Skip to main content

In Memory of George Garrett


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

Will Howarth's picture
Will Howarth · 12 years ago
I knew George a little during my graduate years at UVA, 1962-66, and I knew him better from his later forays at Princeton, where he returned often to teach creative writing and regale the larger community at parties and lectures. My best memory of him is sitting at his Final Public Examination for the doctorate. He submitted his novels in lieu of a formal dissertation on the Renaissance. For an hour he gave a brilliant talk on the relations of fiction and history. At the end, we addressed him as Dr. Garrett, wished him a bigger salary, and adjourned for a lively reception. I don’t know that it meant much to George to earn a doctorate, but that day he seemed as happy as we were to award it.
+1
-4
-1
Mary Ellen O'Brien's picture
Getting to know George Garrett at Hollins College in the late 60s or early 70s was like taking a first balloon ride: up, up and away…holding your breath…feeling a childlike relish of giddy pleasures!!! A master storyteller of apparently every event in his life, George made us laugh, guffaw, gasp, or cringe at the complexity of human beings. His spirit of goodness and joy has stayed with me over the years, and his gifts as a writer and human being taught me how to observe that people and events are chock full of extraordinary and ordinary colors. I can’t claim to have known George well; I never saw a dark side in him, although his stories sometimes revealed the unexamined lives we sometimes experience. But he was, and no doubt still is, an individual who understood agape. I’m lucky to have known him.
+1
-10
-1
Ben Greer's picture
Ben Greer · 12 years ago
Like most people who knew George Garrett, I could write enough about him to fill a couple of books. But I thought I would share the dedication I wrote for him and Susan in a book of poems. “This is for George and Susan Garrett who filled my rotten teeth and bought me clothes and fed me and taught me how to live. Every day I think of you.”
+1
+1
-1
Lawrence Millman's picture
Lawrence Millman · 12 years ago
Assuming there is a Heaven, I can’t think of a more appropriate inhabitant of it than George Garrett, a man whose kindness, support, joviality, and indeed spirituality made him an extra- ordinary presence in my own as well as so many other writers’ lives. And assuming there are angels, I suspect George will give them the same sort of support and encouragement, perhaps crack a joke or two with them, that he gave to us non-angelic types down on earth. So many of us were lucky to have known this great man during his stay here. George: I will miss you…
+1
+32
-1
Kelly Cherry's picture
Kelly Cherry · 12 years ago
There is such a weight on my heart. At the same time, I feel I understand better now what a life is.
+1
-16
-1
Barbara Rich's picture
Barbara Rich · 12 years ago
George Garrett was not only one of my favorite people, he was my favorite interviewee. Every time I phoned him to set up another one, his response would be: “Again? I am not interesting. What else can you write about me?” After which he would have lunch, and he would provide me with more information, stories, jokes and wisdom I could fit into the space allotted to my piece. He always made me laugh. And think. Always. I reviewed many of his books, both fiction and poetry. Panned one of the former, Poison Pen, for which he forgave me with his signature grin. In the mid-80s, we found ourselves at the local airport, heading to a Southern Writers’ Conference in Charleston, SC. He one of the stars; I a lowly reporter taking notes. We sat together on the trip down, and I was grateful for my seat belt, which I never released. If I had, my dissent to the floor – due to helpless laughter – would have been a certainty. This story teller told stories; wonderful stories. On that flight, many of them were about escapades with other writers – Peter Taylor, for example – fueled by the imbibing of spirited beverages. The last contact I had with George was in the fall of 2006, when I sent him a short story I’d written. In response, I received three sheets of his favored legal pad paper, concluding with his insightful suggestion: “Barbara, there is a story inside of this one, and that’s the story you should write.” I loved George. I loved his wit, his generosity, his unassuming brilliance, his love of language. I am proud to have been one of the rings around his enormous orbit of people who treasure his friendship.
+1
+1
-1
Tim Kerr's picture
Tim Kerr · 12 years ago
I just wanted to add one more example of George Garrett’s generosity on the heaping pile we’re building for him here, just one more illuminating fragment to his story. I was long out of college, close to finishing a manuscript of a novel, and looking for someone to read it. Naturally, living in Charlottesville, I learned of George and wrote to him to see if I could get into one of his undergrad classes, although I was what UVa called a “continuing education” student. He readily agreed and subsequently allowed me to take classes with the MFA students (Carrie Brown and Eric Rickstad among them), although I had not gotten into the creative writing program. He read my manuscript and suggested editors to send it to, using his name. Perhaps even more than that, he invited me to the MFA events - the readings, the semester-opening parties - and, through thought, word, and deed, encouraged me to feel part of the program. George accepted me into the company of writers based entirely on what I’d written. Isn’t that what we’re all after? The best thing I can think of to do to be worthy of George’s generosity is to keep writing.
+1
+50
-1
Jerry Cox's picture
It took me a couple of decades to get around to writing the novel I promised George Garrett when I was one of his students in the Creative Writing Progam at Princeton. A few months into the first draft, I knew I’d never finish without some advice from my old professor. When I contacted him, he promptly reminded me of the best advice any writer can get. When my book, “On the Lip,” was published a few months ago, it included an acknowledgement to “George Garrett, acclaimed novelist, poet and creative writing professor, for the discipline to keep putting “words on paper … words on paper.” As he pointed out, “you can always revise later!”
+1
-7
-1
James W. Hall's picture
I first met George in 1972 at the University of Utah–A writer’s conference. I last saw him in April of this year in Charlottesville. In those intervening 36 years he didn’t change in any way I could see. As funny, as honest, as irrepressible. On our last visit, though he was in serious pain, he told some great, hilarious stories; some I’d heard before but all were as funny as before. When he told a story he would invariably bounce up from his chair and begin to act out the parts, waving his hands, making wonderful faces. I never saw anyone tell a story so well. No one’s even close. And in those 36 years I met many of the people who’ve commented here, a community of writers and teachers and intriguing people who were attracted to George and orbited around him like happy electrons. I’m deeply grateful to have been one of those electrons.
+1
-4
-1
David McNair's picture
David McNair · 12 years ago
Because my father died when I was a young boy, some of the older men I’ve known in my life have meant more to me than they realized, or even I realized. When I heard that George had died I felt that familiar, aching heaviness in my heart, just like I had as a young boy. George was most definitely one of those fathers I secretly adopted, and the world feels like a lonelier place without him. But, of course, if you had the pleasure of knowing George Garrett its impossible to stay sad for long. As I’ve recalled all the time we spent together, that sadness has given way to so many fun, joyful memories. Like so many writers and students of writing, George helped me out professionally in so many ways. But, more importantly, he was just a great guy to be around. During the 1990s he hired me to drive him around to readings and conferences up and down the East Coast…and insisted on paying me far more than I was worth…and those road trips were such a blast that I can’t help smiling as I think about them. More often than not, we didn’t even talk about literature or writing…we just joked around and told stories and behaved like two college buddies on a road trip. Not once did he ever make me feel like the lowly student….though I certainly felt like I was in the shadow of his work… The last time I saw George in action was in April 2006 at the dedication of the Free Speech Wall in Charlottesville, a 40-foot slate chalkboard in front of city hall. George was one of the guest speakers, along with John Grisham and Boyd Tinsley from the Dave Matthews Band, and he gave a short reading about midway through the ceremony. In fact, as luck would have it the ceremony was recorded and put online–you can listen to it here: http://www.cvillepodcast.com/2006/04/20/freespeech As far as I know, it could be one of the last recordings of a George reading. Anyway, unlike Grisham, Tinsley, and the other speakers–who sounded like spokespersons for the First Amendment, telling us not to take it for granted, and what an important and uniquely American right it was, etc., etc.–George simply read some things he would have liked to have scribbled on the wall. And its vintage Garrett…beautiful, funny, mischievous, and profound, all without drawing attention to itself. As I re-listened to it, I realized how unique it was, and how it had just seemed to sail over the crowd’s head at the time, who were busy perhaps being giddy over the importance of the wall’s dedication and the presence of Grisham and Tinsley. And yet what George said in just a few short minutes, with such an unassuming grace (members in the fraternity of the famous, Grisham and Tinsley sat together and made sure to acknowledge each other at the podium, while George sat off to the side by himself), was enough to spend a lifetime pondering. In his work, I think, George had a talent for revealing the many ways we deceive ourselves, and he did it by looking unblinkingly at reality. In fact, as we all mourn his passing here, I wonder what George would make of it. As you’ll hear on the recording, the poem he read last, called an Italian Lesson, the final line of which he scribbled on the free speech wall as part of the ceremony (standing next to Grisham), is chilling and remarkable in the context of this tribute. “When ever I hear of the death of a major poet,” it begins…and then he recalls standing in a piazza in Italy in the late 1950s as the death of the Pope is announced. A tall priest stands among a crowd of peasants. “Is it true, is the Pope really dead?” someone cries in the crowd, to which the Priest responds, “Better him than us, hey?” That a man could be so truly UNmoody, as Richard Bausch says, and so naturally joyful while writing so daringly about the human condition was indeed remarkable. And an inspiration to us all.
+1
+10
-1
David Havird's picture
David Havird · 12 years ago
I met George Garrett during my first year at the University of South Carolina. I was none too happy there: it was my father’s alma mater–undergrad and Law–and his ambition for me was that I’d become a lawyer like him. I was wanting to be a writer. Sensitive anyway to his son’s unhappiness, my dad informed me one day that he’d met a fellow at the health spa who taught at Carolina–said he was a writer. “You bet,” I scoffed. (It wasn’t James Dickey.) George Garrett, of course, it was, and this was the year of DEATH OF THE FOX (a copy of which I soon purchased at the downtown Capitol Newsstand–and presented to George for signing some 25 years later). George remained at the University of South Carolina for one more year. My last memory of him there finds him at a reading by Allen Tate in the spring of 1973 when George kept thinking, the whole time Tate was reading, that here was “the satyr of the age.” The presence of Garrett, if only for those two years, an easily approachable presence, reconciled me to my father’s alma mater and made it seem that “being a writer” (as opposed to “being a lawyer like my father”) was possible. It wasn’t too long after George succeeded Peter Taylor in the Hoyns Professorship at the University of Virginia that I completed my doctorate there and found myself, as a part-time instructor, sharing an office with a visiting professor from the University of Maryland who had been a professor of mine at South Carolina: Calhoun Winton, an old pal of George’s, one of the “few good friends”–all of them distinguished–to whom George dedicates DO LORD, REMEMBER ME. At the Colonnade Club I was in high cotton lunching with those two ageless eminence grises, raconteurs both. I was also living on Rugby Place, a couple of blocks up Rugby Road from George’s Wayside Place–many an afternoon it happened that we’d walk together home. After I joined the English faculty at Centenary College of Louisiana and began hosting visiting writers (George among them), I found myself frequently responding to this question: At the University of Virginia did you know George Garrett? This from Anthony Hecht on the way to the College from the airport and from Richard Wilbur over a beer at a bistro right after his arrival. (Wilbur and Garrett had been young colleagues at Wesleyan in the late ’50s.) And James Dickey (towards whom George seemed to feel bitterly competitive), in conversation shortly before his death in 1997, was singing the praises of Garrett the poet. Which could have been Dickey’s way of denigrating the writer of fiction–I was myself admiring Garrett’s stories. (I asked George to sign a paperback of AN EVENING PERFORMANCE as a “book to beat up”–it’s a book I travel with.) “Tell him,” George said in reference to this or that editor, “you’re sending them at my suggestion. My name won’t get the poems taken, but it will get them read.” For that advice I’m grateful–as is Ashley, my wife. We both took it and profited.
+1
+7
-1

Pages

Recommended Reading