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A Resurrected Light
On Writers and Writing
By John Gardner
Edited by Stewart O'Nan
297 pp.; $12, paper
Remembering John Gardner.
John Gardner's posthumous collection, On Writers and Writing, has been reissued in trade paperback by Addison-Wesley, who brought out the hardback last year. In his introduction to the collection, National Book Award- winning novelist Charles Johnson begins with this sentence: "On the day of his fatal motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982, on a lonely though not particularly dangerous curving stretch of road in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, John Gardner, the embattled advocate for higher artistic and moral standards in our fiction, was snatched at age forty-nine from the stage of contemporary American literature before we could properly measure either his contribution to literary culture or the man himself."
Johnson was a student and friend, indebted to Gardner as a Zen adept is to a master, and thus his tone. But the curve of his sentence suggests the direction that future writing about Gardner will take: an embattled and romantic literary figure of Byronic dimensions has been snatched away at the height of his powers, before proper assessment has been made of "either his contribution to literary culture or the man himself."
True assessment, of course, centers on a writer's work. Time is never kind to "the man himself," as Johnson well knows, and the more facts that exist about a writer, the more they can be assembled, it seems, to suit an assessor's ends. Better that nobody knows you, or that intimates are absent when the assessment begins, as with Will-from-on-Avon. And besides, in our age of information overload, when facts seem to breed further facts and every person is a creative biographer, la the New Historicism, it is not comforting to consider the assessments a few will reach.
But Johnson has mentioned literary culture and the man himself for a reason. The shock waves caused by Gardner's death were due to his personality's impact. Those ...