George Garrett died on Sunday at the age of 78. He was, in the words of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s blog, a “prolific author, screenwriter, professor, and beloved Charlottesville figure.” He was cofounder of the AWP, a national association of writers and writing programs. Perhaps most of all, he was a mentor to many, many young writers. Casey Clabough, Encyclopedia Virginia’s literature section editor, has this remembrance.
George Garrett’s chief strength and enormous uniqueness as an artist and writer may have rested primarily in his ability to say so much, to produce work of a consistently high order, in so many different ways—novels, stories, poems, plays, screenplays, criticism, and more. Yet it was this very talent that probably is most responsible for the fact that his work is not better known. Add to that a deep and unwavering biographical dimension of humility, rare among writers and other artists, and his underdeveloped literary reputation becomes understandable.
As an anonymous observer once remarked, “Part of his neglect probably results from the fact that Garrett has been so active for so long as an unselfish promoter of other people’s writing—people have tended to take his own accomplishments somewhat for granted.” Richly diverse in his literary concerns and wholly dedicated to addressing the challenges confronting novice contemporary writers, Garrett, to a significant degree, created the very conditions that made underappreciating his work possible.
Though perhaps detrimental to the reception of his own work, Garrett’s long service to writing and writers was singular and extensive. He taught at a number of very different institutions (among them, Alabama, Hollins, Michigan, Princeton, Rice, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wesleyan)—creating or fine-tuning writing programs at some of them—and everywhere he went he was a champion, both on-duty and off, of writing and literary culture.
In addition, accompanying Garrett’s institutional successes are a seemingly endless list of seminars, readings, conferences, and individual consultations and correspondences—nearly all of them documented across the more than 300 boxes of personal papers in the special collections libraries of Duke and Virginia—through which he fought for the same principles, usually without any direct benefit to our financial compensation for himself.
Garrett’s published meditations on literature, his numerous essays and reviews (collected and uncollected), perhaps are most useful in beginning to establish his relationship to and locating his place within the landscape of contemporary American literature. Unlike scholars and writers who reserve their publications for obscure and specialized journals, Garrett produced a large amount of writing aimed at the educated general public. Fueling this body of work is a strong, uncompromising belief in teaching the value of the arts to the everyday reader and citizen. Avoiding polemical readings and convoluted theoretical terminology, Garrett often attempted to demonstrate why a poem, novel, or historical study works or doesn’t work, and why its achievement or lack thereof is important to our collective literate culture. At work here is a practice that treats the nonspecialist reader of literature as a democratic equal in discussing and celebrating the value of the arts and writing. Far from embracing pure formalism or some other culturally irresponsible method of reading, Garrett repeatedly stressed the place of art in our society and daily lives.
Considering Garrett’s work in the continuum of American literary history, it is perhaps most profitable to place him in the tradition of the now exceedingly rare southern “man of letters”—he (or she) who embraces and produces literature in all its complexity and multiple forms (novels, short stories, poems, plays, criticism, translation, editing, and so on). This kind of southern writer, stretching back to Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps finds its best modern examples in the Nashville-based writers of the 1920s and 1930s (most notably Davidson, Ransom, Tate, and Warren). Whatever the ultimate value of their literary outputs, the sheer variation of what each of these writers produced is astonishing and almost unheard of in our own era of narrow specialization.
Chronologically, Garrett, born in 1929, probably was the most variously gifted southern writer to arrive on the scene following Robert Penn Warren (born in 1905). Yet Garrett’s achievement strays even beyond that of the Nashville icons in a number of respects, and perhaps most notably in his Hollywood writing. His best script, The Young Lovers (1964), based on a 1955 novel of the same name by Julian Halevy, would be Peter Fonda’s first film and recounts a college relationship between Eddie Slocum (Fonda) and Pam Burns (Sharon Hugueny). Of dubious distinction but more lasting fame is the script for Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965), cowritten with University of Virginia graduate students R. H. W. Dillard and John Rodenbeck.
In his essays, Garrett wrote extensively about the experiences of literary writers in Hollywood, most notably William Faulkner. Meanwhile, his own tour of duty in the West Coast film world afforded him yet another creative medium to work in while also making him grateful for and appreciative of the qualities of high art so obviously lacking in commercial film culture.
On a fundamental level, Garrett’s unique, swashbuckling style of variable artistic creation stemmed from an inherent ability to assimilate highly structured knowledge and artistic forms while simultaneously remaining skeptical of and detached from them. Completing the final proofs for his 1965 novel Do, Lord, Remember Me, he was less satisfied by his accomplishment than he was excited at his newfound ability to explore new aesthetic frontiers. He wrote in his notebooks, “Having finished (actually finishing today) final writing + reviews of Do, Lord, Remember Me, now a world of possibilities opens for me. What next? Many things + little time. Little time.”
George Garrett made the most of his time: in his personal life, his writing, and his service to students, fellow writers, and the humanities in general. Indeed, the volume of his accomplishments, laid out on a page, might seem to require a dozen lifetimes. It is difficult to believe they arose from one man. Garrett employed his time and talent to the maximum degree, and to the benefit of all who knew him and his work. As Sir Walter Raleigh remarks near the end of Garrett’s 1971 novel Death of the Fox, “If time were blood and the executioner struck my head now, there would be nothing left in me for a crowd to see.”
IN ADDITION: A farewell to Garrett from Charlottesville’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Hook