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George Garrett: An Appreciation

ISSUE:  Summer 1999

“George Garrett,” reads the 1960 German text by Hedda Soellner that I sometimes use as part of the foreign language exam for my graduate students, “wurde in 1929 in Florida geboren, gehört also der jüngsten Autorengeneration an.” And now in 1999 in Virginia (and in English), George Garrett, no longer a member of the youngest generation of authors though not a member of the oldest either, is celebrating his 70th birthday (or Geburtstag, I remind those nervous students). When I was working on the manuscript of a little book to be called Understanding George Garrett in 1987, many of George’s friends would laugh and, shaking their heads, say something along the lines of “Yeah, sure,” or “Good luck.” This effort to write an appreciation of George Garrett will probably meet with much the same response. How does one claim to understand or even fully appreciate such a richly complex man and artist? That was my problem then, and it is my problem now. It seemed then nearly insoluble, and it seems that way to me now. The solution would seem to be to press on, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, and to hope for the best.

The only thought that even allows me to accept that solution is my belief that any formal essay of appreciation (or any formal essay of critical interpretation, for that matter) is really only a story in disguise: on the one hand, the story of a writer’s long and close acquaintance with a body of work, or, on the other, the story of a person’s long and close acquaintance with a friend. So, instead of claiming that this is an objective and formal essay of appreciation, I choose to admit right up front that this essay of appreciation is just a story disguised as an essay, the story of my 40-year admiration for and close study of the writings of George Garrett and the story as well of my equally long and close friendship with him. Not the whole story by a long shot, but enough of it, I hope, to do the job.

I suppose it’s generally a good idea, unless one is writing an epic poem, to begin a story at the beginning, and this one begins for me one afternoon in the fall of 1958 when I began a series of chats with Katharine Anne Porter. While true, that’s not quite as impressive as it might sound, for she was Writer in Residence at the University of Virginia, I was a callow young student in my first year of graduate school, and we were meeting for appointments which were part of her job. We met irregularly in an office supplied to her by the English Department in New Cabell Hall, where she would read my short stories aloud to me and comment on them as she went along, or sign copies of her books, or mention her hopes for Ship of Fools which she had just finished, or just talk about writers and writing and whatever else came up. I remember her reading to me one day a letter that she had just received from Dame Edith Sitwell; her tentative acceptance of my theory that Jean Stafford was methodically rewriting Porter’s stories (“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” as “The Interior Castle” et al), an idea, she said, which had actually crossed her mind before: and her referring very often to her nephew Paul to whom she was truly devoted.

She was very kind to me, which I now know had much to do with my continuing on in the task of trying to become a writer myself. Among her many kindnesses was a concerted effort to wean me away from the work of certain writers that she felt was either not good writing or certainly not good enough writing for a novice to use as a literary model. Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, as I should have known if I had read her essays as closely as I had her fiction, she found particularly useless and even dangerous. I must confess now that I did not follow all of her advice; I still, for example, honor Gertrude Stein as one of the writers whose work has meant and continues to mean the most to me. But especially I remember two pieces of quite serious advice she offered to me, one of which, as Robert Frost put it, “has made all of the difference.”

The first, which I have passed along to many students but did not have the patience (or the commitment) to follow myself, was her regimen for becoming a better writer of short fiction. “Read,” she told me, “James Joyce’s Dubliners, and when you finish, read it again, and then keep re-reading it until the covers fall off the book. Then, if you’ve paid attention, you’ll know how to write a story.” I do think I managed to get the point even if I did not exactly follow the plan: I read and reread Katherine Anne Porter’s stories instead.

Her second piece of advice, however, I did accept and began to follow immediately, and very good advice it has since proven to be. On Jan.6, 1959, an appropriately epiphanic Twelfth Night, shortly before she was to leave the University and wouldn’t be around to offer me any further guidance, I asked her who was the best young American writer for me to read, the one writer whose work was of the highest quality and would teach me the most. She didn’t even hesitate before giving her answer. “Read George Garrett,” she said and wrote his name and the titles of two of his books (“King of the Mountain, stories, and The Sleeping Gypsy, poems”) on a small piece of departmental stationery which I still have, tucked inside a copy of Garrett’s novel, The Finished Man, which was the first of his books that I was actually able to find in a local bookshop when it was published later that year.

The story now skips forward nearly three years, to the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 2, 1961. Sent there, as I saw it then and still see it now, by a beneficent Providence (or, if you prefer, by Cazelty, Nabokov’s god of chance), George Garrett actually showed up in Charlottesville in person. He and James Dickey were the two finalists for a new position in the English department for a working writer—a significant departure from tradition in those days for a conservative department, even for one which had hosted both Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner as writers in residence. Dickey had come and gone in a swirl of anapests, and Garrett was to give a reading that day as part of the interview process. I remember that it was a sunny, leaf-strewn afternoon along West Range where I lived that year, and that in the evening I walked to the reading with great expectations and three of Garrett’s books tucked under my arm to be signed. I was not disappointed. George Garrett proved to be a youthfully energetic, bright-faced man with a huskily soft voice and an infectious grin, and he was as good and distinctive a reader as he was a writer.

I have never been one who finds it easy to approach writers after a reading, especially “established” writers. and Garrett, even at the young age of 32, was quite established, having already published seven books, three of them on the same day that year: the novel, Which Ones Are the Enemy?; the collection of stories, In the Knar Patch; and the book of poems, Abraham’s Knife. I still possess unsigned copies of books by C. Day Lewis and Glenway Wescott among many others whom I could not quite manage to approach after their readings. I could also offer further proof of my problem by recounting here the story of Elizabeth Bowen’s signing two of her books for me, and what John Bayley refers to as her “inimitable stutter,” and how Wright Morris would ultimately become involved in the story years later, but that’s really another story (and would probably prove only that I am willing to drop an impressive name or two shamelessly whenever I get the chance). In any case. George Garrett’s approachable demeanor overcame my admiration and my shyness, and I carried my copies of The Finished Man and The Sleeping Gypsy and his new book of stories. In the Briar Patch, up to the podium and asked him to sign them. He, of course, readily agreed.

I have no recollection whatsoever whether I dropped the name of Katherine Anne Porter and told him what she had said of his work or whether I simply stood there gaping. It did turn out that I was the first person in Charlottesville to ask Garrett to sign a book, and he dutifully noted that fact in his inscription in the story collection. I had spent that morning reading his new book of poems, Abraham’s Knife. which I had found in the Alderman Library, and I had been truly excited by it. As he was signing the books, I mentioned in passing (probably to fill my own awkward silence) how much I liked it and how much I regretted not having a copy of it too for him to sign. He made some sort of polite remark, I’m sure, and that should have been the end of the story right there. With most writers it would have been, but this story doesn’t end there at all. Twelve days later I received a copy of Abraham’s Knife in the mail from the University of North Carolina Press with a little card in it indicating that it was “Compliments of the Author.” I did not realize then that this was only my first encounter with Garrett’s almost legendary generosity, but I did know that, from that moment on, I was a loyal fan for life.

This seems a likely place for a digression on the generosity of George Garrett. If I were here and now to recount even, say, 10 percent of the stories I know on the subject, this appreciation would have to be a book rather than a story disguised as an essay. And, too, many of the recipients of that generosity have told their own stories already. Henry Taylor has in more than one place told how Garrett assured the publication of Taylor’s first book of poems, The Horse Show at Midnight, in 1966 by withdrawing an already accepted manuscript of his own poems when the press had room for only one more book that year. Garrett also ran then (and most likely still runs) a sort of cottage New Deal of his own by regularly hiring (always at extravagant rates) his students who were strapped for cash to do a variety of small jobs ranging from raking his lawn to sorting his mail to doing research projects . . .and somehow persuading them that it was all quite necessary and completely above board. And anyone who has ever been to dinner in a restaurant with Garrett knows that the only way you can keep him from paying the bill is to obtain the collusion of the waiter well before the end of the meal.

The list of writers who, like Henry Taylor, owe Garrett so much—getting into graduate school, getting their books published, getting teaching jobs, getting readings, getting their books blurbed and/or reviewed, getting prizes, and on and on and on—would probably seem unbelievable if there were a way to compile it. I started sketching out a brief one for this occasion, and I gave up when I realized that, lest I leave out someone essential, it would have to run on for pages, and these were just the names I knew offhand. I know, in my own case, that probably 90 percent of the jobs, both teaching and writing, that I’ve had over the years can be laid at his door one way or the other. He would deny this, but it’s the simple truth. There is probably no need and certainly no way to tell more of those stories here. Let it suffice that I report as a fact that all of the recipients of his benefactions that I’ve ever met (or, at least, the ones who knew of them at the time or later found out about them) are appreciative in all senses of the word far beyond the power of any one of us to say. And the only way we’ve ever found of paying him back is to pass the favor on to someone else, which has turned out to be not such a hard way after all.

Lest this piece turn into hagiography, and that is not my intention at all, I’d better get back to my story. Garrett got the job; he and his wife Susan and their three children, Bill, George, and Alice, moved to Charlottesville that fall, and in the spring of 1962 he began his first stint as a member of the English department at the University of Virginia, which lasted until 1968. (He returned for his second stay in 1984 as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, a position he still holds today.) My chronology, so precise thus far, gets a bit blurred from this point on, and for good reason. Garrett’s arrival on the fifth floor of New Cabell Hall was as unsettling to its inhabitants as the arrival of Coyote must have been to a peaceful pueblo. It was certainly as transformative.

This was a time of revolution in the English department. The ascendancy of Fredson Bowers to the chairmanship of the department in the fall of 1961 not only brought the first formally designated “creative writer” onto the staff, but it marked the end of the long-standing old school of scholarly gentility and the rise of a new school of hard-nosed professionalism. I still remember quite vividly Bowers’ sibilant annual lecture to the graduate students entitled “On Being a Tiger in the Academic Jungle.” Younger professors could be heard up and down the hall typing away behind their locked doors; the rumor, started by Garrett of course, was that many of them were typing “the quick brown fox jumped over the fat lazy dog” over and over simply to avoid seeming like that lazy dog.

The kind of activity Garrett brought to the department was of a different land, however. Although the term had not yet been invented by physicists, ordered chaos is what ensued. Students began congregating in faculty offices and in the hall, carrying manuscripts, talking loudly, even playing an oddly narrow and elongated baseball game with a red plastic ball and bat in which one scored a home run when the ball made it through the fielders and clacked its noisy way past the slamming doors of disturbed mathematicians at the other end of the long, low corridor. A copy of Swank magazine (with its nude foldout discreetly tucked away) containing Garrett’s story “And So Love Came to Alfred Zeer” appeared in the little window box across from the chairman’s office where scholarly off-prints from PMLA or Studies in Bibliography were usually displayed. A rather anarchistic “Red Knob Society” was born after a vain attempt by the Shakespeare scholar David Bevington to persuade his colleagues to preserve the printing fluid in the mimeograph machine and (as a desperately scrawled note on the blackboard over the machine had it) to “PUT THE RED KNOBS DOWN!” A coat rack with a raincoat hanging on it, topped by a mask of Fidel Castro, nearly scared me witless when I forgetfully opened the office door late one night.

By then, Garrett’s office was my office, too, because of another late night’s activity. John Rodenbeck and I, both part-time junior instructors, had so disliked our being moved out of our happy private quarters into an office with a half-dozen or so new TA’s that one night we slid our desks and chairs down the hall to the office shared by Garrett and William R. Robinson and claimed squatters’ rights the next morning. We never left until we left for good, John, for the University of Michigan, and I, for Hollins College. The level of ordered chaos in that small office (a picture of which may be seen on the dust jacket of Garrett’s For a Bitter Season) was intense. Word Golf games (after the publication of Nabokov’s Pale Fire), round the clock theme grading marathons, poetry writing challenges (our typewriters clattered, too), and endless (often wacky) student conferences succeeded one another behind a door that was always open (except when we were hiding out, besieged by angry students in quest of those graded themes).

I’ll tell you one story to stand for all the others: one day an undergraduate came in, upset by a low grade on a major paper and desperate for a good grade on the course—a familiar situation to anyone who has ever taught a class. But here’s how George handled it. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said to the student. “You go away for half an hour. If at the end of that time, you can come back in here and entertain us with five minutes of good stand-up comedy, I’ll raise your grade.” The student replied quickly, “You’re on.” He practically ran out the door. Precisely half an hour later, he was back in the room. Jumping onto a chair, he turned to the four of us and began, “A funny thing happened to me on the way to the office. . . .” He went on for five minutes, and he was good, really good. We all applauded, and he got his grade and went happily on with his life. I wish I could report that his name was Jerry Seinfeld, but it wasn’t. I don’t know what happened to him, but I do know that he got a lesson about life and its challenges that probably still puzzles him a little bit but, I guarantee, was invaluable.

I often wonder what Fredson Bowers made of all this; he never said a word (at least, not to me). After a spate of witty verses and bons mots (not our doing) began to appear on little slips of paper in the faculty pigeon holes, he did send a memo around ordering a stop to the use of departmental mail for “japes and pasquils.” So he was not oblivious to the lighter side of life in the department. But he never said anything to us; I suspect that, like George’s black and tan hound James when he once saw a very large moose while on a walk in Maine, he simply chose not to notice.

Hi-jinks in the halls were not, of course, the most significant ways Garrett transformed the University. There were, of course, his lively and increasingly more heavily populated classes, with their famously confusing quizzes and exams and their wide-ranging reading lists. There was his support of student writing, capped by his editing (and paying for out of pocket) the anthology New Writing from Virginia with an afterword by Richard Wilbur; Henry Taylor and I, along with Thomas Reiter, Thomas Bootman, Harriet Hodges. Katinka Matson. and many others had our first book publication in that small volume. Talk about empowering students. There were the writers and film-makers he brought to a campus which had already made welcome the leading establishment writers and scholars (Frost. Spender, Ransom, Caldwell, Eberhart) but now added to the list the likes of Shelby Foote, Carolyn Kizer, Leslie Fiedler, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., along with young new writers like Fred Chappell, Vassar Miller, and David Slavitt.

This seems like the right place to add that none of this positive ferment would have happened, or certainly would not have happened with such elan, without the presence of Susan Garrett, whose intelligence and stability proved quite the match (in all ways) for George’s intelligence and anarchy. While being a wife and mother in the approved manner of the day (she was an amazingly good cook and arranged and produced dinners and large parties on a regular basis that still linger in the memory of those lucky enough to be invited), she also studied the classical guitar and, unbeknownst to most of us caught up in George’s whirlwind, was pointing herself toward a life of serious public service. She was later to be the administrator of York Hospital in Maine, a fighter for health care, mental illness, and the medical problems of the rural poor in Virginia, and the author of two books herself: Taking Care of Our Own: A Year in the Life of a Small Hospital and Miles to Go: Aging in Rural Virginia. Susan’s story is also another story, but one without which this one could not have taken the shape it did. The Garretts’ partnership continues today as strongly as ever.

But to get back to my story, one day George put up in our office a sign that he had found on a set in Hollywood when he was writing the screenplay of Goldwyn’s The Young Lovers. It said “Master Artists Corp.,” and for a time that’s exactly who we were. In those few years from 1962 to 1968, members of MAC finished dissertations (John and I), wrote and published scholarly articles, wrote and published poems and stories and novels and screenplays and scholarly books, all the while maintaining the chaos as well as the order. I remember visiting George’s study at home once while he was writing his novel Do, Lord, Remember Me, and the whole time I spent talking to him, his hand with the pen continued moving across the yellow sheets of his legal pad. He gave me his apparently full attention, but the work continued to be done. All of us continued to do the work in the heady creative atmosphere George created.

Bill Robinson published his Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Poetry of the Act; John Rodenbeck wrote his novella, “Bad Day at Baden-Baden”; I wrote the bulk of my first book of poems, The Day I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele, and the stories that were to become my first novel, The Book of Changes; George wrote and published his collection of short fiction Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night, his novel Do, Lord, Remember Me, his collection of poems, For a Bitter Season (which includes the poem “Salome,” which made such great impact on both Henry Taylor and me when it first appeared in the Princeton University Library Chronicle in 1963), and began work on the first of his Elizabethan novels, Death of the Fox. He also wrote the screenplays for The Young Lovers, The Playground, and (with John and I) Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, that travesty of a film which Leonard Maltin reports has “gained a peculiar cult reputation.” Bill (with George’s assistance) edited Man and the Movies, and George put together his anthology of new poems and stories, The Girl in the Black Raincoat (you should check the range of writers included in the table of contents of that book out if you don’t yet understand why I have been using the term “ordered chaos”). Not bad for a bunch of clowns who seldom closed their office door.

I’ve allowed my appreciation of George’s writing to take a back seat to my appreciation of his extraordinary presence up to now. I should explain why. I’ve been writing reviews and critical essays about that work for 35 years. The critical monograph. Understanding George Garrett, which I mentioned earlier, covers the ground pretty well through 1988. The essays I wrote for the Dictionary of Literary Biography volumes on American novelists and short story writers since World War II in 1993 and 1995 bring my story of his fiction up to date. I regret that I haven’t had enough to say about his poetry, which has always been closest to my heart ever since I read Abraham’s Knife on that autumn day in 1962, but this is not the place for another attempt at critical analysis or interpretative criticism of Garrett’s work. That would take yet another book, but for the sake of those of you who don’t know the extent and extraordinary quality of Garrett’s writing, I’ll do a quick plot summary of that story for you.

The numbers are impressive enough. George Garrett is the author, so far, of eight novels, including his most widely known “Elizabethan Trilogy,” Death of the Fox, The Succession, and Entered from the Sun; of seven books of short fiction, including the collected stories. An Evening Performance; of eight books of poetry, including Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments: New and Old Poems 1957—1997; of five books of nonfiction, including a biography of James Jones and collections of critical and personal essays. He is also the author of a recent collection of stories, essays, and anecdotes, Bad Man Blues, which must be driving library cataloguers nuts. He has, in addition, written two published plays, three produced screenplays, and translations of plays by Plautus and Sophocles. He has also edited 21 books and contributed introductions, essays, and afterwords to countless others.

Numbers alone, of course, don’t count for too much. Lots of writers, good and bad, have written more, but few writers have written at such a level of high quality in so many genres, for I believe Garrett to be a major American novelist, a major American writer of short fiction, and a major American poet. I can neither describe that work to you here nor ever hope to convince you of my high regard for it. For one thing I’ve spent too many pages telling you what I owe this man. But I will use two of Garrett’s statements about writing, both having to do with William Faulkner, to explain both why he is such an important writer and, at the same time, why you may, lacking Katherine Anne Porter’s advice, have possibly not followed his work as closely as I have.

In 1985, Garrett, speaking of his own literary career, wrote that “When I was young and proud and poor and feisty, and such things seemed to matter, I was vain about my independence, eager to be, if I could, like Mr. Faulkner, the cat who walks alone. . .. And so, from time to time, I paid a price for the privilege of my freedom.” For all that his work has been honored (with, among other awards, the PEN Bernard Malamud Prize for Short Fiction and the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing) and widely praised critically, it has never been an insider’s work. Although it has been published by leading American publishers (Scribners, Little Brown, Doubleday, Harcourt Brace), it has also been published by a variety of small and university presses. While he has been known in New York from the start, he has never been a New York writer. He has gone his own way, like Kipling’s cat, and the freedom he gained by that aloofness from the establishment both gave us the extraordinary work we have, but also kept many of us from ever hearing of that work.

The second statement occurs in Garrett’s introduction to the 1994 Modern Library edition of Faulkner’s Snopes, where he speaks of a distinctive quality of Faulkner’s fiction which has often been overlooked by his readers: “As an ever-exploring craftsman Faulkner was relentlessly, extravagantly innovative. Among all his novels no two are constructed in exactly the same manner or told in precisely the same way or from the same points of view. Each is a new artistic adventure, making new and sometimes surprising demands on the reader.” Garrett could very well in those sentences be describing his own work. He is a writer who never has repeated himself, and that characteristic is one of the keys to the extraordinary richness of his work. That and Garrett’s sheer ease with language, as well as the depth and complexity of his work, his willingness to engage the most profound issues facing us as human beings. One of my brightest graduate students in a class in the modern novel a year or so ago told me that she had had more difficulty finishing Entered From the Sun on time than any of the other books we’d read, not because it was hard to follow or wasn’t engaging, but because, as she put it, “I had to stop and think deeply page after page before I could go on.”

Unfortunately, like his independence from literary politics, Garrett’s innovative and varied approaches to his work have hurt him in the literary and academic marketplace. I’ve told elsewhere the story of the publisher who accused him of turning in the work of a friend as his own when his second novel. Which Ones Are the Enemy? proved to be completely different in style and form from his first, The Finished Man. Each of the novels of the Elizabethan trilogy is radically different in approach from the other, while never losing the distinctive and almost tangible verbal texture of the set. This, again to use Garrett’s description of Faulkner, “rich variety of. . .method” is also evident in his short fiction, poems, and even his essays. Garrett’s work is, then, like Faulkner’s, challenging—to the reader, to the conventions of fiction and poetry, to the tastemakers who categorize and “place” our writers. As anyone who has ever taught or taken a creative writing seminar knows the hard way, we tend to praise the familiar and the expected at the price of the unfamiliar and the unexpected, and the loss is ours. It is unfortunate that even our most respected literary institutions seem to reward repetition more than innovation; write the same book in the same way often enough, it seems, and you’ll be noticed and applauded.

Be that as it may, a larger and more comprehending audience eventually found Faulkner, and I remain firmly convinced that they will one day find Garrett, too, in the same way and with the same awe and enthusiasm. Five of his novels are in print today and easily available, as are his collected story and poem volumes, and numerous other books as well. Understanding George Garrett is still in print, and Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin’s excellent collection of critical essays, George Garrett: The Elizabethan Trilogy, was published this year by the Texas Review Press. Everything is in place for interested readers and scholars to find his work and celebrate it, and, as I said, I’m sure that they will.

But, back to the story or, rather, not back to it. Just as George Garrett’s story did not begin when he came to Charlottesville and met me, it didn’t end either when Master Artists Corp. dissolved and went its separate ways. But that brief and shining (if somewhat disorderly) moment will have to serve for the rest of the story, and it doesn’t do an entirely misleading job.

George has continued to spread the seeds of creative anarchy wherever he goes—he is (if I may be allowed to steal a literary game from his novel Poison Pen) the Johnny Appleseed of American Poetry. All of the stories I’ve told you about the University of Virginia have been replicated in many and varied ways time after time and place after place. The legions of those he has taught or helped or inspired continue to increase and prosper. A practical dreamer, he has continued to transform the literary world as well as the academic one; I think of the Hollins Conference on Creative Writing and Cinema he put together in 1970, a kind of two-week Yaddo South, Sundance East, and Cannes West with a touch of Woodstock all rolled into one, complete with Ralph Ellison, James Dickey, Richard Wilbur, Brian Moore, Larry McMurtry, and about 80 other faculty members and visiting writers and filmmakers, hundreds of students, and more movies showing day and night than you could find in any one place before the arrival of cable television. Or, say, the Associated Writing Programs, which he helped to found. And, most importantly, the books continue to be written as, despite all the interruptions, his pen continues to move across the yellow page.

All good stories should end, one way or another, where they began, so I’ll bring this appreciation of George Garrett back to where it began. Last week I found a stack of letters and cards, carefully wrapped in ribbon, at the bottom of a trunk which my mother had used for storage. I was disappointed to find that they were all written by me from Charlottesville the first couple of years I was a graduate student, but then, knowing that I was going to write this essay, I looked into them more closely. I found a postcard that should bring this story round. Written on Nov. 1, 1961, it said, in part. “I am looking forward to tomorrow with more eagerness than I’ve felt since Katherine Anne Porter was here. George Garrett is going to be here for a job interview & will read some of his poems in the evening . . . . Katherine Anne Porter recommended him to me. So—it should be exciting—I hope they hire him—we need a real writer around here.” I was right: it was exciting; we did need him. We still do.

As a birthday greeting to my friend and mentor George Garrett, I would only like to say, as the young boy says at the end of “Ship of Fools,” repeating to himself just above a whisper, “Grüss Gott, Grüss Gott.”


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