When George Garrett arrived at the University of Virginia in the spring of 1962 and scheduled a creative writing class, I had lost my academic scholarship and my plan to go to medical school. Two years of illness after surgery to save my right leg and an undiagnosed case of mononucleosis had left me in a perpetual state of fatigue. No one can pass Organic Chemistry in that condition.
The only encouraging event in that disastrous second academic year was my term paper for the course in American Literature. I rejected the topics suggested in the syllabus and asked the professor, Rex Worthington, if I could improve on Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises by writing an additional final chapter. He attempted to dissuade me by saying, “If you pull it off, it’s an A. If not, it’s an F.” The paper was judged an A, and Rex told me that I was the first potential novelist that he had ever seen in his classroom. So the following term, when George Garrett was holding interviews for admission to his creative writing class, I signed up.
When my fifteen minutes arrived, I entered George’s office on the fifth floor of New Cabell Hall with nothing to show but the faux Hemingway chapter. We never got to it but somehow fell into telling each other boxing stories—me as a former would-be Golden Gloves fighter and George, who had been a semi-pro club boxer during his undergraduate days at Princeton. Then there came a knock at his office door. Another student applicant was waiting. George apologized that he had to interrupt our conversation, and I made it to the door before it dawned on me that we had never talked about my writing. I turned back to him with the begging question, “Am I in?” His response was the most generous laugh I had ever heard. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Of course you are.”
Coming into George’s circle as a student and friend altered the direction of my life and set me on a course to produce over fifty major works of literature. George was the master of inclusivity when other literary lights tended to form exclusive intellectual clubs. It has been documented by R.H.W. Dillard and many others that George Garrett is “a widely beloved and revered figure.” As a literary artist, George never repeated himself in a breadth of talent that seemed to befuddle critics who could not conveniently classify him. In 11 novels, 8 short-story collections, 8 poetry collections, and 8 non-fiction books, George Garrett proved himself to be one of the best writers of his generation and an enduring resource to all who follow.
In 1963, as a writing class project, George edited New Writing from Virginia, a small-volume anthology with an Afterword by Richard Wilbur, that was the first book publication for more than a handful of writers who went on to have notable literary careers. I became the principal agent for the details of the publication. I remember that Henry Taylor and I went to tea at an extravagant horse farm estate outside of Charlottesville to solicit funding for the project. George, I guess, bore the costs of whatever we failed to raise. When New Writing from Virginia was published, Bob Friedman (who went on to have a significant career as a publisher) and I presented copies to University President Edgar Finley Shannon, and an official photo was taken. Copies of New Writing from Virginia are now valuable collector items.
The story of how George employed Henry Taylor and me as audience shills for readings by William Faulkner is told in an earlier blog posting. George later assured the publication of Henry Taylor’s first book of poems, The Horse Show at Midnight in 1966 by withdrawing an already accepted manuscript of his own poems when the LSU Press had room for only one more book that year. In 1986, Henry won the Pulitzer Prize for his poems in The Flying Change, also published by the LSU Press.
Each of us who had the benefit of mentoring by George Garrett has favorite stories to tell; and in 2003, a three-day literary festival was held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to celebrate the man and his literature. I was there as a witness, and afterwards I wrote a reflective piece that I want to share as my tribute to George Garrett who died at the age of 78 in May 2008. The David M. Rubenstein Library at Duke University houses the most extensive collection of Garrett’s manuscripts and letters.
THE PURPOSE OF GEORGE GARRETT
Literature is a high expression of the Divine attempting to know itself. For life to know itself, to have awareness of itself, the mind was evolved into being. The fine arts are thus the expressions of priests devoted to the recognition of the spiritual connections in all life forms. The seeming obsession is that artists are laboring desperately to know themselves, and that they are willing to make great material sacrifices in these acts of discovery.
Among those who are biologically driven to do this work of understanding, a precious few achieve the insights for which they were intended; and if we, the greater body of humanity, chance upon them, we are enriched and made more able to do the work for which we are intended. This is the Divine plan—that we serve each other in the experience of living.
George Garrett serves us, the cognizant humanity, in an exceptional body of work that elevates our awareness of what it means to live, to observe, to care, and to act with compassion. Great literature should instruct us in the virtues of compassionate awareness and alter us to a better service of our hearts and minds. We can ask no more of any co-creator of our universe except that he or she enlighten us to the nature of our own being, and it is for this personal, uniquely meaningful sharing of insight that we owe our respect, our gratitude, and the return of a loving embrace. For great literature does indeed embrace us like a true, unselfish friend. In more ways than all the books he has authored, George Garrett is our true friend, our mentor of self-awareness, our spirit guide; and with great courage, he has fulfilled the gift of his talent, met the requirements of Destiny, and achieved everything that any human being and artist should aspire to: the reciprocal love of family and friends and the genuine respect of peers and readers.
George Garrett causes us to have the realization that service to our common humanity is still the best work of life. On three days in early October of 2003, a festival was held to celebrate George Garrett, and it was like a tent revival meeting where no souls were lost, and the congregation went out—all of us—into the crisp Knoxville night joyfully happy and convinced of our mutual salvation. Thank you, George.