John Gardner Biography

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Grendel Author/Context

John Gardner was born in 1933 and grew up in Batavia, New York. A classical scholar and an insatiable reader, he nevertheless avoided the literary uppercrust, preferring to speak his own mind, whether or not he offended people. He was married twice and was preparing to wed a third time when he died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49. His reputation as a novelist, philosopher, and dynamic personality was solidified at the time of his death, and has perhaps grown since then.

Grendel is in large part Gardner's response to existentialism. This philosophy, whose most famous supporter was Jean-Paul Sartre, proclaims that people have the power and responsibility to create their own identities--a person is born with a "blank slate" that he or she must fill in. This can be extended to mean that each person creates his or her own world. Grendel, a parody of an existentialist, believes not just that his perceptions make up his reality, but that he created the world through his perceptions. He believes he is the center of the universe. He also, like some existentialists, believes that life is pointless. When he sees the Danes building their society, seemingly oblivious to the meaninglessness of their lives, he is furious and vows to destroy them. Grendel, in many ways, is meant to represent Sartre himself, who Gardner admired but also criticized.

Gardner's other major philosophical influences, in Grendel and elsewhere, include Alfred North Whitehead (Gardner saw himself in much of Whitehead's work) and the Medieval conception of Platonic philosophy. This is a schema that defines humankind's struggle to be moral: we are intelligent and civilized, but we are also animals, so we must learn to reconcile that conflict. Gardner once said, "That system comes up in disguise after disguise and it can always be modernized; it can be Vishnu, Brahma, Siva, or God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, or ego, superego, id-it just keeps shape-shifting."

Morality was one of Gardner's primary concerns throughout his life. He believed that art, and fiction in particular, could be a moral force: an educator for a confused society. While he did not believe that the United States was in moral decline, he did criticize contemporary novelists and their works. He believed that writers were shunning their responsibilities as teachers. They were obligated, he believed, to try to tell the truth and to take themselves seriously. These ideas are explored in Gardner's 1978 book, On Moral Fiction. He was a self-appointed and very opinionated cultural critic, which, at a time of experimentation and freedom in American fiction, earned him disapproval from some and admiration from others.

Gardner's other books include several novels and critical works. While Grendel, published early in his career, made his reputation, The Sunlight Dialogues, published a year later, is considered his most complex and ambitious novel. It consists of a series of dialogues between a police chief and a madman. Their talks trace Babylonian cultural history, and its Hebraic counterpart. October Light, a similarly theoretical work, was published in 1976 and discussed the state of intellectualism in America, and its future. Gardner wanted, in part, to explore the nature of heroism, and the dangers and benefits of mythologizing heroes. Though his novels are full of philosophy and history, they are rarely dense or pretentious. He enjoyed including jokes at even the most somber moments in his books. Gardner also wrote several plays, including Death and the Maiden, edited numerous fiction and nonfiction anthologies, and wrote a number of children's books.


Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

McWilliams, Dean. John Gardner: Twayne's United States Author Series. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Morris, Gregory L. A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

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