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John Gardner papers

Identifier: BUA-0005

Scope and Contents

The John Gardner papers contains writings and professional materials related to John Gardner. Materials inclede play scripts, event and play programs, correspondence, published writings, and works by other artists inspired by Gardner's books.


  • Creation: 1970 - 1986


Conditions Governing Access

This collection has been reviewed for restrictions and is open for research.

Biographical / Historical

John Champlin Gardner (1933 - 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer, medieval English literary scholar, editor, critic, translator, poet, and Binghamton University college professor in medieval English literature and creative writing. Gardener founded and directed the creative writing program at Binghamton starting in 1978.

Gardner was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York, to John Champlin Gardner, a dairy farmer and lay preacher, and Priscilla Jones Gardner, a former high school English teacher. Following Batavia High School graduation in 1951, Gardner began his college education at DePauw University. Beginning his junior year, Gardner transferred to Washington University after marrying his St. Louis cousin, Joan Louise Patterson in June 1953. Gardner received a bachelor's degree in 1955 from Washington University in St. Louis. He was awarded a master's degree in creative writing in 1956 and a doctorate in English in 1958 by the State University of Iowa. For his dissertation Gardner submitted a novel, The Old Men.

Gardner's first teaching position was a one-year appointment at Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1958. In 1959 he moved on to Chico State College. During his Chico years Gardner's two children were born -- Joel, in 1959, and Lucy, in 1962. Gardner served as a leading force in establishing Chico's Creative Writing Program and briefly supervised the student literary magazine. In 1961 Gardner launched his own professional literary magazine, MSS, which -- despite its short run of three issues -- achieved early prominence by publishing a notable array of works by a mix of both young and established writers. Gardner's Chico years also saw his first published story, "A Little Night Music," in a literary magazine and his publication with colleague Lennis Dunlap of The Forms of Fiction, an anthology of short and longer fiction with comments for use in writing and literature courses.

It was Gardner's continuing scholarship in medieval literature that won him a tenure-track position as assistant professor at San Francisco State University in 1962. Gardner continued to focus his scholarship on medieval English literature and in 1965 published The Complete Works of the Gawain Poet.

Gardner continued his writing of fiction and other creative works, sometimes drawing on classical or old or middle English themes and often combining fantasy with reality. Early in his next teaching post , beginning in September 1965, at Southern Illinois University, Gardner published his first novel, The Resurrection (1966), followed by The Wreckage of Agathon (1970). In 1971, he published his novel, Grendel, a reimagining of the Beowulf story from the perspective of the monster, and a translation, The Alliterative Morte Arthure; The Owl and the Nightingale; and Five Other Middle English Poems. The Sunlight Dialogues, considered by many his finest novel, appeared in 1972. Both his epic poem Jason and Medeia and his novel, Nickel Mountain, appeared in 1973. Gardner's 1974 The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle featured a careful analysis of the individual pageants together with Gardner's comments about the authorship of the whole. Toward year's end, Gardner's The King's Indian appeared.

Between 1974 and 1978, Gardner resigned from SIU and held successive teaching appointments at Bennington, Skidmore, and Williams colleges, and George Mason University. His 1976 separation from wife Joan eventually led to divorce.

In 1975 Gardner was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His Dragon, Dragon and Other Tales was selected as "The New York Times Outstanding Book for Children 1975." Gardner's novel October Light won the 1976 National Book Critics Award for Fiction. Another collection for children, Gudgekin the Thistle Girl and Other Tales came out in 1976. He wrote the libretto for Rumpelstiltskin as an opera, and it was first performed in January 1977. Also appearing in 1977 were Gardner's third collection of tales for children, King of the Hummingbirds, and his The Life and Times of Chaucer, The Poetry of Chaucer, and two more children's books -- In the Suicide Mountains and A Child's Bestiary. Towards the end of 1977, Gardner drafted a guide to the writing of fiction which he entitled, "The Art of Fiction."

With On Moral Fiction (1978), Gardner offered a book-length discussion of his long-held views developed from his college reading of Tolstoy's What Is Art? -- that true art is moral art and offers a "careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values." Gardner argued that good fiction expressed values that affirm what is good for characters in particular and for humanity in general. Gardner's choice to name specific contemporary writers as examples in his argument thrust him into the national spotlight amidst a controversy whose vehemence and duration he had not counted on.

In Fall 1978 Gardner began directing the creative writing program at State University of New York at Binghamton. Also, his Poems was published. 1979 saw publication of two more opera libretti -- Frankenstein and William Wilson, and the tale, Vlemk the Box Painter.

In 1980 Gardner married Liz Rosenberg and together they edited MSS: A Retrospective, preliminary to the 1981 revival of MSS as a venue for new writers. Also coming out in those years were Gardner's novel Freddy's Book (1980), a radio play entitled The Temptation Game (1980), a play entitled Death and the Maiden (1981), and The Art of Living and Other Stories (1981).

In 1982 Gardner edited (with Shannon Ravenel) Houghton Mifflin's The Best American Short Stories: 1982. His novel Mickelsson's Ghosts appeared. He divorced Liz Rosenberg. Days before his planned wedding to Susan Thornton, Gardner was killed, at age 49, on 14 September, in a single-vehicle motorcycle crash on a rural road near Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

Weeks before his death Gardner had completed his collaborative work on a new translation of the centuries-old epic Gilgamesh, with Gardner rendering into poetry accessible to lay readers the literal English translation. Gilgamesh appeared in 1984, as did Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Also in the weeks before his death, Gardner brought together in his On Becoming a Novelist (posthumously published in 1983).


0.75 Linear Feet (2 boxes)

Language of Materials



John Champlin Gardner (1933 - 1982) was an American novelist and short story writer, medieval English literary scholar, editor, critic, translator, poet, and Binghamton University college professor in medieval English literature and creative writing. The John Gardner papers contains writings and professional materials related to John Gardner.


The collection is arranged chronologically.

Related Materials

The majority of John Gardner's papers are held by the University of Rochester. The Binghamton University Special Collections also holds many of Gardner's books in their faculty book collection.

Processing Information

In 2023, the collection was arranged and described by Madison White, Archival Processing Manager.

Guide to the John Gardner papers
Madison White
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections Repository

Binghamton NY 13902 USA