John GardnerJohn Gardner, from a farming background in New York State, was the most important spokesperson for ethical values in literature until his death in a motorcycle accident. He was a professor of English specializing in the medieval period; his most popular novel, Grendel (1971), retells the Old English epic Beowulf from the monster's existentialist point of view. The short, vivid, and often comic novel is a subtle argument against the existentialism that fills its protagonist with self- destructive despair and cynicism.
A prolific and popular novelist, Gardner used a realistic approach but employed innovative techniques -- such as flashbacks, stories within stories, retellings of myths, and contrasting stories -- to bring out the truth of a human situation. His strengths are characterization (particularly his sympathetic portraits of ordinary people) and colorful style. Major works include The Resurrection (1966), The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), October Light (1976), and Mickelson's Ghosts (1982).
Gardner's fictional patterns suggest the curative powers of fellowship, duty, and family obligations, and in this sense Gardner was a profoundly traditional and conservative author. He endeavored to demonstrate that certain values and acts lead to fulfilling lives. His book On Moral Fiction (1978) calls for novels that embody ethical values rather than dazzle with empty technical innovation. The book created a furor, largely because Gardner bluntly criticized important living authors for failing to reflect ethical concerns.