ESSAY- George Garrett: A fond-- if premature-- epitaph
The following essay appeared in the Blue Penny Quarterly Review in 1996. Today, its subject matter seems eerily apt given the death over the weekend of prolific writer and UVA professor George Garrett.
A few days before Christmas, George Garrett showed me a letter he had just opened. A prominent publishing house had written to "The Estate of George Garrett" requesting two poems by the deceased writer for an anthology they were putting together. Deceased? But here he was standing in his front yard in his golfer's cap and winter jacket, doing his easy laugh over a publisher's macabre blunder. So much for literary celebrity. I joked that he should give them what they want– play dead and charge them double. A writer dead, after all, is worth twice as much as he is alive.
"I think they'd figure us out," he said, still laughing. "That's the sort of thing they eventually check."
After I'd had some time to think about it, this letter began to get under my skin. It wasn't altogether surprising that, in a world where publishers know what John Grisham had for breakfast, where Stephen King's band gets their picture in People Magazine's "Star Tracks," someone at a reputable press– a self-proclaimed "literary" press– would mistake a writer of Garrett's caliber for dead, but it was still a bit unsettling.
After all, the man has published six books of poetry, seven story collections, three plays, several books of non-fiction, and eight novels, with a ninth due out early in 1996– all to critical acclaim. He has had an editorial hand in countless projects and has probably done more to help young writers than anyone in the business. A reviewer for the Virginia Quarterly Review called him "one of the most innovative and artistic writers of his generation, a writer whose prose is lyrically intense and whose perception is subtle and genuine."
Admittedly, I'm biased. I'm one of those young writers he has helped. But it's terrible to think that such a mistake is possible, that there's an editor anywhere in the country not aware that George Garrett is alive and well and as prolific as ever. Okay, I've gotten that out of my system, and I apologize for it. We, the barely published, are quick to righteousness when it comes to the evils of the publishing industry.
George wasn't angry though, and I imagine he would have found my distress as amusing as that morbid editor's mistake, would have shrugged it away with what Richard Bausch calls "that impatience he has always had for the kind of worry that's indulgent or beside the point."
The letter will probably make for the beginnings of a story told to a howling audience at a cocktail party somewhere. George is always telling stories. (When I went back to ask permission to mention his letter in this article, he told me about another letter, this one from a clipping agency, that he found in a recent copy of Troilus and Cressyda, that began something like "Dear Mr. Chaucer, we've been seeing your name in the news a lot lately and were wondering if you'd like us to collect your clippings for you...."
And he would be right in his amusement, for no writer worth pen and paper begins a career with the overt goal of achieving Grisham-esque celebrity. The odds against fame and fortune are far too great. Most writers– poets, novelists, biographers, whoever– begin, I think, with a love of the written word and a belief that they have something to say, something possibly useful, maybe important– at the very least, unique. The belief is often fraudulent; re-read this piece for confirmation. Maybe way back in the mind, unvoiced for fear of a jinx, is a writer's wish to be known. And tucked away even deeper, stashed in the most secret place of the heart– it's what I hope (knock wood)– I'll even wager it's what John Grisham hopes– is the dream that what he has said will be remembered.
George Garrett himself wrote, "The book season for any book except Stephen King is less than a year. But that's not really the life of the book– it's the commercial life of the book. Books live on in libraries. Someday, in some dusty place– this is an exciting idea for my books– somebody reaches up and finds it– it's there until the acid-rich paper used by crummy American publishers turns it to ashes, which may happen too. I'm not talking about posterity. I don't know about that."
Well, I am talking about posterity. Novelist Madison Smartt Bell, after reading Entered From The Sun, wrote that Garrett had "a firm claim to permanent greatness," and it could be that proof of his statement, albeit premature, can be found in the very letter that George showed me for a laugh.
Somewhere in America is an editor who, sincere in his belief in George Garrett's demise, still wants to publish his poetry. It gives me the creeps to write about, and I hope George won't mind the subject too much, but that letter hints at a future in which Garrett's words will outlive him. And no writer deserves to live forever more than George Garrett.
Twelve years after penning this tribute to Garrett, Michael Knight has now been published many times and directs the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.