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John Champlin Gardner - Biography

John Champlin Gardner
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

John Champlin Gardner was born in Batavia, New York in 1933; his father was a dairy farmer and lay Presbyterian minister, and his mother was an English teacher. Both parents instilled in him a love of classic literature. He also developed passions for cartooning and music, which his parents encouraged. His idyllic childhood was shattered, however, by the freak death of his younger brother Gilbert in a farming accident. This incident is reflected in Gardner's story "Redemption."

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Iowa, Gardner embarked on a lifelong teaching and writing career. He not only taught at a variety of colleges (including Oberlin, Chico State, San Francisco State, Southern Illinois University, Bennington, and the State University of New York at Binghamton), but spearheaded writer's workshops such as the annual Bread Loaf Conference at Middlebury College, Vermont. Big-hearted, hard-living and larger than life, John Gardner was married twice, first to Joan Louise Patterson and second to poet and fellow teacher Liz Rosenberg. He was preparing to make Susan Thornton his third wife in 1982 when he died as the result of a motorcycle accident in Susquehanna, PA.

Gardner's most impressive work of fiction is probably Grendel, a retelling of the Beowulf story from the viewpoint of the monster. The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and October Light met with the most popular acclaim (although he was definitely a literary writer rather than a "popular" one).

John Gardner's fictional works are often difficult and confound literary classification. Although he is frequently considered a postmodernist, he sharply criticized postmodernists such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme. He expounded on his philosophy of writing in his most provocative book On Moral Fiction (1978). In this work, he argues that literature that has no moral center has no reason to exist. The true purpose of art, he maintains, is to express eternal truth, that which uplifts without sentimentality and redeems without pity. His scathing criticism of contemporary writers did not win Gardner many popularity contests among his fellow writers at the time, but today he is remembered as much for his analysis and philosophy of literature as he is for his fiction.

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