John Champlin Gardner was born in Batavia, New York, on July 21, 1933, to John Champlin, a dairy farmer and lay Presbyterian preacher, and Priscilla Gardner, an English teacher. A few months shy of his twelfth birthday, Gardner inadvertently killed his younger brother Gilbert in a gruesome accident, running him over with a heavy farm machine. The incident haunted Gardner for the rest of his life in the form of nightmares and flashbacks, and the deep psychological wound it caused inspired and informed much of Gardner’s work, particularly the posthumously published novel Stillness (1986).
In his youth, Gardner developed an interest in cartoons and comics, and that medium’s fantastic, over-the-top quality pervades his fiction. Gardner often uses grotesque, cartoonish imagery to distance readers emotionally from his characters, so as to avoid overly sentimental interpretations. An avid cartoonist and illustrator himself, Gardner insisted that all of his novels written for the Knopf publishing firm be illustrated. Grendel (1971), for example, features the nearly abstract woodcuts of Emil Antonucci, which serve to enhance the novel’s surreal, fanciful tone.
Gardner went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in St. Louis in 1955 and then attended the University of Iowa for graduate study. At Iowa he studied medieval literature and creative writing, eventually combining his two academic interests in his doctoral dissertation, a novel called The Old Men. Gardner accepted a teaching position at Oberlin College in Ohio directly after leaving Iowa, and he continued to teach at various universities for the rest of his life. He gained prominence as a teacher of creative writing, particularly at institutions such as the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.
Gardner was a prolific and mercurial writer, producing a remarkable thirty-five volumes in just twenty-five years. The breadth of his output is equally impressive: though most noted for his novels, Gardner also published poetry, plays, short stories, opera librettos, scholarly texts, and children’s picture books. Even his novels do not share a coherent, sustained style or tone: they vary from the highly stylized, densely allusive Grendel to more traditionally realist works such as Nickel Mountain (1973). Critical response to Gardner’s work has been equally divided, and throughout his publishing career the release of a new Gardner work was an occasion for much critical debate. Grendel was, in fact, the first and only Gardner volume to receive near-unanimous critical acclaim, though three of his novels—The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain, and October Light (1976)—were popular best-sellers.
Gardner’s work is often classified as postmodernist. In the early part of the century, writers such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce experimented with an idea that came to be known as modernism, characterized by experimentation with new, nontraditional forms of expression. These modernist writers discarded nineteenth-century writers’ emphasis on realistic, authoritative narration in favor of a style that was more subjective and impressionistic, focusing more on how people look at the world than on what they actually see. As experimentation with modernism developed, boundaries between literary genres began to break down, and writers explored ideas of fragmentation and discontinuity in both subject matter and stylistic form. Modernist pieces often display an acute sense of meta-awareness, meaning they are conscious of their status as artistic works—representations of reality rather than reality itself. Many modernist authors use these techniques to convey a mournful nostalgia for a world they perceive as having passed. Postmodernism, on the other hand, celebrates fragmentation rather than mourning its necessity: postmodern works frequently find liberation and exhilaration in the breakdown of what are seen as outdated, claustrophobic categories.
Though Gardner and his contemporaries—who included William Gass, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme—wrote highly inventive, genre-bending works of literature in the 1970s, Gardner was never a career postmodernist. In fact, he frustrated many critics because of his seemingly arbitrary use of postmodern techniques, which factored heavily in some of his novels but disappeared entirely from others. Critics could never seem to agree whether Gardner was a traditionalist masquerading as an innovator or vice versa. Gardner himself rejected the postmodern label, as he associated it with a school of writers he considered too harsh and cynical.
Grendel, one of Gardner’s more stylistically and thematically postmodern novels, is an example of a metafiction—fiction about fiction. The plot and characters of the novel come from the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, a text that Gardner had been teaching at the university level for some time. Beowulf is a heroic epic chronicling the illustrious deeds of the great Geatish warrior Beowulf, who voyages across the sea to rid the Danes of a horrible monster, Grendel, who has been terrorizing their kingdom. Gardner’s twist on the tale is his choice to narrate the story from the monster’s point of view, transforming a snarling, terrible beast into a lonely but intelligent outsider who bears a striking resemblance to his human adversaries. In his retelling of the Beowulf story, Gardner comments not only on the Anglo-Saxon civilization and moral code the original poem depicts, but also on the human condition more generally.
Gardner’s perhaps most vexing publication is his literary manifesto On Moral Fiction (1978), in which the author calls for art that uplifts and celebrates faith, decrying the mass of contemporary literature as too cynical and fatalistic. The book’s self-aggrandizing, moralistic tone enraged and inflamed the normally rarefied literary community, and it sparked a nationwide debate that was played out in the popular media. Reviewers attacked not only Gardner’s smugness but also what they perceived as shoddy reasoning and messy scholarship. Perhaps the most damaging effect of On Moral Fiction’s publication, though, has been the subsequent tendency to read Gardner’s own philosophically provocative and complex novels through his straitlaced moral frameworks.
Gardner published several more works after the publicity disaster of On Moral Fiction, but, with the possible exception of Freddy’s Book (1980), none were particularly well received. Gardner died in a motorcycle accident near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, on September 14, 1982, just days before he was to wed his third wife, Susan Thornton.