gift for that. A poet mentor and friend of mine, R.P. Dickey, was an ardent and combative proponent of George. George done good.
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harry antrim's picture
harry antrim · 7 years ago
As Richard Bausch says, it would take a book. In the summer of 1965 I moved into the office at UVa which had been the province of Garrett, Dillard, and company and that began a friendship which, in many ways, shaped my life over the last forty some years. In visits both long and short, George’s wit and Susan’s grace were an invariable source of renewal, both of the mind and the spirit. The people he taught and befriended are legion and not one of them will ever forget his kindness and his selflessness. He will be greatly missed but he will be remembered with a peculiar kind of recollection; as I write this I am aware that I am smiling. Just thinking back on this or that moment in his presence is enough to elict that smile and I know he would like that. Thank you, George
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DeWitt Henry's picture
Is it Caesar that says after Antony’s death, “The breaking of so great a thing should make A greater crack”? Here I’ve just learned of George’s passing, and only by accident of exploring this blog. He has been my model for the literary life. He was instrumental in building Ploughshares, not only in guest-editing issues (one on Southern Writing, one on Fiction Discoveries, featuring such writers as Christopher Tilghman and Edward Jones), but in advising me throughout my years as director. I have my own hundreds of pages of letters written long-hand on yellow notepad paper. He would insist on paying for copies of Ploughshares and sending them to friends and potential contributors. In addition to my role as editor, he believed in my fiction, and encouraged me when New York editors did not. Finally, years after I had finished and repeatedly revised my novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, he awarded it the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize, an indelible honor that saved my writing life. He also supported my academic career, as he did for many others. I was sorry to miss the Garrett celebration in Knoxville a few years past. And my last contact with him was in the form of his recommendation for a colleague. The best thanks for such example is to strive to pass it on.
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Michael Mewshaw's picture
Michael Mewshaw · 7 years ago
Arriving in Charlottesville in autumn of 1965, I didn’t bother checking into the graduate dorm or stopping at the admissions office to collect my stipend. None of that mattered unless I got into George Garrett’s creative writing seminar. According to the course catalogue, advance permission of the instructor was required. So with a wad of manuscripts in hand, I tracked him down at the English faculty lounge. On that sweltering September afternoon, the place swarmed with professors engaged in enterprises that have since become anachronistic. They smoked; the room reeked of cigarette, cigar and pipe tobacco. There was another smell: the sweet scent of mimeograph ink empurpled the air, just as it empurpled the pages of class schedules that were run off on a clattering machine. With not a woman among them, the profs joked and razzed one another like frat boys in a locker room. Yet despite the heat and the horseplay, they wore coats and ties, as did all the students at Mr. Jefferson’s academical village. This scene, summoned up from memory, has for me the peculiar fixity of a cave painting. None of it could happen today. Short and stocky, dressed in a seersucker suit, George Garrett stood at the center of a small crowd’s rapt attention. I can’t recall what he was talking about. Specific subject matter seldom meant much when George held forth. His success as a raconteur depended on a raucous style reminiscent of the comedian Don Rickles. He mugged, he furrowed his high forehead into a ladder of quizzical wrinkles, he punctuated his sentences with histrionic hand gestures, he did different voices, acted out opposing points of view and delivered his punch lines with explosions of laughter. I prefer to believe I waited for George to finish. I want to think I didn’t interrupt. But considering how self-absorbed and glistening with need I was back then, it’s quite possible I broke in. “About this writing seminar of yours, how do I sign up?” Garrett responded with a broad grin. “You’re in. Just gimme your name.” Shaking back his sleeve, he signed a permission slip and told me to present it to the registrar. “See you in class,” he added and swung back to his audience. Feeling let down, I left Cabell Hall and walked across the Lawn toward the Rotunda. I had expected there to be more to it – a test, an interview, a baroque selection process. Given the ease with which I got into his seminar and the off-handed way Garrett dealt with my feverish aspirations, how could the course, how could the whole long delayed encounter with a writer, be worthwhile? Following a brick path beside a Serpentine Wall, I strolled to the West Ranges and peered into Edgar Allen Poe’s room. It looked as stark and forbidding as my jail cell on Tortola. I wouldn’t have wanted to be stuck here any more than I had there. Come to think of it, Poe, too, had gone over the wall after a semester and dropped out of UVA. For somebody in my frame of mind, this seemed to suggest that prompt departure from Charlottesville was the wisest course of action. By the next day there rang in my ears a noise as shrill as a burglar alarm. I feared if I didn’t make a break right now, I’d be trapped. Better, I reasoned, to join the army and take my chances of dying in Vietnam than poke along in this dull burg. But before I made my getaway, I dropped in on George Garrett to tell him goodbye. And, oh yes, to ask a favor. Would he please read a sample of my work and say whether he saw the slightest chance of my becoming a writer? Garrett’s office was smaller, but brighter and more welcoming than Edgar Allen Poe’s cell. Taped to the wall above his desk was a headline clipped from a tabloid. “Life with Kim Novak is Hell.” He had his coat off, his shirtsleeves rolled, and his tie at half-mast. Though he maintained an air of imperturbable cheeriness, he could not have been pleased to see me, or any student for that matter, dogging him so early in the semester. I was a writing teacher’s worst nightmare, the kind of nincompoop who demands time and attention, and believes that by off-loading his problems and passing along reams of bad prose, he has reciprocated a kindness. When I told him I was dropping out, Garrett replied that he was sorry. When I added that I “simply” wanted him to say whether I could become a writer, he said, “Of course you can. That’s the thing about writing. All you need is paper and a pencil. Nobody can stop you.” “I mean a published writer.” The furrowed ladder climbed his forehead. He smoothed it with the palm of his hand and pushed back his sparse hair. “That’s a different question. No matter what I tell you, it’s just as opinion. And you know the old saying. There are only two things everybody has – an asshole and an opinion.” “Your opinion is good enough for me. You see, I’ve never met a writer before. I’d like you to read my work and tell me whether I’m bullshitting myself.” Sliding open the bottom drawer of the desk, he propped his loafers on it and leaned back in a swivel chair. “Do you feel like you’re bullshitting yourself when you’re writing?” “No. But afterward I wonder.” “Everybody wonders afterward. The key is whether you feel like a bullshitter while you’re doing it. This isn’t a science, you know. I might think your work is terrific. I might think it’s terrible. Either way, so what? If you want to be a writer, nothing I say should stop you.” “But it might help me.” He picked up the manila folder of pages I had laid on his desk. He didn’t open the folder. He appeared to be weighing it. Then he set it down gently. “Why are you quitting before you’ve even started classes?” “I’m tired of school. If I could take your course and nothing else, I’d do it.” “Fine. Register part time.” “I can’t afford to stay without a fellowship. And to keep it, I have to be registered full time.” “Wait a minute.” He sat up straight. “You’re here on a fellowship? A free ride and you’re throwing it away? For someone who wants to be a novelist, that’s nuts. Why not live off the University’s money, stroll through your classes and concentrate on writing until they catch on and throw you out?” Garrett, I was beginning to gather, had the sort of iconoclastic cunning that regenerated itself and galvanized others. With balletic hand flourishes and bold body language, he dispensed advice in the same ebullient fashion as he confided a secret or recounted gossip or told a joke. We’re in this together, he appeared to be saying, just the two of us, a couple of writers forced by circumstances to figure the odds and find the best way to finagle some free time. As he talked, he shook a cigarette from a pack of Kools and lit up with a match from a box that carried the logo of the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. For Proust, the taste of a petite Madeleine dunked in an infusion of tea unleashed a tsunami of memory and emotion. For me, the sight of that matchbox served the same purpose. Suddenly, Garrett found himself the repository of a sad tale that I told at lachrymose length about the girl I loved who got knocked up by another guy. She moved to California and lived on North Harper Street, across Sunset Boulevard from the Chateau Marmont. I followed her there, ostensibly to help her out of a terrible jam, in reality on the off-chance that she would change her mind about me. She did change it, several times. After some discussion, she rejected my suggestion that we get married and raise the baby as our own. Abortion was then illegal, and I’m Catholic, and neither of us felt comfortable dealing with a back alley doctor. So we settled on an improvised solution. We lived together for six months. Then she gave the baby up for adoption and dumped me. Which was part of what sent me spiraling off to the islands and Mexico, taking jobs and quitting them, planning to write but never getting around to it. Hands clasped behind his head, Garrett listened and said little, only nodded and murmured an occasional sympathetic sound. As I achieved full narrative flight, he closed the office door, unlocked a file cabinet and produced a bottle of Schmirnoff vodka. He uncapped it, drank a healthy belt and passed the bottle to me. Shutting up just long enough to chug a swig, I let the cold fire sizzle through my chest. Then I resumed talking until there was no more to tell. “Know what I think?” Garrett said, sipping the Schmirnoff. “I think you’ve got the makings of a novel there. I think you should sit tight until things stop spinning, then you should write it.” “You really think so?” I asked, eager to be convinced. “I sure do. And I look forward to reading it.” He gestured to my folder of stories. “I could read these, of course, but I’d rather wait for your best, your latest stuff. See you in class.” Set down in cold type these words may not sound earthshaking or life-altering, but they had rippling consequences that carried on for years. Such was my shaky footing in the world and my susceptibility to advice from a literary source, I stayed on in Charlottesville and completed an MA and a Ph.D. I met the woman I would marry. I wrote a couple of novels. And not coincidentally I received some much needed help from the mental health clinic at the UVA Medical School. None of this would have happened had George Garrett not convinced me that I would never go anywhere until I stopped spinning my wheels and stayed in one place for awhile. ***** His seminar, it’s no insult to say, was of secondary importance. His books, his personal behavior – a heartening example of how an author might negotiate a career in a world that was largely ignorant of, or oblivious to, literature – and his friendship mattered far more to me. When he chose to, George Garrett could play the conventional pedagogue. His lecture on Nathaniel West and his exegesis of unreliable narration in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood were among my most memorable moments in graduate school. But in general, he wore his learning lightly and disguised whatever disappointments he had suffered in life. Although he could be caustic, if wildly amusing, about other writers, he was no less severe with himself nor less likely to laugh at his own expense. Even at their most hilarious, however, his anecdotes had a subtext of seriousness and, at times, sadness. For all his anecdotal genius, George rarely mentioned his own books. He certainly never bragged about them nor did he, as many authors do, pepper his conversation with chronological references pegged to the titles of his publications and the dates of awards and prizes. With his trilogy of historical novels – Death of the Fox, The Succession and Entered from the Sun – it became apparent that few Renaissance scholars who could match his knowledge of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Elizabethan language, courtly love and doss-house ribaldry. Yet George continued to make no great claims for himself. Instead he expended megatons of energy and hundreds of hours encouraging generations of students, touting the work of his contemporaries, and helping to arrange introductions to editors and agents. Decades later, his maxims still remain in my mind. Nothing is ever lost, he used to say of material that had to be deleted from one manuscript but might come in handy for another. That thought always consoled me – the notion that rough first drafts could be set aside and salvaged by revision, that even the worst mistakes need never be permanent. Garrett had played football at Princeton and boxed in the Army, and he often salted his conversation with analogies to sport. About prizefighters, he contended that while rage and a desire for revenge against life’s unfairness were what brought them to the Sweet Science, they had to learn to forget, or at least harness, these feelings if they wanted to become boxers. Anybody who entered the ring angry was likely to get knocked flat; a man who lost his temper usually lost the fight. It was reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s observation that poets had a tradition, not a personality, to express. If they hoped to become writers, people had to sublimate their private demons in the service of craft. This bit of wisdom struck a resonant chord in me, and I recognized that if I continued to cut loose with the raw hurt feelings I had hoarded up, they would curdle the most sympathetic reader’s interest. At Garrett’s urging, I returned to the story I had blithered about that day in his office, and George allowed as how the novel I produced wasn’t half bad. He praised the Caribbean setting and said the scenes of skin diving and descriptions of weather and landscape reminded him of James Jones’s Go to the Widowmaker. But he suggested that I detach myself even further from autobiographical events and the significance I had imposed upon them. After a cooling off period perhaps I should recast this plot about a sensitive boy betrayed in love into a comedy about youthful self-delusion. This was a polite way of reminding me that if I intended to take writing seriously, I needed to start taking myself much less seriously. * * * Although Garrett insisted that nobody could make anyone into a writer – you had to do that for yourself – he did once turn me into Robie McCauley. This was more in the nature of a necessity than another of George’s high jinks. Having organized a televised colloquium on the future of fiction, he discovered that a featured speaker had gone missing. Robie McCauley, long-time editor of the staid Kenyon Review and the newly appointed fiction editor at Playboy, didn’t show up. Rather than cancel the program and lose rare publicity for the cause of literature, Garrett led me on camera as a substitute. Or to be precise, an impostor. The TV moderator, a middle-age matron with a smile as lacquered as her hair, appeared not to notice anything anomalous about a 23 year old boy passing himself off as Hugh Hefner’s latest hireling. Buoyed by success, I remained in role and attended a reception later that evening wearing a bogus name tag. An old scowling man accosted me at the punch bowl. He leaned close, squinting at my face, then at my tag. In his right ear he wore a hearing aid with a thick pink wire that wormed down his neck and under his shirt collar. In confusion, he fiddled at the controls to this device as if to bring me into sharp focus by adjusting the sound level. As he groped, I noted his name tag – Malcolm Cowley, august man of letters, author of Exile’s Return and Second Flowering. He had known Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. He knew everybody – and now he knew me as a charlatan. “You’re not Robie McCauley,” he roared. I attempted to mumble an explanation, but Cowley didn’t buy it. “You’re not Robie McCauley,” he repeated, so loud he silenced the room. George rushed over to my rescue. I presume he managed to calm the irate Malcolm Cowley. I didn’t wait around to watch. In ignominious retreat, I fled the reception, feeling for the first time, though not the last, the scourge of being unmasked as not the writer I wanted to be.
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Thomas McGonigle's picture
Thomas McGonigle · 7 years ago
George Garrett taught me a most terrible and important lesson. I went to Hollins College in September 1969 because Chad Walsh recommended me to George. By February of 1970 I did not know what to do except to continue writing. We were sitting in George’s office and he suggested that I should go to Columbia. Two years in New York City. I agreed and he called Frank MacShane then head of the graduate writing program. After a few minutes of talk George got off the phone and said, “You’ve been accepted, now fill out the application and tell them how much money you want.” I went to Columbia for two years. I published two little stories in The Village Voice—Goodbye W.H. Auden and A Son’s Father’s Day— and could not be bothered to re-type my writings on the special paper that Columbia demanded for the MFA degree. So now I had learned in America what I had learned really and not theoretically in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria: it is all a matter of connections.
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Kathryn Lang's picture
Kathryn Lang · 7 years ago
My colleagues and I at SMU Press in Dallas will greatly miss George Garrett. We’ll never forget his kindness in supporting emerging writers: he tirelessly read new manuscripts for us and always remarked on their strengths. His were always encouraging critiques, never negative in tenor, even when he couldn’t recommend that we publish the work. He was always ready to write wonderful blurbs for authors whose manuscripts he admired–both for new writers and for previously published, midlist writers whose work was not being taken by the New York houses. He was, in addition to a careful and positive outside evaluator of manuscripts for us, always a source of promising new work from the many prospective authors in his wide circle of acquaintance. He sent many fine projects our way, including Susan Garrett’s wonderful memoir QUICK EYED LOVE, which remains a shining light on our small creative nonfiction list. We also have the honor of having published two distinguished collections of works of his, THE OLD ARMY GAME and BAD MAN BLUES. Though I was at first a little in awe of him, timorous about making suggestions and editing his pages, George was a dream to work with. I remember being apprehensive about asking him to exchange one scatological term for another in one of the pieces in BAD MAN BLUES, only to have him chuckle and make the change with alacrity. We will all miss his barely decipherable scrawling missives on yellow legal paper, his courtly Southern demeanor, the twinkle in his eye as he told a story, his self-effacing modesty, and his generosity of spirit. Kathryn Lang
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Carrie Brown's picture
Carrie Brown · 7 years ago
I’ve never known anyone who was so aware of the potential for darkness and sadness in the human experience and yet who had so much faith in – and took so much pleasure from – human beings themselves. That was the secret of George’s gifts as an artist and as a person, I think. His ability to contain both kinds of knowledge seems to me an act of courage and intelligence, as well as great heart. He was a famous raconteur, of course – you couldn’t spend thirty seconds with him without him telling you a story – but he was also a gifted listener. Those gifts of listening and talking were at the heart of him, his sense of the division within us – for good and ill – evidence of his wisdom. I love his poem “Luck’s Shining Child” with its acknowledgment of the “sleek companion” and the “wild prodigal” within each of us. I guess that all of us who were privileged to sit in his living room for the workshops at UVA will remember George, his back to fireplace, listening. He listened more than he spoke, a practice I try – and fail – to emulate in my own classrooms. I was elated and terrified to find myself there that first day; we seemed like the first group of people ever to embark on the terrifying course of becoming writers, though of course there had been hundreds of students by then. But George never seemed weary of it. Or if he was – and he must have been, from time to time – he never revealed a moment’s weariness or impatience with us. I’ll remember it my whole life – the books on his shelves, the late afternoon light coming in the window of his enchanting (enchanted) stone house, the wine and cheese laid out on the dining room table, George’s gentleness, his patience, his humor, his kindness, his discretion, his pleasure and surprise in the students’ work. I’ll remember Susan’s discreet appearance early in the evening as she came home from work and began to cook supper for the two of them, the smell of garlic coming from the kitchen. I’ll remember her cordiality, her graciousness, week after week, year after year, as she said goodnight to the waves of excitable students bobbing up and down on a high emotional pitch, and saw us all out the door into the darkness. I’ll remember George standing in the lighted doorway, saying goodnight. How did he do it? How did he do everything? How did he do so much, have so many friends, remember so many funny anecdotes? How did he write so many stories, so many novels, so many poems, teach so many classes, give so many readings, make so many phone calls and write so many letters and essays and reviews, perform so many good, generous works on behalf of his students? Where did it all come from? Sometimes, during the break in the middle of the workshop, I glanced up the stairs from George’s dining room, where we milled around the table eating and drinking, to his study, the place where all that work took place. I knew it was a mystery and a miracle, the business of being an artist. It was mystery and a miracle, and George, I knew, was at the beating heart of it, was commanding it, channeling it somehow, and he was doing it with triumphant goodness and kindness. “Weren’t we lucky to know him?” Lisa Russ Spaar wrote to me after George’s death. Yes, we were.
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Carol Poster's picture
Carol Poster · 7 years ago
Vir bonus dicendi peritus.
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Betsy Talbott's picture
Betsy Talbott · 7 years ago
I grew up hearing boxing stories about George Garrett from my dad, with whom George attended Princeton. Then I had the pleasure of meeting him and Susan in the mid 80s in Charlottesville, and was kind of adopted by them (they made me feel that way). They invited me to swim in their pool and to hang out a bit over the years, and I took them up on it. I also read Death of The Fox, and many of George’s short stories. Like the rest of you, I remember so many of his stories and how hard he made one laugh…remember the encounter with Harold Bloom & the sorrows of FAT City? I am blessed to have known the Garretts, and only wish I could have seen them in recent years. Dad, here’s a toast to another pal from the class of ‘52.
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Jane Bernstein's picture
I met George in 1976 when I was beginning my last year of the MFA program at Columbia. I don’t remember George ever saying that what I wrote was good or that he liked my work, but I could feel his support, when I was still a student, and a short time later, when my first book was published, and he invited me into the community of writers he nurtured or knew in other ways. He sent my book to other writers and had their books sent to me; he arranged for me to give readings, have his newest work to me, and invited me to his house in York Harbor, where I was fortunate enough to spend time with both George and Susan. Except for the visit to his house, I don’t remember any of this ever being discussed. This was just something he did. When I was looking for teaching positions, I asked George if he would write a letter of recommendation. Much later, I learned he did much more than simply write a letter on my behalf. In the 1990s, when AWP was in Norfolk, VA, I saw there was going to be a tribute to George, so I went to the meeting. I had the notion that I might be able to explain that I was awkward in ways that were not so readily apparent and for this reason had never really said how much it had meant to have him as a mentor and a supporter. The room was packed with people wanting to say the same thing, so I waited my turn to say a lame thank you, instead of what I’ve always wanted to say, that I’ve met generous people before, but never anyone with the same spirit he had, the same way of giving to people, and asking nothing in return – not even acknowledgement. He was an incredible writer whose work should be better known. If there is justice in the world, it will be better known. Meanwhile, there are a couple of generations of writers out there – most who don’t know about this site and perhaps don’t yet know about his death - - who have been touched by George’s brilliance, his humor, his world, and his extraordinary goodness.
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Denise Giardina's picture
Denise Giardina · 7 years ago
I owe my writing life to George Garrett. In 1982 George came to Charleston, West Virginia, to teach a guest workshop with Mary Lee Settle at a local college, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to attend. I had just finished my first novel, and George read three chapters. He pointed out one weak section with a simple, “It’s clear you can do better than that.” Then he suggested I send my manuscript to his agent, Jane Gelfman. That was the beginning. My other writing contacts, from the good folks at Hollins such as Jeanne Larsen and Richard Dillard, to Lee Smith and Mary Lee Settle, to Madison Bell, to Carolyn Chute up in Maine – all were a gift to me from George. He was, I believe, the most generous person I have ever known.
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Richard Bausch's picture
Richard Bausch · 7 years ago
I should have said this, too: The fact that he WAS so funny, and so good at seeing the farcical side of things, and so much of a raconteur, and so marvelously UNmoody, made some professional people, critics and even a few editors, miss the profound seriousness of the spirit that inhabited him, that was there both in his work and in his real life: he was as committed an artist as I’ve ever known and his energy and his discipline, his habits of work, were nothing less than inspiring. I learned something new about this work, every single time I was with him. Also, my daughter Emily tells me that during our harrowing plane ride, he kept getting her to sing Chet Baker songs with him, and pretending not to know the words, saying to her “What’s that next line? How does it go?” All in the effort to keep her from thinking too much about the mess we seemed to be in at 35,000 feet.
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Kelly Cherry's picture
Kelly Cherry · 7 years ago
Mary Lee Settle once handed George a 700-page manuscript and asked him to read it. George said he knew Mary would expect his response the next day, so by the next day he had read all 700 pages. Mary sure enough asked him for his response that morning, and he was sure enough ready.
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hilary masters's picture
hilary masters · 7 years ago
Just before I left for Europe I called George. We spoke frequently by phone, some times periods of once a week, and we talked about the writing game and friends or people we thought might be friends. And now I have just returned to hear of his death. We met around 1980 due to an article I wrote concerning some of the shennaigans that accompanied the 1979 NEA literary grants. I had heard that George included some of my findings (and accusations) in his different appearances. My piece was still in manuscript and without a publisher and how he got a hold of a copy he never told me, and I guess I never asked. In any event, his advancement of the material attracted the attention of Stan Lindberg at the Georgaia Review (or maybe George prompted Lindberg; he did thingss like that in his quiet way) and that editor had the courage to publish the article. So George and I had a certain bonding from then on. Whenever I set up shop in one of my itinernant landings, I would be sure to invite him to give a reading–though that is a poor term to describe his presence and performances. He was Geogre Garrett standing before the different audiences of sturdents and academics. He was the ultimate example of a professional writer–poet and novelist, playwright and even screen writer of what he would describe as “the worst film ever made.” He was an ally and a good friend, a wonderful raconteur and a corrective vision of the amoral and immoral vagaries of the literary porecincts. His laughter bubbled up as he described a high-jinks encountered, his patience hearing a gripe or a complaint measured his compassion. And those wonderful letters on the long legal sized yellow pages; they were messages of support and friendship written in a handwriting that was as generous as the feeling they conveyed. To receive a letter from George Garrett always made me feel special, accepted and accepted by someone of great value. He enriched the nature and humanity of American letters by his own work and by his figure within it. So long, George—we’ll never know another like you. Hilary Masters
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Kit Reed's picture
George came back to Wesleyan and was grinning when we walked into Paul Horgan’s house back when dinosaurs walked; I remember liking him at once and thinking he looked uncannily like the young Mickey Rooney. There are so many good things to say about him that there’s noplace to begin. There are stories, but nobody is as good as George as telling stories, so I won’t try. Joe and I love him very much and miss him even more.
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Henry Taylor's picture
Henry Taylor · 7 years ago
“Words fail and falter often, but they are the best servants we have. Do not neglect them. Certainly do not ever fear them.” (Death of the Fox, 523) There is no language adequate to express gratitude for George Garrett and for his acts and words, so many of which will outlast the observations we are making here. Being reminded of that is exhilarating as well as sobering. George Garrett’s memory is coursing now through the hearts and minds of a vast and varied choir, and Paradise is in for quite a time.
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Joyce Dixon's picture
Joyce Dixon · 7 years ago
The first time I heard George Garrett was at the Conference of Southern Literature in 1996. That introduction was so impressive to me that I immediately ordered and read everything that Garrett had in print. He was not just a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, but an advocate of Southern Literature. We will be missed.
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David Madden's picture
I was especially proud that it was that fabled editor named George Garrett at BOTTEGHE OSCURE who published my first short story. Pretty soon I got proud of being among an increasing number of writers in all genres who had gone into orbit around George Garrett, so that I seized the opportunity as early as 1970, when George was only 41, to pay homage to such a man in the pages of THE NEW REPUBLIC, in my review of an anthology of TRANSATLANTIC REVIEW stories: “and there in Paris was George Garrett, whose motiveless magnanimity toward young writers makes agents superfluous.” For me, as for many, the fabled George Garrett became George, the friend, the fabulous, animated without a lull by fresh ideas and sharp insights, such as the girl in the black rain coat anthology. Come to think of it, George was a sort of Harpo Marx, his overcoat overflowing with notions and surprises, but also, incongruously, a sort of Groucho Marx when the absurd tickled him pink. Thank God I have a photo of George and me in Richmond, in 1973, on stage, winging it–the bright lights catching only our beaming faces and George’s gesturing hand, blurred in action. The day he died, I opened one of his works at random and dove into “A Wreath for Garibaldi” [another of my heroes]. George remembers agonizing over whether to keep a promise to a friend to lay a wreath at Garibaldi’s statue in Rome, deciding not to, for reasons that made him feel ashamed, but finally not. I imagine that none of us who are missing George will lack occasions to lay memories as symbolic wreathes at George’s feet, feet not of stone–feet stepping toward us, hands in flight, that grin signalling the beginning of another great delivery. George in each of our lives was a recurring blessing and–get this [I am grinning a George grin]–that blessing for each of us is magnified by our belonging to a legion of the blessed.
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Thomas McGonigle's picture
Thomas McGonigle · 7 years ago
At the LATIMES Book blog JACKET COPY can be found another version of my memorial for George. There is also a link there to the VQR blog…
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