Saturday, June 4, 2011
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JOHN GARDNER
In an interview I did with writer John Gardner on January 21, 1973, he made one of the most thought-provoking and prophetic statements in his entire career. He said:
"I think a certain kind of America is doomed, though something greater may be coming. The novelist and only the novelist thrives on breakdown, because that's the moment when he can analyze the beauty of the values that are falling and rising...The end of a great civilization is always a great moment for fiction. When the old England at the end of the nineteenth century fell, along came Dickens; when Russia fell apart, along came Tolstoy...One looks forward to the fall of great civilizations because it gives us great art."
Gardner delivered this statement in rather general and vague terms that he hoped we would use as a tool for understanding the relationship between civilizational collapse and great art. But his words concealed more---racially and politically---than they revealed. In 1973, JG was actually talking about what he saw as the "breakdown" of civilization in our time, specifically the way the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America of his youth was "doomed" because of changes brought about in the late 1960s and early '70s by first the Civil Rights Movement, then the Black Power Movement.
You might not discover any of this from looking at his fiction, for despite his large body of work he never mentions the Civil Rights Movement---not once in his stories, as far as I can see, and I've read everything he wrote---as if that monumental sea-change in American history never took place. His work never mentions Martin Luther King Jr. or any of the black heroes that ended legal segregation in the United States and made it possible for me to study with him at an American university. Furthermore, there are in his novels and stories no black characters, at least no major ones, and the only people of color who appear and are portrayed respectfully, now and then, are native Americans---or rather JG's somewhat romantic idea of native Americans. That omission is striking---or glaring---because, according to figures I've encountered, whites make up only 17% of the world's population and people color account for 83%.
Gardner was, it must be said, the product of a farming community in upstate New York in the 1930s and '40s. He didn't know black history which is, of course, synonymous with American history. He said he spoke twelve languages, but he knew little about Far Eastern cultures, and he had an almost visceral aversion to Buddhism, which surfaced when I wrote Oxherding Tale. He once told me he just had to let me know that his farmer father believed that black people could talk to mules. (Why he had to let me know that bit of superstitious ignorance is beyond me.) And I also remember Gardner telling me how upset and baffled he was when he received a letter from a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that expressed praise for and approval of his writing.
But Gardner was far from being a racist. Eurocentric, yes, a true Western, Protestant, Republican patriot. But not racist. He told me how he and his first wife fled early from a dinner party hosted by poet James Dickey when that writer launched into an ugly imitation of James Baldwin, using butchered, pidgin speech. I think he saw, nervously, in 1973 what was coming---an America that by the mid-21st century will no longer have a white majority, a once dominant nation that will in this new millennium lose its hegemony and be (at best) "first among equals" when nations that have thrown off colonialism and made rapid progress in modernization---like India, China, South Korea, Japan---assert their new muscle in international affairs.
That sense of the white West being "doomed" (as Malcolm X predicted in the '60s in his published lectures entitled The End of White Supremacy) runs as an undercurrent in Gardner's first bestseller, The Sunlight Dialogues (1972). Read my 2006 introduction for the novel's reissue by New Directions Books, and you'll see Gardner's dramatization of this American decline writ small in the story of the Hodge family on whose land at the novel's end poor Negroes have taken up residence.
To his credit, Gardner worked to better understand the racial, cultural, gender, and gay Other until the end of his life---to increase his empathy for people raised differently from himself, as he demonstrated in his essay "Meditational Fiction" on the Buddhist-flavored stories of Kikuo Itaya in Tengu Child. He was the best, most insightful teacher of the craft of writing in our time. And he was generous, even self-sacrificing toward his students from all backgrounds. Had I not met Gardner, who boldly cleared a path for me into the literary world, I would not be a writer doing these E-Channel posts today.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 12:37 PM