Garrett in 1963
age of narrow specialization, a writer who does it all
By Robert Brickhouse
a young, Florida-born writer and former amateur boxer sporting
an infectious grin and a growing literary reputation arrived here
in 1962 to take a newly created position in the English
department, the novelist and poet R.H.W. Dillard recently
recalled, "although the term had not yet been invented by
physicists, ordered chaos is what ensued. Students began congregating
in faculty offices and in the hall, carrying manuscripts, talking
loudly, even playing an oddly narrow and elongated baseball game
with a red plastic ball and bat ..."
of wisdom from George Garrett
the writing process: Sometimes I don't have the slightest
idea where something is going. But that's one of the pleasures
of it, finding out how you work.
On teaching: It's not our duty to discourage. On
the other hand, it's not honest to be overly encouraging.
On publishing: Today you have to be tough, but people
have succeeded in spite of everything.
as he prepares to retire as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative
Writing (on his second tour of duty at U.Va.), George Garrett,
the author of some 30 books and editor of 19 others, and holder
of prestigious honors as fiction writer, poet and essayist, has
still been known to attract moments of ordered chaos. But, he
says, "it has become in some way, for better or for worse,
slightly more respectable to be doing this."
is talking about writing and the teaching of writing. During his
tenure, the graduate Creative Writing Program of which he has
been a mainstay has built a reputation as one of the best in the
country. Garrett has helped countless students learn about the
craft and themselves and often see their stories into print or
first books published.
is a kind of writer that is essentially vanishing, a true man
of letters," says George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review
has a venerable tradition of affiliation with writers, from the
days of Poe as a student to noted writers-in-residence such as
Katherine Anne Porter and William Faulkner. But the idea of having
a working writer to teach regularly on the English staff was new
in the 1960s when Garrett -- at 32 already the author of several
well-received books of fiction and poetry -- was invited here.
He eventually went on to teach at other universities too, including
Michigan and his alma mater Princeton, and to help found the Associated
Writing Programs, the national organization for university writing
workshops. He even had a stint writing Hollywood scripts. All
the while Garrett kept assisting and boosting the careers of young
writers and colleagues with a generosity that has become famous
around the country.
Taylor, a student of his here in the earlier period who later
won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, has told how Garrett helped
assure the publication of Taylor's first book by withdrawing an
already accepted manuscript of his own because the publisher had
room for only one more book that season.
returned to U.Va. in 1984 to take the Hoyns professorship. He
was writing by then in an broad and sometimes experimental array
of styles and genres, often to highest acclaim: stories, novels,
poems, criticism, essays, plays and the editing of anthologies
of other writers.
his wide-ranging kind may be vanishing, Garrett himself has no
intent to. This restless, questing creativity continues to pour
forth steadily, in longhand and from an old typewriter. "Sometimes
I don't have the slightest idea where something is going,"
he says about the writing process. "But that's one of the
pleasures of it, finding out how you work."
trilogy of novels set in Elizabethan England -- Death of the Fox,
The Succession and Entered from The Sun -- has been called among
the most imaginative historical recreations in modern literature.
His fiction has ranged from this Renaissance scholarship to portraits
of small-town Southern life, from Army tales to politics to wildly
full range of his classic, often anthologized short stories may
be sampled in his 1984 collection, An Evening Performance. For
his work in this genre he has received the highest honors, including
the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction. John Updike and Saul
Bellow were the two previous winners of that award when Garrett
became the third in 1990.
who directs the writing program at Hollins College, has listed
in an essay some of the qualities of Garrett's fiction: "directness,
seriousness, a Chaucerian comic sense which in no way conflicts
with that seriousness, imaginative vigor, sheer intelligence Š"
Dillard says, "has always continued to grow and change in
his work while so many of his contemporaries have faltered or
simply repeated themselves in book after book."
The poet and critic Neal Bowers recently said about him that "in
an age of narrow specialization he is one of those rare writers
who lives at ease in several genres."
genial, personal essays, examples of which may be found most recently
in Bad Man Blues: A Portable George Garrett (1998), have been
included in the annual Best American Essays.
Cited in 1989 as "one of the most inventive and artistic writers
of his generation,² he won the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing,
a $20,000 international prize whose recipients have included Walker
Percy, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Eugene Ionesco, and Jorge Luis
for Garrett, who turned 70 this year, will simply mean more time
for writing. As if he hadn't tried enough new things, he has just
published his first electronic poem in The Cortland Review. But,
he quickly adds about the Internet, "Nothing's going to replace
having a book in your hands. It's the single most efficient means
of communication anyone's ever come up with."
In the spring he and his wife, Susan Garrett, an author of nonfiction
books, both will spend some intensive writing time at the Bellagio
center for creative arts on Lake Como in Italy.
about his protean ability to move from one form to another, Garrett
says he believes there is ultimately little difference among genres,
that all are linked through an urge to create and communicate.
As for his ever-surprising variety of subject matter (which includes
the screenplay for "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster"),
he says that meets a creative need too. When he was writing his
meditative Elizabethan novels, for example, he found he was also
writing poetry on "everyday" topics (which for Garrett
might range from musing on teaching to Southern politicians to
the deeper meaning of a bear wandering through his neighborhood).
And when he was working on comic or satiric or rural fiction,
"the poems tended to be a little high-falutin.'"
teaching writing, Garrett says, he has never viewed himself as
a "gatekeeper" to the field. "It's not our duty
to discourage. It's been my experience that some of the most talented
writers didn't go on to do that much, and some less talented went
on to do fine work." On the other hand, "it's not honest
to be overly encouraging." Creative writing programs and
workshops, he says, although they present some real danger that
American writing may become "increasingly institutionalized,"
are useful to learn both about sensitive reading and writing and
to provide "time to find out how you work best."
his advice for writing students is to remember the power of revision,
to build the five senses into a narrative to give it the texture
of life, and also to remember the power of suspense. In a recent
essay on craft, in the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer,
Garrett speaks about the freedom a creative writer has to name
new things and make new worlds. He says, perhaps explaining some
about all he has done, "You are Adam and you are Eve, every
day at your desk."