'U.Va. Profiles' Spotlights Writer George Garrett

Writer George Garrett, retired Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing, died in Charlottesville May 25. His funeral will be held at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on June 7 at 11 a.m., with a reception afterwards in the parish hall. There also will be a memorial service scheduled for the fall, followed by a reception at Carr's Hill.

This profile was posted on UVA Today March 17, 2008.

George Garrett: Virtuoso Writer and Generous Mentor

March 17, 2008 — George Garrett is widely recognized as a virtuoso author of all genres, but at the University of Virginia he also is known as a compassionate mentor for young writers. He was twice on the University faculty: first in the 1960s and then from the mid-1980s to his retirement in 2000 as the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing and director of the University’s Creative Writing Program.

Born on June 11, 1929, in Orlando, Fla., Garrett was as likely in his high school days to become an athlete as he was a writer. He boxed his way to the Golden Gloves semifinal. U.Va. offered him an athletic scholarship, but he chose Princeton University instead, telling a college recruiter he liked the stripes down the arms of Princeton’s football uniforms. By the time he graduated from Princeton in 1952, he had published 39 stories and poems in the college literary magazine. Next, he joined the U.S. Army and served as a field artillery sergeant in Trieste, Italy. Returning to Princeton, he received an M.A. in English in 1956 and continued on toward a doctorate.

Along the way, Garrett wrote prolifically. By the age of 32, he had published seven books: three poetry volumes, two collections of short stories and two novels. He finally made his way to U.Va. in 1962, hired as the first creative writer on the faculty.

“The coyote on a peaceful pueblo”

Richard Dillard — a student of Garrett’s in the 1960s, a long-published author of multiple genres and head of the creative writing program at Hollins University — recalls how Garrett burst upon the sedate English department scene. “His arrival on the fifth floor of New Cabell Hall was as unsettling to its inhabitants as the arrival of a coyote must have been to a peaceful pueblo,” Dillard once said. Garrett inspired rambunctious, indoor baseball games, the plastic ball careening down the long hallway of Cabell, past English department faculty doors and toward the mathematics department.

Garrett also inspired great writing. His University students from the 1960s included Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor and Kelly Cherry, a much-published author and professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin. Garrett assigned his students to read the early nonfiction of Tom Wolfe, not to present a model to copy, but, as he said in an Alumni News interview, to encourage them “to throw away literary conventions and express their ideas directly.” His students read “Tom Jones” — both the 18th-century Henry Fielding novel and the 1963 John Osborne screenplay.

Actively writing screenplays for Goldwyn Studios in those years, Garrett pulled in a few students, Richard Dillard among them, to write the screenplay for a B-grade horror film that has now become a cult classic. View “Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster” closely, and you will catch veiled references to the U.Va. of the mid-1960s: The hyperactive Army general, for example, is named General Bowers, after Fredson Bowers, longtime English department chairman.

Garrett also continued writing, notably his novel “Do, Lord, Remember Me,” the story of a tent revivalist. Its 1965 publication secured his reputation as a significant writer of the South.

Garrett left the U.Va. faculty in 1967. For the next two decades, he held adjunct or short-term positions at nearly a dozen schools, including Wesleyan University, Bennington College, Princeton University and the Virginia Military Institute. Along the way, he published the works that lifted him to national acclaim as a writer. Serving on judging panels for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, Garrett became an important voice in the public debate over the nature and value of government support for working artists.

The Elizabethan trilogy

Garrett is best known for his trilogy of Elizabethan novels, on which he worked for nearly 40 years. The first, “Death of the Fox,” was published in 1971. In lyrical prose, rich with historical detail and psychological insight, the novel revealed the character and times of Sir Walter Raleigh. Publishers Weekly declared it “one of the finest novels we have ever read.” “The Succession,” published in 1983, used a similar style to explore the times as James I took the throne after Elizabeth I. For its eloquence and depth of historic research, Princeton granted Garrett his Ph.D.

The third Elizabethan novel, “Entered from the Sun,” published in 1990, explored the mysterious murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. The New York Times called it “astonishingly original,” and the Washington Post called Garrett “a lucid, unromantic and unsentimental historical novelist.” Upon its publication, though, Garrett claimed that the Elizabethan voices that had spoken to him for decades finally told him this third novel was the last in the series. By no means, though, did Garrett stop writing. Indeed, he published books that included poems, short stories, essays, a biography of James Jones, a critical commentary on Mary Lee Settle and a social satire.

“He had a flair for making things happen”

In 1984, Garrett returned to U.Va., was named the Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing and charged with making the most of a significant gift from the Hoyns family, intended to boost the creative writing program. The program flourished, shaped in large part by Garrett’s dedication, generosity and amiability, as well as his vast literary experience and connectedness. In five years, applications to the program quadrupled — from 50 to 200 in 1989. In 1997, U.S. News and World Report ranked the program No. 4 in the nation, making it the highest-ranked graduate program at U.Va. (The program’s reputation continues to be very strong. In 2007, the Atlantic Monthly ranked U.Va.’s  among the nation’s top five creative writing programs.)

Garrett’s impact on the University’s Creative Writing Program has been profound. Sydney Blair, director of the program, said, "The same energy, intelligence and boldness reflected in George’s work – from noir-ish, witty parody to luscious, lyrical prose – helped propel the program to what it is today. He brought a distinct vibrancy and verve to every aspect of running the program. He had a flair for making things happen."

National recognition came to Garrett during the years after his return to the University. In 1985, he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. In 1989, he was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers, an organization of which he soon became chancellor. That year he also won the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, an Ingersoll Prize given to him in recognition for his being “one of the most inventive and artistic writers of his generation.” In 2000, Sewanee Review gave him the 2000 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, declaring Garrett “one of a vanishing breed — a man of letters.” The Sewanee Review editor noted that “no other writer has done as much as he to promote, enhance and elevate writing in the U.S. over the past 40 years.”

Despite the accolades, Garrett would just as soon stay out of the limelight of literary celebrity. “Our whole system revolves around personality,” he once wrote. “The price you pay for being part of that scene is great loss of freedom to do what you want and to grow artistically.”

A steady stream of writing

When he retired from U.Va. in 2000, Garrett evoked a phrase familiar to those who know him well, saying that he was headed for the Tomb of the Unknown Writer. Despite his many devoted students, his dozens of books and hundreds of articles and the five-star reviews his writing always seems to garner, Garrett is neither a best-selling author nor a household name. He is a humble, quietly devout man, however, not the kind to register any sort of bitterness.

Since retiring, Garrett has continued to teach, edit anthologies, write introductions and publish novels, essays and poems in a steady stream. He has also continued as a literary advocate, serving the commonwealth of Virginia as its poet laureate in 2002-2003.

— By Susan Tyler Hitchcock