American night writer

When John Gardner came to Chico, nobody knew he would go on to become one of America’s most famous writers

Among the qualities a writer most needs, wrote John Gardner, is “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” Such was his need to work that, after attending parties in Chico, he’d stay up all night writing. He’s shown here in a photo taken shortly before his death by his son Joel, who was born in Chico.

Among the qualities a writer most needs, wrote John Gardner, is “an almost daemonic compulsiveness.” Such was his need to work that, after attending parties in Chico, he’d stay up all night writing. He’s shown here in a photo taken shortly before his death by his son Joel, who was born in Chico.

Photo By Joel Gardner

That fall at Chico State I enrolled in classes that most freshman students have to take, but I enrolled as well for something called Creative Writing 101. This course was going to be taught by a new faculty member named John Gardner, who was already surrounded by a bit of mystery and romance. It was said that he’d taught previously at Oberlin College but had left there for some reason that wasn’t made clear. One student said Gardner had been fired—students, like everyone else, thrive on rumor and intrigue—and another student said Gardner had simply quit after some kind of flap. Someone else said that his teaching load at Oberlin, four or five classes of freshman English each semester, had been too heavy and that he couldn’t find time to write. For it was said that Gardner was a real, that is to say a practicing, writer—someone who had written novels and short stories. In any case, he was going to teach CW 101 at Chico State, and I signed up.”

—Raymond Carver

At the Meriam Library at California State University, Chico, you can check out a 16-milimeter film called Creative Writing. In the film, made in 1961, a crew-cut and black-suited John Gardner stares straight into the camera, smokes incessantly and talks, apparently improvisationally, about the differences between caricature and character in fiction.

Gardner uses his own cartoons, which he draws for us on a chalkboard, to illustrate the shallowness of caricature, and paintings, by Ken Morrow of the Chico State Art Department, to show the complexities of well-developed character. Along the way he discusses philosophy, phrenology, ancient astrology, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, the Virgin Mary, race and ax murderers. Chillingly, the film ends with Gardner in mid-sentence—it chatters and chops, the screen turns green, and it’s over.

No one seems to know how long the film originally ran, but the 17 minutes that remain are a testament to the genius of one of the most important American writers of the 20th century, one who passed through Chico many years ago in the early stages of a distinguished writing career that lasted over a quarter-century, until his premature death in 1982.

The fall to which Raymond Carver refers would have been the fall of 1959. Carver would go on to become one of America’s most accomplished and critically acclaimed fiction writers—a master of the short story—in his own right.

Gardner’s love of motorcycles began at an early age, as this undated photo of him on a Harley suggests.

Courtesy Of Marge Cervone

Gardner, though he had published very little by the time he arrived at Chico State and was Carver’s creative-writing professor, would go on to write more than 30 books—novels, criticism, children’s books—and more than a hundred stories, poems, articles and essays. Among Gardner’s best-known works is the novel Grendel, the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view, a book that is still frequently taught in high-school English classes around the country. My own freshman-composition students are often surprised to learn that the author of one of their favorite books once taught in the classroom in which they sit and work to polish their own writing.

Much more than a writer, Gardner was also a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, which features prominently in his fiction, a banjo and French-horn player, a graphic artist, a cartoonist and an opera lyricist. A business card that Gardner used when he was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Detroit in 1971 reads:

Prof. John C. Gardner
A.B., M.A., Ph.D., D.V.P
Medievalist, Novelist, Banjoist, Lyric and Epic Poet
Consultant on All Subjects
Occasional Poems for All Occasions
Lecturer for Ladies’ Clubs, etc.
And General Good Advice

But above all, he saw himself as a storyteller, one whose primary mission was to be unconditionally honest with his readers while making up just about everything he wrote. In the preface to his book On Moral Fiction, he writes, “Almost all modern art is tinny, commercial, immoral. Let a state of war be declared not between art and society but between those age-old enemies, the real and the fake.”

John Champlin Gardner was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, N.Y., and at an early age nicknamed “Budd,” the Welsh word for poet. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher in the Presbyterian church; his mother was an English teacher. As a child Gardner studied music, specializing in the French horn. When he started college, at DePauw University, he planned to study chemistry.

He came to Chico in the fall of 1959, after having been fired from Oberlin for leading a faculty strike, and left in 1962. While here, Gardner published, in collaboration with Professor Lennis Dunlap, The Forms of Fiction, an anthology of short stories by Poe, Chekhov, O’Connor and many others. Additionally, Gardner and Dunlap founded MSS, a literary journal that published work by such notable writers as W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates and William Gass. The publication was illustrated by local artists, including Ken Morrow and Janet Turner, who was the journal’s art editor.

Gardner collaborated with Ken Morrow, a noted painter and sculptor who taught in the Chico State Art Department, on a children’s book, Dragon, Dragon. Three years after Gardner’s 1982 death in a motorcycle accident, Morrow and his wife died when their car slid on ice en route to show his work in Seattle.

Photo By Mark Thalman

Meanwhile Gardner continued to work on his own fiction, including The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain. In The Resurrection, Gardner playfully drops the names of some of his English Department colleagues, listing them as authors of books found on a library shelf: Lennis C. Dunlap is credited with writing Mesmerism and the Salesman, and Prof. P. Nordhus is supposedly the author of Capturing and Training the Elephant. At the same time, Gardner, Carver has written, “talked about James Joyce, Flaubert, and Isak Dinesen as if they lived just down the road, in Yuba City.”

The Prof. P. Nordhus to whom Gardner refers is Philip Nordhus, a professor emeritus of English who retired from the university in 1982. He and his wife, Anne, came to Chico in 1957, when Dr. Nordhus was hired to teach American literature at the then-tiny college. The Nordhuses were close with the Gardners and still stay in loose contact with Joan, John’s first wife.

I’ve known Dr. Nordhus since 1977, when I took an American literature survey course from him, and in 1982 his daughter, Elizabeth, and I were married. Frequently, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Phil and Anne talk about the “old days,” when the Nordhuses, the Dunlaps and other faculty would socialize with John and Joan Gardner. I’ve heard them discuss faculty meetings, picnics in Bidwell Park, and late-night parties with one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.

In 1961, Gardner self-published, with masking tape and staples, 10 copies of the first edition of his children’s book Dragon, Dragon and gave them away as inexpensive Christmas gifts to the children of his friends. The drawings, of dragons, witches, and princesses, are by Ken Morrow. The front page of my wife’s copy is inscribed, “To Betsy, John, and Sarah, Christmas, 1961, the Gardners.”

“What I remember is that he was always asking questions,” Anne says. “He wanted to know every detail about people’s lives. I think he was always writing. Everything for him was material for his fiction.”

He also loved to engage people in debate. Anne remembers that no matter your opinion on a topic, Gardner would take the contrary view, just for the sake of argument. “He loved to see how people’s minds worked,” she says.

Also, unlike many writers who have reputations as loners, Gardner loved to socialize. Anne and Phil remember frequent parties that the Gardners threw, both at their apartment on the corner of East Fifth Avenue and Mangrove (now Chalet Manor) and at their home on Madrone Avenue across from Sierra View Elementary School. “Then, after the parties, he’d stay up all night writing,” Phil says. “He wouldn’t have even eaten if Joan hadn’t brought him sandwiches.”

Gardner would have moved his office into Taylor Hall in 1960, the year that building was completed and where most English Department offices are located today. He also taught classes in Taylor, where students still take a wide range of creative-writing and other classes and read novels and books about writing that Gardner himself wrote. In fact, this summer, creative-writing professor Rob Davidson used Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction in a graduate seminar called Form and the Creative Process.

In 1962, after three years at Chico State, Gardner was fired by then-Chico State president Glenn Kendall, despite his being so popular that one year when he taught a summer school course a handful of his former Oberlin students showed up in town on their motorcycles to take his class. Although there is a certain degree of mystery and romance that surrounds his leaving—mostly having to do with a less-than-flattering history of Chico State that Gardner wrote—the real reason, apparently, is that by Kendall’s measure Gardner and Chico State just weren’t a good fit.

“John told me,” says Lennis Dunlap, “that Kendall looked at him and said, ‘Son, I’ve got you figured for a race horse. What we need around here are more plough horses.'” Gardner left for San Francisco State and a position in medieval studies.

Apparently, Gardner didn’t stop partying when he left Chico. In fact, according to David Haward Bain in Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, 1926-1992, Gardner had been hired to teach at the famous conference in 1974, and students and administration were a bit concerned when he hadn’t shown up by the first day.

Several days went by with no word, and no one at [Gardner’s] home at Carbondale, Ill., had any idea where he could be reached. General panic: What to do with the empty time slots for lectures, workshops, and readings and with orphaned student fiction writers? When Gardner did appear, it was at the wheel of a new Mercedes, his long white hair streaming out the window as he eased the car to a stop in front of the inn. He had just earned a fortune on a new contract or subsidiary-rights deal and had bought the luxury car to convey his wife, Joan, and children from Southern Illinois by way of Canada.

Anthony Hecht, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who had returned for the session, recalled what happened next. “Only a few days after he arrived, he all but totaled the car one night when he was driving drunkenly with his wife.”

At left is the account of Gardner’s death published in a September 1982 issue of the Chico News & Review. The photo of Gardner was taken earlier that year, at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. A gravestone marks the spot where he is buried, next to the grave of his brother Gilbert, in Batavia, N.Y.

In On Becoming a Novelist (published posthumously in 1983), Gardner talks at length not only about how to write but also about the sensibility of the fiction writer. “After a verbal sensitivity,” he says, “accuracy of eye, and a measure of the special intelligence of the storyteller, what the writer probably needs most is an almost daemonic compulsiveness.”

Carver writes:

“Before our conference, he would have marked up my story, crossing out unacceptable sentences, phrases, individual words, even some of the punctuation; and he gave me to understand that these deletions were not negotiable. We’d discuss commas in my story as if nothing else in the world mattered—and, indeed, it did not.”

While much of Gardner’s work makes use of his vast knowledge of and interest in fantasy and medieval literature, he also used his fiction to explore all the beauty and pain of living in the 20th century. One day in 1945, when Gardner was 12, he was driving a cultipacker on the family farm when he accidentally ran over and killed his little brother Gilbert. In the story “Redemption,” from The Art of Living, published 36 years later, Gardner writes:

“One day in April—a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David. … The younger brother was riding, as both of them knew he should not have been, on the cultipacker, a two-ton implement lumbering behind the tractor, crushing new-ploughed ground. Jack was twelve, his brother, David, seven. …When Jack turned to look, the huge iron wheels had reached his brother’s pelvis. He kept driving, reacting as he would to a half-crushed farm animal, and imagining, in the same stab of thought, that perhaps his brother would survive. Blood poured from David’s mouth.

“His father was destroyed by it. Sometimes Jack would find him lying on the cow-barn floor, crying, unable to stand up. Dale Hawthorne, the father, was a sensitive, intelligent man … [whose] mind swung violently at this time, reversing itself almost by hour, from desperate faith to the most savage, black-hearted atheism. Every sickly calf, every sow that ate her litter, was a new, sure proof that the religion he’d followed his life was a lie. Yet skeletons were orderly, as were, he thought, the stars. He was unable to decide, one moment full of rage at God’s injustice, the next moment wracked by doubt of His existence. … [He] would sometimes sit up all night now, or … ride away on his huge, darkly thundering Harley-Davidson 80, trying to forget, morbidly dwelling on what he’d meant to put behind him … or Dale Hawthorne would think, for the hundredth time, about suicide.”

John Gardner taught until 1965 at San Francisco State, where he began to publish the manuscripts he had been working on, and then moved to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and medieval studies. In April of 1970, he completed Grendel, which marked Gardner, according to a review in the New York Times, as a “major contemporary writer.”

In 1976, he completed October Light, In the Suicide Mountains and On Moral Fiction and resigned from Southern Illinois University. In 1977, October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and Gardner wrote both The Poetry of Chaucer and The Life and Times of Chaucer. In 1977, he took a position at the State University of New York at Binghampton, where he taught until his death in 1982.

I saw Gardner read at Marin Community College in 1981. His white hair was still long and leonine, and he commanded a powerful presence on stage. After he read “Redemption” and another short story called “The Music Lover,” he talked at length about the importance of believability in fiction. “If a character does something so apparently insignificant as to pick up a coffee cup,” he told the audience, “everything, absolutely everything about that character must lead to the inevitability of that small action.”

John Gardner was killed in 1982 in a motorcycle accident near Susquehanna, Penn., about two miles from his home. Ken Morrow died in February 1985, along with his wife, when their car slid out on ice when they were en route to show his work in Seattle. As if the abrupt ending of the Gardner-Morrow film weren’t chilling enough, there’s this: The dust cover of Gardner’s 1981 collection of short stories, The Art of Living, is illustrated with the drawing of a daemonic motorcycle rider barreling toward the viewer, with multiple images of the same rider fading into the dark background, becoming smaller and more and more skeleton-like, finally vanishing into the starry black night.

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