Poetry, short story, novel, drama, screenplay, criticism, the teaching of writing: George Garrett has excelled across the entire spectrum of literary art. I can call to mind no other contemporary American writer who approaches this feat, though perhaps Garrett’s friend Fred Chappell comes closest. But, what is even rarer for a first-rank artist, Garrett also excels in the essay, in the explicit and direct examination of the world.
As the American novel became more and more solipsist in style and trivial in subject matter, Garrett went in the opposite direction. If he had stopped writing at 40 (more than 20 years ago) he would already have had an enduring space in the poetry and fiction anthologies. But rather than coast along comfortably repeating himself, Garrett leapt new and higher barriers, producing the stunning and unexpected achievement of his Elizabethan novels: Death of the Fox (1971), The Succession: A Novel of Elizabeth and James (1983), and Entered From the Sun (1990).
In so doing Garrett brought to life a critically formative period of the world we live in, and did so in a way that was audacious in technique, intensely modern in consciousness, and profoundly traditional in values. lie demonstrated also that it was still possible for an American writer (or at any rate an American Southern writer) to make creative contact with the pristine and vigorous English language, the authentic religion, and the terrible contingency and ambiguity of human life that marked Shakespeare’s England. And since out of Shakespeare’s England was founded Virginia, the Restoration was a part of American history as well.
More recently Garrett the essayist has taken for his field contemporary American life and letters. So along with two collections of literary comment—My Silk Purse and Yours and The Sorrows of Fat City—he has provided us with a sort of memoir. Whistling in the Dark, which allows us to begin to understand something of where his great books came from. Of course, art of this stature comes from God—the original and root meaning of inspiration—but we still need to understand the human and historical means by which the divine plan was worked out in the writer George Garrett.
This is not a book about literature per se and certainly not a sordid and self-serving account of cash advances gained, prizes won, celebrities met. When Garrett writes about literature he does one of three things: tells a good story; gives generous praise where it is deserved, especially to the under-rewarded (and no writer is more generous to his contemporaries); or gets in a couple of quick devastating punches to the solar plexus of overrated Northeastern literary celebrities.
Whistling in the Dark is a collection of the meditated experiences that made the writer. For instance, we learn how the “selfish intensity” of his youthful conditioning as boxer and footballer helped to shape a literary career and point of view. And we see Garrett the young soldier in the heart of Europe in the intense early days of the Cold War, standing in a weeping crowd of Austrians to greet a trainload of broken POWs returning from Russian captivity years after the war is over. “I stand there knowing one thing for certain—that I am seeing our century, our time, close and truly.”
The recollections flow from a Southern sense of family as the essential unit of society. So that Garrett’s Confederate great-grandfather is an integral part of his experience, along with all the generations in between and now—a proliferating connection centered in old hardscrabble prewar Florida. In Southern life there are no alienated individuals; there are families living, for better or worse, in real time and place. Therefore, American history is not a reservoir of officially approved slogans and abstract propositions, but a living experience. For this reason Garrett can in three-and-a-half pages say more that is original, true, and significant about the Civil War than any number of pompous pseudo-intellectuals in 15 hours of government-subsidized TV.
The writer who emerges from this rich context is not the logistical manager of a career; he is a child of history and a part of it. If we are going to have cultural relativism, Garrett observes, let’s really have it. Let’s forgive other generations for the sin of not being like us, as well as other cultures:
Much was probably wrong with old America . . . and eager historians are busy telling us as much about their sins and follies as they can find out or imagine. But somehow . . . the old Americans created the place and above all the climate of social hope and political liberty. . . . This was their intention. This was their triumph. It cannot be revised away by anyone except a liar.
And it must be forgiven by anyone who is a Christian. After all, they were our people.
Garrett’s view of the world is tough, irreverent, and unillusioned. Yet we find, at bottom, not the cheap nihilistic despair of contemporary fiction but a lean residue of belief in the essential realities of faith, hope, courage, truth, and love. It is a perfect expression of Richard Weaver’s “sentiment not sentimentality.” One of Garrett’s Elizabethan characters comments that the most heroic action he ever saw was that of a man on his way to the gallows who cursed his wife and children and kicked his dog.
So we find in the works of Garrett the consciousness that marks Christian civilization still alive in high art and in a time of troubles and a century of horrors. From this we can take some hope, though not fatuous optimism. As Garrett writes, after looking over the photo images of our Civil War forebears:
Something has happened to the American face. . . . Somehow the standard-issue American face has changed over from its apparent material of cut stone, poured bronze, or whittled hardwood into something else, something much like molded plastic or (on a bad day) Silly Putty. And smiling. Almost always smiling.
This mingling of artistic imagination and empirical observation, which penetrates at once to the heart of matters, is what we have come to expect from our most consummate man of letters in this late day.
[Whistling in the Dark: True Stories and Other Fables, by George Garrett (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) 225 pp., $19.95]