George Garrett (1929-2008)

Published:May 27, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

George Garrett, 1967 (courtesy University of Virginia Special Collections)

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


9 Comments on “George Garrett (1929-2008)”

  1. Nancy Damon

    George Garrett was a wonderful caring human being. He was a great friend and mentor, along with Susan, of so many writers. He was extremely helpful to the staff of the Virginia Festival of the Book.
    Just one quick memory.
    In 2003, George was the Poet Laureate of Virginia, and was the featured speaker at the Opening Ceremony of the Book Festival. This day in March also happened to be the beginning of the U.S. Invasion of Iraq.
    George gave quite a talk… not a political rant…just a poet’s look at war. It was, in this quiet way, more profound than one can imagine.

  2. Emily Pease

    I’ll always be both grateful and amazed that George opened his door to me, a complete novice at fiction writing, and allowed me to become a part of one of his classes, taught in his living room once a week (he’d choose the day, and it was always random), after which he’d lay out a spread of chips and cookies, sodas and warmish beer. By letting me in, George changed my life for the better. He became my mentor and my dear friend. I’ve dreaded the day he would pass on from this world, and now it has come. Bless his spirit. In my heart and memory he lives on.

  3. Patsy Anne Bickerstaff

    Just yesterday, I had mailed a card to George Garrett, to let him know I was thinking of him. My proudest accomplishment in the Poetry Society of Virginia…even prouder than being its president…was the fact that I had been the person who invited him to join us. He was a dear, kind person, an asset to Virginia and to literature, and a friend to all who knew him. He was greatly loved, and will be sorely missed.

  4. Kevin McFadden

    George Garrett told stories with such ease and frequency, you would think it was his way of breathing. It was his way of sharing, of opening lives to each other. Many he got the opportunity to write or sketch down in his novels, poems, essays and criticism…and surely more than he ever wrote down went with him as he passed. His works we have and will treasure. He did much that few will ever know to ensure that the active life of literature in this country would go on, that these stories would be preserved, that others could know what it was to live in our times. Today, the library is safe; but one of its great keepers has passed.

  5. Richard Bausch

    I was thirty-six and my second novel, TAKE ME BACK, had appeared and been slammed in the NY Times, and George was visiting my college to give a reading. I knew him well enough at that time to let down and relax, and laugh–we were, at that time, friendly associates with mutual pals: Mary Lee Settle, Joseph Maoilo. I complained about the reception to TAKE ME BACK, and he stopped me. “What exactly do you want?” he said. I was stunned. I said, “Huh?” He said, “Well, ask yourself–what is it exactly that you want. You want people throwing palm fronds in front of you as you enter the city?” I laughed and said, “Yeah. Damn right.” And he laughed. “Really, though–what is it that you want out of it? You’ve got a publisher who’s already contracted to do your next book. You have a book out. I know a dozen good writers who don’t have that.” He was fifty-three years old. He made me see Gully Jimson’s meaning: “The artist who expects complete understanding of his work is a fool.” He taught all the time, just by being who he was. And the work–well, as I said elsewhere, I think of what was said when Fitzgerald died, by Glenway Wescott, I think (though it could have been Stephen Vincent Benet, now that I think of it)–addressed to the critical establishment: “There comes a time when one should take one’s hat off, and gentleman I think you can take your hats off now.”

  6. Kelly Cherry

    I first met George in 1962. For all his rambunctious pranking, energetic joking, and fabulous stories, he could also be, to a young girl trying to be a writer before there were M.F.A. programs or widely available workshops or, pretty much, women writers, gentle, encouraging, and thoughtfully helpful. He continued in the same mode as I grew older and it was very much like having a guardian angel, someone who had your back. He was not just a man to be liked; he was a man to be loved, to be grateful for, to be treasured. He still is.

  7. David Madden

    I was especially proud that it was that fabled editor named George Garrett at BOTTEGHE OSCURE who published my first short story.

    Pretty soon I got proud of being among an increasing number of writers in all genres who had gone into orbit around George Garrett, so that I seized the opportunity as early as 1970, when George was only 41, to pay homage to such a man in the pages of THE NEW REPUBLIC, in my review of an anthology of TRANSATLANTIC REVIEW stories: “and there in Paris was George Garrett, whose motiveless magnanimity toward young writers makes agents superfluous.”

    For me, as for many, the fabled George Garrett became George, the friend, the fabulous, animated without a lull by fresh ideas and sharp insights, such as the girl in the black rain coat anthology. Come to think of it, George was a sort of Harpo Marx, his overcoat overflowing with notions and surprises, but also, incongruously, a sort of Groucho Marx when the absurd tickled him pink.

    Thank God I have a photo of George and me in Richmond, in 1973, on stage, winging it–the bright lights catching only our beaming faces and George’s gesturing hand, blurred in action.

    The day he died, I opened one of his works at random and dove into “A Wreath for Garibaldi” [another of my heroes]. George remembers agonizing over whether to keep a promise to a friend to lay a wreath at Garibaldi’s statue in Rome, deciding not to, for reasons that made him feel ashamed, but finally not.

    I imagine that none of us who are missing George will lack occasions to lay memories as symbolic wreathes at George’s feet, feet not of stone–feet stepping toward us, hands in flight, that grin signalling the beginning of another great delivery.

    George in each of our lives was a recurring blessing and–get this [I am grinning a George grin]–that blessing for each of us is magnified by our belonging to a legion of the blessed.

  8. Kenn Amdahl

    Writers recognize a doorway to some higher plane; poets open that door so that mortals can see beyond for a moment. George knew how to operate that door as well as anyone. But he’ll be remembered most fondly for teaching simpler craftsmen to open it themselves while he stood back, a big grin on his face.

    As one of the simplest of those minor craftsmen, I just want to say thanks, George, for the brief time I got to spend at your feet, and for the times you blessed my crude work, and praised it in the face of all objective evidence.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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