A few years ago, an editor at The Oxford American telephoned to request that I write a piece for that journal about the Calder Willingham-Fred Chappell feud.  I struggled to recall the brief episode wherein I corresponded with that screenwriter (The Graduate) and pop novelist (Eternal Fire) about some obscure detail.  By an equally obscure complication, my friend George Garrett, revered poet, fiction writer, and essayist, had been a third party in the exchange.

“There’s nothing to write about,” I told the editor.

“Are you sure?”

As best I could remember, Mr. Willingham had got it into his head that I was one of these hypermodern, artsy writers who filled his pages with radical political slogans and graphic sex scenes.  Without knowing my work, he accused me of lack of decorum.  I thought this odd talk from the screenwriter who, in One-Eyed Jacks, had given the world Marlon Brando’s immortal line: “You scum-sucking pig!”  When I relayed this thought, Mr. Willingham replied that sometimes writers have to resort to irony.

“There’s no real subject matter,” I told the editor.  “It was just a couple of cranky old farts going on at each other.  Do you remember Doc and Festus in the Gunsmoke TV series?”

“I wish you would write it up,” he said.  “George Garrett was here last week, and he told the story of you and Willingham.  It went on for about an hour, and it was the funniest story I ever heard.  People were rolling on the floor—literally.  We laughed till we cried.  At one point we begged him to stop so we could catch breath.”

“I wish I’d been there,” I said.

Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann and Émile Zola are great novelists, but it is perhaps inaccurate to say that they are great storytellers.  Jack London, H.G. Wells, and P.G. Wode­house are grand storytellers, but we may debate whether they are great novelists.  Cervantes, John Bunyan, and Mark Twain would seem to fulfill the requirements of both categories.

Other names will proliferate if we discuss the matter further, but I would note that if a writer were free to choose one of the two initial categories he or she would prefer to fill, George Garrett would enlist, with his cheery grin, among the storytellers.

His most widely known novel, Death of a Fox, an intricate, many-minded, lyrical account of the last days of Sir Walter Raleigh, approaches greatness, I believe, and its immediate sequel, The Succession, is regarded the superior performance by many of Garrett’s faithful readers.  These are not story novels in the manner of Robinson Crusoe or The Sea Wolf; they are novels made up of smaller stories that interweave and layer together to produce unified, powerful effects.  In short, a little like Don Quixote.

In fact, in method and tone and to some degree in intention, George Garrett’s novels imitate the way he told stories orally, with a bourbon in one hand while he marched around his host’s living room.  His voice was soft with an unlocalized Southern accent, and there was a smile in it that matched the smile on his face.  The story he had begun—about a bear in a football helmet, let’s say—had first digressed into an account of a one-eyed boxing coach who taught the art of gentle manners, then into the story of secret signals during a football game, then into the discovery of empty mirror frames in Richmond Castle, and finally to the reason the bear was head-geared in such sportive fashion.  Digression was his favorite mode, and he made it as expressive a ramble as did Rabelais, and he would quote Montaigne in its defense.

His pages resound with the same confidence as his oral stories.  He knew that, once begun, his tale would entrance and his power was in his charm and his charm, spoken or written, lay in his use of voice.

Or voices, as I should say, for he entered into the voice of another, whether of an acquaintance or of an invented character, with the ease and facility of one who spent most of his life listening, with respectful attention, to others.  He once said that his head was filled with a “wash” of voices.  In that particular sense, all the voices were his own because of the manner in which he heard them.  Then, when he wrote, the natural way the phrases sat on the page made them sound like George Garrett was saying them with a genial bourbon in his left hand while he buttoned and unbuttoned his tweed jacket with his right.

Maybe an example will aid.

In 1993 I published a collection of 100 epigrams called C.  For the Proem to the book, I adapted lines from the Roman satirist:

In such a book as this,

The poet Martial says,

Some of the epigrams

Shall have seen better days,

And some are hit-or-miss;

But some—like telegrams—

Deliver intelligence

With such a sudden blaze

The shine can make us wince.

I understood that my adaptation did violence to the original, but I hoped to set a tone for the whole book.  I delivered a copy of C to George in person.  He opened it to “Proem,” scanned it, and said, “I once tried my hand at this epigram.”  He was surprised and visibly pleased when I quoted his version:

To the reader: when you look

inside, you’re bound to find here

some good verses, some middling, and I fear

plenty of bad ones.  What can I say?

Buddy, it’s the only way

a poet can make a book.

If a reader consults the Latin, she might be surprised to find that George’s version—even with the casual rhyming, the variable line length, and the informal diction (“middling”; “Buddy”)—is closer to the literal than is mine.  Another poet might approach the job thinking, If I were Martial, this is how I would say it in English.  For George the approach was: I came across this nifty little verse by Martial, and I pass it along to you.  No attempt at persona, no freezing of the nimble little gambol into my stiff metric—just the lines themselves in the easiest of manners.

“Seemingly effortless”: We read this reviewer’s cliché hundreds of times in our lives, but it rarely describes accurately the work at hand.  Sometimes it whitewashes facile or sloppy execution.  But for George Garrett’s poetry, it is accurate and marks a quality almost always characteristic: I speak again of charm.

Not too many other poets can manage this very special tone.  Poems by Rodney Jones and Henry Taylor come to mind.  Many of the pages of R.H.W. Dillard, George’s close friend, resonate in harmony, but the exact timbre remains uniquely Garrett’s.

It is, of course, the art of concealing artfulness, the strategy that seems no strategy, the clear-eyed gaze, the direct utterance devoid of indirection: “The captain pulled his car off the road and got out and opened up a map.”

With that sentence begins the short story, “Unmapped Country,” in which the commanding officer of a soldier killed in a training accident is sent to tell the boy’s father what happened and why.  Reading it again, I see for the first time how the writer has avoided every fancy literary temptation that might waylay him, trusting to character, situation, and place to offer all the drama and thematic point necessary.  But nothing is simple, and the complications that arise involve three members of the family and the captain himself in separate, personal ways.  Delivering the account of the son’s death to the family is the hardest duty the service-worn captain has had to complete, and he falls back on the immemorial words of every recruit’s First Sergeant to get him through it: “You ain’t got nothing to worry about.  All you got to do is keep picking ’em up and putting ’em down.”

George once told me “Unmapped Country” was autobiographical.  While in the Army, he had been assigned the task of bringing the same terrible news to an isolated, hill-country farm family.  When I asked him if he resorted to the discipline he had learned as a recruit, he paused before shaking his head.  “I don’t remember how I got home after talking to the old man,” he said.  “I just put in the First Sergeant’s dialogue to end the story.”

But those of us who knew the man who mustered out of the Army as a Master Sergeant, and who was tempted to make a career in military service, recognize unquestioning steadfastness of devotion to duty as one of the principal tenets of George’s personal credo, a credo that he brought to writing, teaching, and the other areas of his life.

He wrote incessantly but not, I think, compulsively.  He had rejected an athletic career as a boxer, an Army career, and the ordinary footnote-strewing academic one in favor of making literature.  Once his choice was settled, so was his regimen.  He would write whenever and wherever he could, despite all distraction.  He would respond to every request for copy from every quarter.  There was more than a little of the Christian stoic in his nature, and he was aided, supported, and abetted by his wife, the lovely, bright, and noble Susan.

But the various careers in which he engaged lent him subjects and themes about which to publish—by my very rough count—ten novels, seven volumes of short stories, eight of poetry, nine of nonfiction, two plays, and two screenplays.  This output is even more prodigious when we take into account the enormous teaching load he carried at various colleges and universities, the scores of engaging readings and lectures he presented in every part of the nation, and the dozens of books he edited.  Add to this curriculum the untellable number of young writers for whom he served as mentor and guide by helping them to find university and editorial positions and by setting them on the road to publication of their work, and you outline a literary life that is monumental in size and intensity.

Taken in the whole, his importance is incalculable.  In the field of Southern letters, only Louis Rubin, teacher, writer, and founder of Algonquin Books, can be considered his equal in influence.  One may guess at something of George’s position as force majeur by going to such collections of essays as Southern Excursions and Going to See the Elephant.  There we find pieces on the hallowed ones—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, James Dickey, et al.—but also on writers whom lesser critics forget or scorn.  He is finely perceptive about William Goyen, William Hoffman, Jesse Hill Ford, Madison Jones, and many another worthy whose work he judged to have been unjustly slighted.

I have little doubt that when literary history takes stock of the important writers of his generation it will single out figures like William Styron, Peter Taylor, Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Spencer, Charles Wright, and the rest of the well-hailed lineup.  George stands as a figure something like Thornton Wilder, perhaps—a writer so well known he has become almost invisible.  Or like a statue in a public park, seen so often and in so many various lights that it seems more a part of the weather than of the landscape.

But once it is removed, we see that no other figure can or ever will refill that space.   


George Garrett was a contributing editor to Chronicles.