John Gardner in Absentia

In 1964 I had a high school English teacher who, fifteen or so years earlier, had taught John Gardner, the famous novelist. Her name was Helen Schenk, and she taught at Alexander, a high school in rural Upstate New York. I was a poor student. Whatever magic she had worked on Gardner fizzled on me. Early on she lost patience with my answers to her questions in class and thereafter directed them to other students. She refused to allow me to join Future Teachers of America, she being the faculty adviser for the school’s chapter. I do not mean to imply that she singled me out for excommunication because, in fact, her classroom was a suzerainty of intolerance. That was the spring when the Beatles invaded, and boys who had the audacity to comb their hair down over their foreheads were made to sit in the back of the room.

I did not know then that she’d had such a stellar student. I did not even know who Gardner was, since he did not publish his first novel Resurrection until 1966; in fact I wasn’t aware of him at all until he published The Sunlight Dialogues which became a bestseller. The only John Gardner to enter my universe that year was a local man, who was the father of the soon-to-be-famous writer. John Gardner, Sr. was remarkable in his own way. A successful dairy farmer, he was also an itinerant reciter of poetry, a kind of modern rhapsode. With some three or four hours of verse stored in his brain, he loved to be invited to civic functions to recite, mostly Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes. Mrs. Schenk loved him and invited him to recite for her students, but she only asked him to recite for the A and B classes.

I had daydreamed my way down to the C class, a non-college-bound curriculum that included courses like business math where we learned to balance checkbooks and ledgers. I never learned those things well either. I was the only C class student taking Latin because my mother had insisted on it, and was prepared to belt the principal in the head if he tried to stop me.

The day that I first laid eyes on John Sr. he was in the school hallway, shaking hands with people—he was lean and sunburned with his hair slicked down with oil, like nearly all farmers I knew in that largely agricultural community of Alexander. Another student told me who he was and why he was there, and for which classes. I laughed it off at the time, but I was deeply hurt by the slight. I loved poetry. And it was being withheld because I had a C stamped on my head.

Years later I became friends with John Sr., and when I understood the sort of man he was, I realized that had he known that an entire stratum of students was kept away from his poetry recitals because a teacher thought them sub-literate, he would have been horrified—actually, he was an emotional man and he might have cried— and so I never told him of the incident. By the time I got to know him he was a stroke victim and had sold off his dairy herd. He walked with both hands clutching a stroller and couldn’t speak, except when he felt emotional enough that reserve synapses forced his tongue to work. And yet—and this boggled my mind at the time—he could sing along softly to some mawkish song like “The Rose” by Bette Midler. He could laugh too, and heartily.

I was living north of Alexander then, near Batavia, the city that was the setting for some of John Gardner’s fiction, including The Sunlight Dialogues. My first wife Mary, an Irish-styled harpist and folksinger, had joined an informal local breakfast group that included John Sr., his wife Priscilla and her sister Lucy, and one morning she asked me to come along. Frankly, I didn’t want to hang with that group. I was in my early thirties, working for minimum wage in a bookshop and writing poetry and short stories that were being rejected by magazines as fast as I could write them—a failure, as far as I was concerned (maybe Mrs. Schenk was right, I thought)—and I was afraid that if I went to the Gardner house to pick up the elderly parents for breakfast I might run into the author himself, even though he had moved away decades before and now visited only occasionally. I respected him the way I did Thomas Wolfe and Sherwood Anderson and few others—an American original, genius, etc.—and I thought I would melt even under his casual gaze and probably prove myself an idiot. But I went.

It was a warm Sunday morning in May or June of 1982 when we went to pick up the Gardners for breakfast. Their house was east of Batavia on a hilly rural road, an enormous, rambling brick structure that seemed molded to the side of a hill. My stomach was in a knot as we pulled up the long rocky driveway. We got out and climbed the porch and knocked on the door; we went in and I shook John Sr.’s left hand, while he clutched a three-pronged cane with his right. And I met Priscilla, the author’s mother.

In a sense, I was stepping into The Sunlight Dialogues, the novel in which Priscilla and John Sr. are called Mildred and Will Hodge. I recognized them, or at least I recognized Priscilla who, as Mildred, is described as walking like a domino, which is precisely the way she walked as she came to greet us, swinging her short, stocky body (barely five feet, as I recall) with every step, just as one would imagine a domino to move. I do not know how old they were at the time, probably in their mid-seventies. I saw the usual framed collages of family pictures on their walls, like you find in homes all over America, except that one person in every frame was a slightly chubby man with long white hair spilling over his shoulders and a pipe in his mouth, one of the few American novelists that people might recognize anywhere. After introductions, Priscilla turned and called toward the kitchen, “We’re going now.”

A shadow fell across the kitchen door. Oh no, I thought, and it occurred to me that this was very much like a scene from Sunlight, the very way John Gardner would introduce a deadly character. But the shadow was not the author, it was Aunt Lucy, the oldest of the clan. She was coming with us. As I helped Priscilla into our car, she pointed to something in her yard that I had been looking at and wondering about, great clumps of white tumbling in the breeze, like fur torn from fighting polar bears.

“That’s the author’s hair,” she chuckled. “We gave him a haircut on the porch yesterday.” So, John Gardner’s famous long locks were gone. Then she added, “I wish we’d cut it in April, then the birds could have made their nests out of it.”

I became fast friends with the Gardners, as Mary had already. Each time we picked the couple up for a breakfast it happened miraculously that John the Titan (they called him Bud, and almost never John) was not there, to my mixed relief and disappointment, often having visited and left only hours before. At breakfast Priscilla would interpret for John Sr.’s various grunts, at least his simplest messages. Later I would learn what a difficult marriage theirs had been at times, but undeniably close enough that they were at least moderately happy now in their infirmities. They loved to talk about Bud, and had no compunction about turning any conversation to a discussion of his books. Once they even brought up the masterful story “Redemption,” in the collection The Art of Living and Other Stories, as well as the genesis of that story: the farming accident in which Bud was driving a tractor that dragged a cultipacker over his younger brother Gilbert and killed him. He would suffer guilt and nightmares for the rest of his life, and they understood that it drove him nearly crazy. Except that, in their world, it was purely an accident, and no fictional treatment could convince them otherwise, although in the story it was more complicated than that.

But while a subject such as Bud’s deadly carelessness with a tractor could be discussed openly between swallows of scrambled eggs, the subject of his more current difficulties, such as accusations of plagiarism over his book on Chaucer, went unmentioned. If I had been boorish enough to bring it up it would have taken the color out of their faces, because, as I was to learn, it was really not his novels that they most admired in their son, but his position and reputation as a teacher and scholar. A man with a doctorate. To comprehend this, one must understand the nature of farm families of John Sr. and Priscilla’s generation, which in Upstate New York was not terribly different from their counterparts in rural New England. There was still a degree of puritan principles in currency. Fame is ephemeral, and if one is fortunate (or fool) enough to become famous for something positive, one should enjoy its brevity with humility. Education, however, especially education put to use in teaching others, was given the garland. John Gardner was a psychological novelist—in the tradition of Dostoyevsky— but one who came from the farm (much as Hesiod, or Whittier, or John Claire came from the farm), from parents who recited Shakespeare, trading roles in King Lear while milking the cows (they really did). But even better, he was a teacher, and a superb one, according to his students such as Raymond Carver.

But back to breakfast. John Sr. and Priscilla had the most pedestrian of food predilections. They liked to go to a particular combination dairy-store/ short-order diner where the wobbly three-legged tables were surrounded by milk fridges, shelves of canned goods and a lurid magazine rack, and where one ate from a Styrofoam plate and drank skunky coffee from a plastic cup. Sometimes Mary and I invited them to our house—a tiny cottage, really—where we would rustle up a fare of whole-wheat pancakes or corncakes and real maple syrup, and they absolutely loved it. But left to their own devices they ultimately ordered down. One Thanksgiving Day our phone was out of order, but we needed to contact relatives, so we gathered some quarters and dimes and headed into town where the Miss Batavia Diner still had an old fashioned wooden phone booth. There at a table was John Sr., Priscilla, and Bud’s sister Lucy (named for the older Lucy) eating a Thanksgiving dinner of cheeseburgers, chili con carne, and French fries. We joined them for awhile.

I never told them that I was a writer. They somehow assumed I was, and occasionally asked me how it was going. And they told me to stick with it, or Priscilla did and John Sr. nodded, the same advice that they had no doubt given their son long before. In fact they were part of the reason that I did not give up in that critical time when I could not publish—that, and my own orneriness. If I did, Mary would have been disappointed, but she would have accepted it and even sympathized to some degree. But I do not think that I could have faced John and Priscilla with the news that I was not writing, that the rejection slips had won the war. And what if Bud had shown up at one of those breakfasts?

 

***

 

On September 15, 1982 I took a break from the bookstore and went across the street to a diner for dinner. When I sat down at the counter an old man handed a newspaper to me. “A lot of people are dying,” he said.

Leicester Hemingway, brother of Ernest Hemingway, had killed himself with a handgun in Miami the previous day. And novelist John Gardner had died in a motorcycle accident in rural Pennsylvania, just south of where he had been teaching at SUNY College at Binghamton, New York. He was 49. That was mid-week. Bud was to have been married the following Saturday to a woman named Susan Thornton who would have been his third wife. Instead, his funeral was going to be on Sunday.

I phoned Mary from the bookstore, and she filled me in on some of the known details. Apparently the phone tree of friends was on overdrive. We decided that we would go and see John and Priscilla in the morning. But driving home from the bookstore that night it dawned on me that now I was never going to meet John Gardner. Like Godot he would never show up on my stage, but unlike Godot, I was going to his funeral. How stupid, tragic, ironic, ridiculous.

We got to the Gardner house a little after 9 a.m., their regular visiting nurse was just leaving, and they looked ashen. Priscilla asked us to sit down at their kitchen table and eat donuts with them. As often happens to bereaved families, someone had delivered about fifteen pounds of pastries and she didn’t know what to do with them all. Priscilla could always talk, even if no one else could, and she discussed the funeral arrangements. She also said that they had been lying awake much of the night, and that John Sr. had suddenly blurted out in the dark—one of his emotionally forced utterances—“It wasn’t the bike.”

Whatever he meant by that, I am not sure, since even if he was in a mood to elaborate now on what he’d said the night before, speaking was too difficult. Nor did Priscilla try to add meaning to it. But I think he meant that his son had not died because of any mechanical malfunction or driver error. Something else must have happened. Bud had been on his way from his home to his office at SUNY Binghamton to meet with a student and had crashed alone on a winding rural road. Maybe a deer or a dog had run in front of him. According to Barry Silesky’s account in John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, a woman in a nearby house heard the crash, but no one actually witnessed it. Bud died at the scene, probably. But he was declared dead at the hospital in Binghamton.

“Well,” I mumbled, “he was a great writer.” There were nods of agreement around the table. Then I added, “And he was a great teacher,” which sent John Sr. into a spasm of sobs.

The wake was held at the H. E. Turner Funeral Home in Batavia, where Bud’s fiancé Susan stood near the closed casket and greeted his hometown friends, many of whom she was no doubt meeting for the first time. I didn’t know what to say to her, naturally. But, ashen faced and beautiful, she struck me as extraordinarily strong. After all, it was Saturday night, which was supposed to have been her wedding night, and instead she was having to stand up and receive condolences. It occurred to me that she must have been, besides overwhelmed with grief, angry. How could she not have been?

The Gardners invited everyone they knew to the funeral, including Bud’s ex-wives. He was buried in Grandview Cemetery on Clinton St. in Batavia, next to his brother Gilbert who had died more than three decades earlier. The two brothers occupy graves that John Sr. and Priscilla had bought for themselves. “It’s just as well,” Priscilla told an acquaintance with her characteristic humor when Bud took the last spot, “John [Sr.] and I would have only fought over that other grave.”

It was the largest funeral I had ever attended, and the only one where I sat next to a reporter (from The Baltimore Sun), or where TV cameras were waiting outside. And one other thing: it was the only funeral I’ve been to that had original music written for it, in a manner of speaking. Warren Benson, a composer at the Eastman School of Music, and a friend of Bud’s, had been hard at work on a French horn piece for the wedding when he got the news of his friend’s death. So the piece was played at the funeral, unfinished, a melody that suddenly breaks off, like Bud’s life.

 

***

 

In my life as a writer and editor I have known a lot of writers’ families. All of them have been remarkable in some way; maybe one or two have been downright bizarre. One task of the literary biographer is to present the family in all its warts and idiosyncrasies in hope of providing—besides an interesting story—an examination of the foundation of a writer’s art and imagination. This is even harder than it sounds, and in many cases impossible to hit with any accuracy, and is the reason I never took up that trade. Who the hell knows what makes a writer tick? Certainly a family that recited Shakespeare in the milking parlor, a father who could recite poetry for hours without repeating himself, has a good chance of producing a remarkable child—but not necessarily an artist. They could just as easily have produced a fine truck driver (which, indeed Bud’s younger brother Jim was), or a member of congress.

But one story that Priscilla told not many months after Bud’s death struck me as more illustrative of the family’s character—and John Sr.’s own imagination–than any other I have heard about them. She said that, when Bud and his siblings were young children, John Sr. had gone out to cut a pine for their Christmas tree. It was a huge one, and when he dragged it into the house—while the kids were still in school— it was too tall even for their twelve-foot ceiling (which was common in the more prosperous old farmhouses in the northeast). He lopped off the top, but then he got an idea. He erected it so that the cut top butted against the ceiling, then went to an upstairs bedroom and drilled a hole in the floor and stood the tip of the tree in the hole, creating the illusion that he had somehow made the tree extend through the ceiling. Naturally the kids fell for it.

John Sr. and Priscilla were the first couple that I ever knew—and I have known few others since—who maintained a warm relationship with a spouse divorced from one of their children. Bud’s second marriage was to poet Liz Rosenberg. After the divorce, I could not see any obvious way that her relationship with John Sr. and Priscilla was clouded. In fact, they were also very friendly with Liz’s new husband David. The two of them visited frequently, and one night while Mary and I were visiting, David and Liz appeared with a new microwave for John and Priscilla, and David set it up in the kitchen. They had decided that the elderly couple were becoming too infirm to keep cooking for themselves on the stove, and needed something safer and more practical. The Gardners obviously loved Liz, and liked David. Where, I wondered, were the hard feelings?

 

***

So, I never met John Gardner, the author, though I loved his books, and I was close to his family, I saw his white hair blowing across the grass, and I went to his funeral. But what of it? He was gone. Some of his books will always be on the proverbial shelf, such as Grendel, Nickel Mountain, and The Sunlight Dialogues.  I assign his book The Art of Fiction to my students at the Solstice MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Boston because I think it is still the best book on the subject. His other book on writing, On Becoming a Novelist, I have read so many times that the spine is gone and I hold it together with a rubber band.

But, though he still has loyal readers who read everything he ever wrote, there remains something curious about his popularity. His characters, for the most part, tend to be rural people, quirky but recognizable to other rural people, and his settings are small towns in an age when the plots of most books were more focused on the affluent, the outrageous, the high jinx, and certainly urban, as of course they still are. I do not mean to so categorize him, for he had a far broader range than that, yet those kinds of characters, and settings such as Batavia, New York, and Nickel Mountain, are more readily associated with him than the coast of Medieval Denmark in Grendel (the story of Beowulf told from the monster’s perspective), or the mythic settings of the Gilgamesh which he translated with Sumerologist John Maier.  Gore Vidal once called him “The apostle to the lowbrow.”

Of course, I wish I’d had even one good conversation with him about our favorite books. Sometimes I think that I did, that I had met and talked with him, and I actually have to remind myself that, no, I did not meet him, that we never spoke. It is, after all, an eerie and extraordinary experience to become friends with people whom you first met as characters in a novel—and not just any novel, but one that had captured me body and soul for a long stretch of evenings.

But, there was one other thing. One summer night when I was a teenager, I was roaming the midway of the Genesee County fair near Batavia, looking for trouble to get into. I threw a stone, I do not remember why or what I was throwing it at, but it hit a man who was up on a small stage selling appliances. It didn’t hurt him, but he hollered for the police and a security man chased me up the midway, hot on my heels.

I haven’t been to such a fair in decades, so I do not know what kind of entertainment they have now. But in the 1960s, a county fair like this one still had a girlie show. Farmers would look around to be sure their wives or neighbors weren’t watching, and they’d drop a quarter in the hand of the barker and duck under the flap. Outside the tent, protruding into the midway, was a U-shaped stage with footlights. Whenever business started to flag, the barker brought his girls out to dance on the edge of the stage in their scanty get-ups, and wiggle-wiggle. Anyway, that is what was going on when the security guard caught me by one arm, right in front of the stage, and as he dragged me away I looked up wonderingly at the dancing girls, who looked down at me curiously.

In The Sunlight Dialogues, that same thing happens. Not precisely, of course, because the perpetrator is not a teenage white boy but a Seneca Indian boy, caught in front of the dancing girls. And different circumstances follow. But when I first read it, I broke into a frigid sweat of recognition. Evidently, Bud had been nearby and witnessed it, or part of it. He’d made a mental note, and eventually used it. In On Becoming a Novelist he discusses the importance of writers witnessing and making mental notes for later use. I do it. I think all fiction writers do. I could be wrong about the genesis of that scene in his book, but I do not think so.

John Sr. and Priscilla, as I have said, provided me with an impetus to keep writing when I was at a most critical and vulnerable point—perhaps unwittingly, but nevertheless they did. And in return, I read poetry for them in the evenings. The irony of my reading for John Sr., who was now unable to read aloud himself, whose own recitations had been denied me as a high school student, were not lost on me, but those were wonderful evenings, they both loved to be read to, and they were a great audience. One night, I read Hayden Carruth’s long poem “Marshall Washer” about a Vermont farmer and his tenuous hold on his land in a time when farmers all over the country were going out of business. They were struck by the accuracy of what Carruth said in the poem. “He knows, he knows,” Priscilla said. But I thought I had made a terrible gaff when I read these lines:

 

his sons

departed, caring little for the farm because

he had educated them—he who had left school

in 1931 to work at his father’s side

on an impoverished farm in an impoverished time.

 

John Sr. burst into tears. I stopped reading; I wanted to crawl behind the couch. But Priscilla waved for me to continue. “Tears are his highest compliment,” she said.

And there was another unexpected turnabout. One winter afternoon while I was visiting the Gardners and Liz Rosenberg was there, I nervously read some of my new poems. Liz, who was editor of the literary magazine MSS, liked them and asked me to send them to her. She was the first editor to publish my poems in a nationally circulated literary magazine, which of course replenished my confidence and changed my life.

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