A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet offers a tribute to Garrett’s humor, storytelling, encouragement, and commitment to the art of writing.

George Garrett ’52 *56 *85, distinguished and prolific novelist, poet, biographer, essayist, and professor of writing and literature, died at his home in Charlottesville, Va., on May 26. He was 78 years old.

Mr. Garrett was vastly learned and multitalented, but no one ever carried such knowledge and such achievements more lightly. In person he combined the thoughtful manners of his Southern upbringing with a restless urge to turn established views one way or another, so the light would strike them in fresh and revealing ways. He had an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, many of them hilarious, a few so remote from his listeners’ experience that they had a durable sharpness, hanging in the memory and gathering import.

At Princeton, for example, Mr. Garrett continued for a while to develop the skill he had acquired as a Golden Gloves boxer, and in the gym he encountered such people as do not often come your way or mine. Among these was a custodial worker who had himself done some boxing, and who enjoyed making a wager with the “boys.” The worker would remove a handkerchief from his pocket, bend over, and lay it out flat just in front of his toes, and place both feet side by side upon it. He then would make an extravagant wager against anyone who would care to try knocking him off the handkerchief with a blow above the shoulders. His own hands, he added, would stay behind his back.

Even as his reputation grew, some undergraduate could usually be found to take the bet and start throwing what passed for punches. The man on the handkerchief put on a magical display of rapid head movement, rarely shifting his upper body. The boys might lightly graze a cheekbone once in a while, but they never could really hit him. It was like watching a film with frames clipped out of it, the head being first here and then instantaneously there.

The student paid up, and work resumed. Decades later those unusual images bring to mind devotion to the study of a peculiar skill, pursuit of an endeavor for the joy in the thing itself, and the gravy that is the occasional discovery of a way to be paid for it. When Mr. Garrett told that story, one could see the imagined handkerchief being shaken out, and the precision of the two little steps forward onto it, but his own handkerchief stayed safe in a jacket pocket. He had his boisterousness, but there were limits.

He was born George Palmer Garrett Jr. in central Florida on June 11, 1929. His father was a small-town lawyer of unusual energy and great courage, in some ways the inspiration for Mr. Garrett’s first novel, The Finished Man, and the title story of his first collection, King of the Mountain. Many years later, in Bad Man Blues, Mr. Garrett published a couple of nonfiction pieces about his father’s stern and risky stance against the Ku Klux Klan.

He attended the Sewanee Military Academy and the Hill School and entered Princeton in the late 1940s, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1952. There followed a tour of duty in the Army active reserves after which he returned to Princeton, where he completed his master’s degree in 1956. By then he was married to Susan Jackson Garrett, “without whom,” he wrote in a dedication, “there would be nothing.” Having done work toward the Ph.D., but having also published fiction and poetry, he left Princeton for appointments at Wesleyan and Rice, and then the University of Virginia, where he started teaching in 1962. He resigned from the University of Virginia in 1967; he returned in 1984 and retired in 2000 as Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing. In the years between, he held visiting and full-time appointments at several universities, including Princeton.

Shortly after his return to Virginia, a group of emeritus professors at Princeton took renewed notice of the first two books in Mr. Garrett’s superb Elizabethan trilogy, Death of the Fox (1971) and The Succession (1983). (The third novel in the series, Entered from the Sun, was not published until 1990.) Mr. Garrett had begun research on Sir Walter Ralegh, the protagonist of the first of these novels, as a doctoral candidate. Might these two books now be regarded as his completed dissertation? The English department was so persuaded, with the understanding that Mr. Garrett would return to Princeton for a public defense of his dissertation. He received his Ph.D. in 1986.

By then he had behind him almost 40 years of distinguished and inventive teaching, characterized by a mind constantly alert to fresh possibilities, a keen eye for deserving objects of satire, and a kindly generosity toward his students, large numbers of whom are now reporting to memorial Web sites and publications their various deep indebtednesses to him. It has been said that no other living writer had so many books dedicated to him; that is hard to prove but easy to believe.

The Elizabethan trilogy, the series of story collections culminating but not ending with An Evening Performance: New and Selected Short Stories (1985), and the several other novels of staggering variety have led many readers to think of Mr. Garrett primarily as a fiction writer. However, he was also a poet of rare productivity, freshness, and power. By 1963, when he was 34, he had published three books of poems, and he was included in a special issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle entitled “Seven Princeton Poets.” This elegant anthology represents each poet with one poem, a critical essay about his work, and a checklist of his published work to that time. The poets are Louis Coxe ’40, George Garrett, Theodore Holmes ’51, Galway Kinnell ’48, William Meredith ’43, W. S. Merwin ’48, and Bink Noll ’48. Mr. Garrett’s poem is “Salome,” a monologue spoken by the character. It remains among the strongest poems of Mr. Garrett’s career.

In a series of bold moves so casually executed that their boldness takes time to sink in, Mr. Garrett presents Salome first as the legendary figure partly descended from the brief mentions in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and then, without departing from the story of the dance and the execution of John the Baptist, as a woman of our time, able to use such words as “chevron.” She begins with a one-line stanza, “I had a dream of purity.” Then,

From weight of flesh and cage of bone,
it was I who was set free
and that other me like a blown weed
was scattered by the wind. …

All my dust was gone for good,
and that part of me, the breath of God,
glowed without burning, shone with dark light,
danced like fountains at the weightless peak
of pure delight and fell.…

This surprising information is greeted with laughter, and Salome sinks back into her human entanglement in sin, but the dream is ineradicable:

We pursue ourselves,
sniffing, nose to tail
a comic parade of appetites.

That is the truth,
but not the whole truth.
Do me a little justice.
I had a dream of purity
and I have lived in the desert ever since.

I was 20 when I first encountered this poem, during a reading Mr. Garrett was giving at Hollins College. I had been his student for slightly less than a year, and though I was acquainting myself with his work, the daily impression of his actual presence was still more vivid to me. His intelligence and knowledge were enormous, but his humor and kindness leavened these potentially intimidating gifts to the point that one could momentarily forget them. In that situation, “Salome” was a revelation in the lightning-bolt category, one of the two or three most powerful examples in my experience of the way a living writer, an actual acquaintance, can make and present a work immediately recognizable as truly significant, bound to stay with me as long as anything does.

Few recollections of George Garrett can ignore his humor, his storytelling, his encouragement of younger writers. But beyond the hilarity and satire, there was a serious commitment to the art that is chiefly evident in the works themselves. There, we find over and over again the understanding that our abilities are gifts from somewhere beyond our power, and that to develop and exercise them is something akin to a sacred duty. Mr. Garrett was not a Christian writer as that phrase is understood in bookstores these days, but his faith was strong, and from time to time expressed by characters for some of whose ideas Mr. Garrett looked within himself.

Near the end of Death of the Fox, for instance, on the day of Sir Walter Ralegh’s walk to the scaffold, he is visited by Dean Robert Tounson, whose duty is not only to prepare Ralegh for execution, but also to report to the king concerning Ralegh’s spiritual condition. Their dialogue is an extraordinary exchange, for Tounson is full of uncertainties, not knowing precisely how to discover whatever it is that the king might most like to hear, while Ralegh is secure not only in the grim knowledge that he has only hours to live, but also in his faith:

My flesh is frail and shrinks from death, and I confess my spirit is weak and heavy. And yet, good sir, the thought of God’s love and mercy is so light and glad within me that I can forgive my flesh and rebuke my doubtful spirit. Joy is the yoke of a Christian, lighter to bear than an April breeze. I praise God and thank Him for the gift of joy.

This passage balances light and dark as George Garrett did in person, much to our own joy and enlightenment. 

Henry Taylor was George Garrett’s student at the University of Virginia between 1962 and 1965. He and Mr. Garrett became good friends, and over the years were often colleagues at short-term writers’ conferences and in professional organizations. His essay on Mr. Garrett’s poetry, “The Brutal Rush of Grace,” is collected in Compulsory Figures (LSU Press, 1992). He has published six collections of poems; his third, The Flying Change, received the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He taught at American University from 1971 to 2003.