Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.

This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:

Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.

That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.

There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:

By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.

In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

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5 Comments

Filed under fiction, style, syntax

5 responses to “Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

  1. Reblogged this on Freud in Oceania and commented:
    I thought to record this post, and this blog, for myself and for anyone who shares this space. We see the power of the written word: of writing one’s thoughts as part of healing.

  2. Elizabeth

    Thank you for this — I have read Gardner but never this short story. It was amazing and quite moving — thank you.

  3. Wow. What a way to start a Monday morning set aside for writing. Somehow I never encountered John Gardner, except for the flap I read about over Moral Fiction.

    He died in a motorcycle crash, according to Wikipedia. Makes the story even more poignant.

    The sentence you chose is very intriguing. Without the first phrase about constantly eating (as a character flaw!), the rest might seem pat. A way to include, yet subordinate, her weaknesses?

  4. Thank you for pointing us to “Redemption.” I found this writing to be amazing. I read quite a bit of Gardner many years ago, but this was more powerful than any I recall. It obviously came from out of the depths.

  5. Hi,Richard,
    This was a timely post for me because I’m reading Francine Prose’s “Reading like a Writer” which I’d recommend to any writer (or reader). I just read the chapter on “sentences” last night (after the chapter on “words” and before the one on “paragraphs”) and so it was doubly delightful to read Gardner’s sentence today on your blog. Now I’m paying all the more attention to words, sentences and paragraphs under Prose’s guidance, plus everything she cites makes me want to read it!