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A farewell letter to George Garrett

June 3, 2008 |  4:13 pm

Garrett George Garrett died at home in Charlottesville, Va., in his sleep on May 25.  He was the author of 34 books.  I will remember him as the author of, among many others, "Death of the Fox," his re-creation of the life of Sir Walter Raleigh that easily stands comparison to Marguerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian"; for the short story "A Wreath for Garibaldi," which is one of the most successful re-creations of an intellectual milieu (Rome in the late 1950s); and for a poem, "Three Night Poems," whose second section, "U.S.A.," begins:

Say, they roll up the sidewalks all over town
by 11:30 p.m.  Lord, by midnight there's nothing
moving, doing.  Lone streetlights glare.

That section ends: 

Dancer, giants, heroes and dreamers,
where are you now?  It's a fact —
when a heart breaks it doesn't make a sound.
 

George, who wrote on literary matters millions of critical words, would have appreciated the selectivity of my listing. I want also to mention the years in Hollywood writing movies or for his plays. He was a raconteur among raconteurs  but I cannot avoid talking about George's life as a teacher — year after  strenuous year, he taught at places like Iowa, Wesleyan, Michigan, Columbia, Hollins and finally returned to where he began that career, the University of Virginia. 

He was the best sort of teacher: worldly wise, widely read. He sought no disciples and only tried to help a student find his or her own voice. Happily, he leaves no school behind, no quirks or attitudes or themes that students will mimic.  I won't name any of his very famous students (and there are many, some of whom pay tribute to George at Virginia Quarterly blog) for a simple reason: He treated all of his students with equal dignity, seriousness and profound kindness.

Just after receiving the email explaining that Garrett was at home under hospice care, I wrote to him

and his wife, Susan, what I knew was likely to be a farewell letter. I described how, earlier that day, I had sat on the aluminum bleachers watching my son play baseball at Groton. I had an unobstructed view of the chapel across a far field and later tried to tell the school's headmaster (who well knew the history) about how I was reminded of standing in front of the Episcopal church in Tombstone, Ariz.,  and how I would soon be standing in front of that church again with my son.

It seemed to be beyond words to describe this link between the founder of Groton and Endicott Peabody, the man who had built that church in Tombstone (he had arrived there just after the famous gunfight and had collected money for that church from participants and observers of that gunfight). But, in writing to George and Susan, I explained that George had shown us all in his writing that it was possible to link the present to the past as surely as I did on that sunny Saturday in Massachusetts.

Maybe in my letter I should have just remembered something about Garrett's final published book, "Double Vision." That novel describes how a writer, who happens to also be named George Garrett, is asked to review a biography about his former neighbor, the novelist Peter Taylor. He thinks about his relationship with Taylor, and this causes him to invent a story about a character asked to review a biography about a neighbor. Weirdly, in remembering George's simplicity and complexity, I was reminded of something I had forgotten. Late in the novel, Garrett writes that Frank, his fictional writer, "copies down one sentence from a piece, 'The Writer's Life,' by Thomas McGonigle: The dead are always with us."

Thomas McGonigle

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