- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT: PIECES OF A WRITING LIFE
By George Garrett
Edited by Jeb Livingood
Texas Review Press, $18.95, 195 pages
REVIEWED BY GEORGE CORE

George Garrett, who recently retired from the University of Virginia as Henry Hoyns professor of English, where he ran the program in creative writing, has written 32 books and edited some 20 others. He is the old-fashioned man of letters who has won prizes not only for fiction but poetry.
Perhaps his most distinguished and celebrated work is his trilogy of Elizabethan novels. In addition to fiction long and short, plays, poetry, movie scripts, critical biographies and much else, Mr. Garrett has written a great deal of lively and acute criticism. Ten years ago two selections of this criticism appeared in the same year: "The Sorrows of Fat City" (University of South Carolina Press) and "Whistling in the Dark" (Harcourt Brace).
His most recent book, "Going to See the Elephant," contains pierces written in a literary vein and essays struck as types of reminiscence and of tribute. All of them are informal and easygoing in nature, even those, such as "A Day's Fair Work: The Poetry of Fred Chappell," which are literary criticism. "Nobody that I can think of," Mr. Garrett casually but seriously says, "is as easy and fluent in such a variety of forms as Chappell. Nobody else that I know of has the art of speaking in such a variety of voices."
Tributes to other writers include "The Good Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald" ("he was, line by line, move by move, one of the most gifted writers we Americans have ever known"); "Miss Eudora When Last Seen" ("how many other writers have kept your attention and given you nothing but joy for fifty years?"); and Madison Jones (of his novels Mr. Garrett writes: "I had and have strong memories of them, of the great pleasure and envy I felt").
There are dissenting reports on Truman Capote, especially his "In Cold Blood" ("Perry Smith becomes … a spooky embodiment of Capote's early fiction"), and on James Dickey ("The press shares Dickey's lack of interest in the tyranny of fact. Literary journalists … are more interested in a good story than in prosaic truth. From the beginning, Dickey understood the expectations of the press and lived up to them"). Both pieces deal with the manipulation of fact and fiction by two writers indifferent to telling the truth.
Mr. Garrett's critical essays, whether formal or informal, are devoted largely to modern and contemporary fiction (James Gould Cozzens, John Cheever, Saul Bellow), to Southern letters (William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty), to contemporary poetry (Mr. Chappell, John Ciardi, Warren again). His informal pieces often deal with two general subjects that he has written about often and with great authority: creative writing, especially as it is taught in American colleges and universities, and the relation of publishing to writing. Of course these subjects are closely related and in some ways overlap.
The first four essays in this collection are devoted to the writing life, especially creative writing ("Trust your original impulse" and "Revision is really what we are talking about in all of our classes and workshops," he says). In these essays appear shrewd, incidental remarks about publishing: "[T]he decline of New York, he observes, "from national city to shrinking region," has made it "a place characterized by all the defensiveness and vulnerability that has haunted other regional societies."
Yet, he continues, "New York remains the center of publishing and of associated publicity … Unfortunately, contemporary publishing is run by people who are weirdly compounded. They are as ignorant as anyone else. But, at one and the same time, they are jaded, sophisticated, bored, silly."
No writer today knows the pressures of the literary marketplace so thoroughly as Mr. Garrett. He understands all its nuances from the shrinking shelf life of the book in our time and what that means in economic terms to how the given writer living and working outside New York can penetrate the inner recesses of the trade house in Manhattan.
Going to see the elephant means, in whatever version, gaining experience of the world, the hard and sullen world of experience. Reading this book will help anyone, especially a writer, young or old, learn how to understand that world and be among those upon whom nothing is lost. George Garrett has seen the elephant in many guises, and we are the wiser for his experience.

George Core, editor of the Sewanee Review since 1973, has often written reviews for this newspaper.



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