George Garrett’s writing can’t be categorized. The range of subjects, styles and interests in his novels, stories, essays, criticisms, reviews, and poems is unlike that of any other writer. Going to See the Elephant: Pieces of a Writing Life, edited by Jeb Livingood, a new paperback, provides a limited introduction to his work.
The collection is divided into three sections: A Writing Life; Other Voices; True and False Confessions. The opening essay, “Going to See the Elephant,” is a brief instruction manual for all writers who may want to find out what they will see when they see the “Elephant.”
In his essay, “A Writing Life,” Garrett warns writers who are employed by academic institutions to beware the risk of the “not so subtle pressure for the employee-writer to become an institutional person,” meaning one who brings “credit to the institution, and, yes siree, thinking and acting correctly within the socio-political context of the institution.” Under such pressures the writer will try to avoid writing on “controversial subjects,” and thus “more and more American literary art isn’t about anything that matters to anybody.”
Garrett is as outspokenly critical and bitter about the “sleazy publishing habits” of those who run the New York publishing scene: “Mediocre, even blatantly bad books can be marketed as “blockbusters” and can sometimes earn huge profits for everyone concerned.” Thus, we end up “with a literary situation not conducive to the development of literary quality.”
One of the most interesting essays in the collection, “Cowboys and Indians: A Few Notions about Creative Writing,” was originally commissioned by the editors of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who asked Garrett to write an “opinion piece on the subject of contemporary creative writing courses.” After he sent the essay, the editors promptly returned it, explaining that they didn’t “approve of his opinions.” The rejected essay is a forthright criticism of what Garrett believes has become the corporate climate of institutions of learning, and the way in which that climate results in “uniformity of thought,” thus discouraging creativity and originality. That the editors of The Chronicle refused to publish it reveals more about them than about Mr. Garrett’s writing. The essay is published in this collection, although it is unclear when this incident occurred, since the editor failed to supply dates (or places) of publication.
In his section on fellow writers, “Other Voices,” not all will agree with Garrett’s opinions. He rates F. Scott Fitzgerald “one of the most gifted” of American writers; he considers Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood a “historical landmark” that is prophetic about a “desperate, savage, violent America.” For Eudora Welty, he expresses admiration and affection. Welty “opened doors and windows for me,” and changed his life. The poet, Fred Chappell, he regards as “a true master of prosody and metrics,” and wonders “why the literary establishment has been . . . reluctant to recognize Chappell’s achievement in poetry.” In summarizing Chappell’s philosophy Garrett might well be summarizing his own: “He ridicules powerful delusions and frozen stereotypes. He celebrates fidelity, humility, the powers of love, the honor of a job well done.” But Garrett admits he is a cynic; “Comedy, be it ever so dark or grotesque, is always a shadow dancer in my work.”
The “Liar, Liar” is James Dickey who, Garrett describes as “willing to say or do almost anything for the sake of advancing his career.” He was a “jock without much talent or ability.”
On the reception of his own work, he notes, justifiably, how little “attention has been paid to his work during the forty and more years since I first began to publish.” But he is grateful to those fellow writers who have shown interest, provided encouragement and companionship. According to Richard Bausch, “There is no writer on the American scene with a more versatile, more eclectic, or more restless talent than George Garrett.”
Garrett pays tribute to William Goyan, and to Madison Jones whom he has honored from the start of his own professional career. Jones “might be speaking for me,” Garrett claims, when he writes: “Evil is a prime fact of our existence: we may be forgiven it but we cannot escape it.”
In order to write a forthright letter to the students of the University of Virginia, Garrett employs his doppelganger, John Towne, author of Poison Pen, who is free to express himself more directly than Garrett. The letter opens with the quotation inscribed above the entrance of Cabell Hall: “Here we are not afraid to follow Truth wherever it may lead nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” But Towne assures the students that the administrators “are so busy with their numbers games and their shuffling paperwork . . . that they don’t know what is over any of the doors around here.” Towne makes it clear that he is writing this letter because he, Towne, has nothing to lose, whereas Garrett might “lose his parking sticker in B-1 and maybe his office with the window if he levels with you.”
Mr. Garrett never hesitates to express outrage at all forms of hypocrisy, incompetence, injustice, dishonesty, bad taste, and stupidity, but in doing so he avoids the tone of indignant oracular denunciations, and instead, voices his opinions with cynical, sarcastic humor. The essay that follows on “The Sorry State of Popular Culture” is an example. It opens with a letter addressed to Howard Stern, telling him he is “as ugly as a raw turnip . . . as a day-old dog turd,” among other distasteful comparisons. Garrett assures the reader that he would never write such a letter; John Towne, his double, wrote it. One example of the state of popular culture is the public’s fascination with Lorena Bobbit’s trial. Without describing the details of her crime, he expands his thesis to denounce mass-produced popular culture in general. Having opened his diatribe with John Towne’s letter to Howard Stern, he closes with John Towne’s letter to George Garrett, warning him not to publish this essay, because he “sounds like a bitter and cynical little old man.” But Towne adds, “there is no real popular culture in our country any more . . . just a whole lot of mass-produced and packaged junk. Trash created by trash for trash.”
Most of the third section, “True and False Confessions,” consists of a long interview by Madison Smartt Bell, one of Garrett’s former students. As he does in all interviews, Garrett speaks openly of his own life and work, and expresses his opinions and observations with his usual astuteness. Asked how he arrived at the writing style in his Elizabethan novels, he said he “read all different lands of Elizabethan prose until I got whipped up like in a Waring blender.”
“False Confessions,” gives John Towne the last words—words that reveal the contrast between Towne’s style and that of Mr. Garrett’s elegantly written Elizabethan novel, Death of the Fox. The essay offers sufficient evidence that perhaps there is a John Towne.
Garrett is a chameleon, (defined in Webster’s as “an Old World lizard with. . .independently moving eyeballs, and unusual ability to change the color of the skin”) an accurate description of a writer who does indeed see everything all around him, and whose subject matter and style do indeed radically “change color.” However varied his subject matter and style, it is evident throughout his writings, according to R. H. W. Dillard, that his work is “firmly grounded in Christian belief and understanding.” But while he holds moral values, he also delights in revealing the “Bad George” under the alias of John Towne, who, as Dillard wrote, “cannot resist exposing and laughing at folly and vice wherever he finds it.” Garrett “has written what he has always chosen to write, ignoring the dictates of literary fashion and the demands of the marketplace.” The result, claims Dillard, is that “he has never received the general approbation of the literary world.”
Garrett referred to himself in one essay “as a bonafide author of sorts (though never either celebrity or bestseller).” He is, nevertheless, “author of thirty-two books, editor or coeditor of nineteen others”; he has been granted an impressive number of honors and fellowships, and he has accomplished all this while having a teaching career that started in 1957. After his recent retirement from the University of Virginia as Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, the governor appointed Mr. Garrett to a two-year term as Poet Laureate of Virginia. In that distinguished post he plans to find ways “to use poetry and literature in education in Virginia,” and he also hopes to bring the poetry community together, not just poets, he emphasizes, but the entire writing community.
This collection of Garrett’s writing, like most books of selections from a writer’s work, tends to be uneven and the choices not always wise. Garrett can write with lyrical elegance, but when he addresses issues of injustice, hypocrisy, or stupidity, he writes with eloquent outrage, heavily laced with bitterness and cynicism. Yet, glimmering through his vast knowledge, wisdom, and fearlessly expressed opinions, are occasional sparks of an adolescent boy. “Let my whole life be only in my work,” he wrote in “A Writing Life.” It is his “chief pride and joy . . . that everything I have written . . . contains (more or less) the same truth of myself.” In attempting to write about him, to do justice to his work, one despairs, and waits for the angel, who, when he finally appears, Garrett assures us, will say, “Sing for me.”