BORN: 1942, Exeter, New Hampshire
The World According to Garp (1978)
The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)
The Cider House Rules (1985)
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
John Irving enjoys a rare and prominent place among contemporary American writers, not only for having published a string of bestsellers, but also for having received accolades from critics in the popular and academic press alike. His status has been assured since the dizzying success of The World According to Garp in 1978. In addition to selling more than three million copies, The World According to Garp established Irving as an American cultural icon—a phenomenon that R. Z. Sheppard subsequently referred to in Time magazine as “Garpomania” in the early 1980s. Since the publication of The World According to Garp, Irving's novels have been adapted into four motion pictures, including The Cider House Rules (1999), for which Irving received an Oscar for best screenplay in 2000. These and other works have secured Irving's stature as one of America's most significant men of letters.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Writing and Wrestling John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on March 2, 1942. His birth
name was John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in honor of his biological father, a World War II flyer who was shot down over Burma. Irving's later fiction would repeatedly address the theme of a missing parent, particularly an absent father. Irving's mother, Frances Winslow Irving, legally changed his name to John Winslow Irving when he was six years old after he had been adopted by her second husband, Colin F. N. Irving. Because his stepfather taught in the history department at Phillips Exeter Academy, Irving was granted admission, but his struggles as both an outsider (he was one of the few students at the academy who, like the other faculty children, was actually from Exeter) and as a foundering student who was later diagnosed as dyslexic, became the backdrop for his journey as a writer. At Exeter, under the tutelage of his wrestling coach and his writing teacher, Irving began to cultivate his two lifelong passions: wrestling and writing. Most of his later novels are set in his childhood home of New England, and several—including A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) and A Widow for One Year (1998)—depict Phillips Exeter Academy specifically.
After his first year of wrestling at the University of Pittsburgh—a source of athletic disappointment—Irving decided to travel to Vienna to study abroad. He told Greil Marcus in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview that Vienna “was so new and strange—or so old, as it turns out, and strange—that it forced me to pay attention to every aspect of it.” Irving's insight into the concept of difference—initially triggered by the stark contrasts between Vienna and the familiar New England landscape of his youth—serves as the basis for his penchant for detail. His recognition that the nuance of detail is what represents the singularity of a setting or character complements his devotion to the novelistic forms of Charles Dickens, another master of such techniques. Irving's work poses the aesthetic question of range, asking how a story may be told truthfully if the reader does not receive as full and descriptive a picture as possible.
The University of Iowa Writer's Workshop In 1965, after returning from Vienna, Irving received his B.A., cum laude, from the University of New Hampshire. In the same year, he published his first story, “A Winter Branch,” in Redbook and traveled west to the University of Iowa Writers's Workshop, where he studied with Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Irving developed a friendship with Vonnegut, and Vonnegut's own sense of discomfort with mainstream America, and the literary establishment served as an example and encouragement to Irving. In fact, as a defender of Vonnegut's work in “Kurt Vonnegut and His Critics,” published in The New Republic in 1979, Irving creates his own manifesto for writing. In the article, he damns the contemporary novels that seem obscure and philosophically obtuse, arguing against “the assumption that what is easy to read has been easy to write.” Naming Thomas Pynchon in particular, Irving suggests that such writers have not “struggled hard enough” to make their work “more readable.”
Professor Irving Although Irving's career is marked by a radical separation from both mainstream academic and popular fiction, his early writing life mirrors that of many contemporary American authors. With the rise of creative writing programs and M.F.A. workshops, the vast majority of writers in the latter half of the twentieth century found themselves aligned in some fashion with the academy, often as writers in residence or tenured faculty members. Upon receiving an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1967, Irving entered the academic world as a professor at the now defunct Windham College in Putney, Vermont. Putney was Irving's primary residence until his 1981 divorce from his first wife, painter Shyla Leary, whom he had married in 1964. Between 1967 and 1978, however, Irving traveled to various colleges and universities, hoping to find time to write while supporting his young and growing family. In 1969 Irving, his wife, and his first son, Colin, journeyed to Vienna so that Irving might work on the screenplay of his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968); Irving's second son, Brendan, was born in Vienna. Upon his return to the United States, Irving taught at the Iowa Page 795 | Top of ArticleWriters's Workshop for three years, at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, for two years, and at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, for another year. The only exception to his teaching schedule during this eleven-year period came as the result of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1972 and later a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976.
Becoming a Full-Time Novelist Although such a rigorous course load did not hamper Irving's productivity—he wrote and published four novels over eleven years—it did wear upon him. The success of The World According to Garp made it possible for Irving to forego a dual career as a teacher and a novelist. But his dedication to the sport of wrestling did not waver, and despite having no financial need to do so, he continued to coach wrestling until 1989. In 1987, he married literary agent Janet Turnbull, with whom he had a third son, Everett.
What the Future Holds In his novels Irving has crafted a peculiar form of postmodernism in which he fashions immense Dickensian narratives that explore various aspects of postwar Americana—from the politics of sex and love to the often corrosive intersections between violence and the family in contemporary life. From his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, many of the motifs that characterize Irving's fictions—including his penchant for magical bears, moments of devastating violence, the netherworld of Vienna, and earthy doses of sexuality—exist, albeit in relatively primitive forms. Irving's most recent novel, Until I Find You (2005), continues to expand upon his exploration of his personal experiences; in it, he addresses for the first time through his fiction his early experiences as a victim of sexual abuse, as well as his first experiences meeting the family of his biological father.
Works in Literary Context
Although he is not a prolific novelist, Irving remains highly popular with the reading public, as well as with moviegoers through his increasing activity as a screenwriter. Afforded the opportunity due to his stature within American letters, he regularly and publicly debates the nature and worth of novelists and their works. Long a proponent of character and plot driven fiction, Irving has been compared to such luminaries as Charles Dickens and Henry James, both of whom had a similar preoccupation with the moral choices and failings of their characters.
Family and Morality Though a contemporary novelist, Irving's concerns are traditional, a characteristic some critics have cited as distinguishing Irving's work from that of other contemporary fiction writers. Indeed, Irving's values are reflected in The World According to Garp, a work he described in Washington Post Book World as “an artfully disguised soap opera.” “The difference is that I write well,” Irving added, “that I construct a book with the art of construction in mind…. I mean to make you laugh, to make you cry; those are soap opera intentions, all the way.” A lengthy family saga, the novel focuses on nurse Jenny Fields, her illegitimate son, novelist T. S. Garp, and Garp's wife and two sons. The World According to Garp explicitly explores the violent side of contemporary life. Episodes involving rape, assassination, mutilation, and suicide abound, but these horrific scenes are always infused with comedy.
Despite its fairytale-like qualities, Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) also explores adult issues like incest, terrorism, suicide, freakish deaths, and gang rape, all infused with the novelist's trademark macabre humor. A family saga in the tradition of The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire spans nearly four generations of the troubled Berry family.
Works in Critical Context
John Irving is praised as a gifted storyteller with a fertile imagination and a penchant for meshing the comic and the tragic. Caroline Moore wrote in Spectator magazine, “the greatest popular artists—from Dickens to Chaplin—are circus lovers and showmen, with an unabashed streak of sentimentality and sensationalism…. Irving at his best, combining the grotesque, tragic and warmhearted, has something of their quality.”
The World According to Garp Irving could scarcely have begun to imagine the remarkable popular and critical response to The World According to Garp, which became an international phenomenon. Directed by George Roy Hill, scripted by Steve Tesich, and starring Robin Williams, the 1982 motion picture adaptation of the novel enjoyed rave reviews as well. The critical response to the new direction in
Irving's postmodern approach to narrative was overwhelmingly positive. In his analysis of the novel in The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed in 1978 that “The World According to Garp, for all its realism, is not a realistic novel…. However you see it, between the imagined event and mundane reality that inspired its invention, there is room for laughter.”
Literary critics continue to characterize The World According to Garp as the signal moment in Irving's evolution as a writer. Josie P. Campbell, for example, praises the novel in her 1998 study for the “richness of its many layers, the extraordinary flexibility and grace of its prose, and the fulfillment of Garp's—and Irving's—criteria for good fiction; the novel makes the reader wonder what will happen next …”
A Prayer for Owen Meany In many ways Irving's seventh novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), has emerged as his most popular narrative. Despite a mixed critical response, the novel continues to enjoy a tremendous following among Irving's substantial readership. In his 1989 New York Times Book Review analysis of the novel, Alfred Kazin challenged the serious pretensions of A Prayer for Owen Meany: “The book is as cunningly contrived as the most skillful mystery story—that is the best of it. But there is absolutely no irony.” Yet, other critics praise the deliberate lack of irony and deceptively simple structural design. In her critique of the novel, Debra Shostak praises Irving's intentionally “earnest” narration of Owen's act of self-sacrifice. Owen's miracle, she writes, “is an ambiguous discovery” for Johnny, and she states, “His recovery of origin does not grant him the power in the worlds of matter or spirit that we have come to expect from the conventions of such a narrative quest.”
Responses to Literature
- John Irving has been praised for his timely sensitivity to women in The World According to Garp. What made his sensitivity timely? What about the characters and the events in the novel reveal authorial sensitivity?
- Using the Internet and library resources, research the wildly positive response given to The World According to Garp upon its publication in 1978. Why did the reading public react so powerfully to the book? Give examples of your finding in a brief essay.
- How does American history impact the storyline in A Prayer for Owen Meany? Use the Internet and library sources as well as the novel to back up your answer.
- How does Irving use symbolism in A Prayer for Owen Meany? Taking one of the book's important symbols (armlessness, doubles, American history, Owen himself, etc.), describe the author's development of a symbolic theme, and discuss the specific meanings with which your symbol is invested in the story.
- John Irving often writes about extended families. In what ways do his own personal experiences affect his depictions of family?
Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
Neubauer, Alexander. “John Irving.” Conversations on Writing Fiction: Interviews with Thirteen Distinguished Teachers of Fiction Writing in America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994, pp. 141–152.
Bernstein, Richard. “John Irving: Nineteenth-Century Novelist for These Times.” New York Times (April 25, 1989): C13, C17.
Interview with John Irving. New York (August 17, 1981): 29–32.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Randomness, Luck, and Fate, but Whew, No Bears.” New York Times (May 1, 1998): 51.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of The Cider House Rules. New York Times (May 20, 1985).
Marcus, Greil. “John Irving: The World of The World According to Garp.” Rolling Stone (December 13, 1979): 68–75.
Moore, Caroline. Review of The Fourth Hand. Spectator (July 21, 2001): 36.
Robinson, Phyllis. “A Talk with John Irving.” Book-of-the-Month Club News (April 1989): 3.
Shostak, Debra. “The Family Romances of John Irving.” Essays in Literature 21 (1994): 129–145.
Shostak, Debra. “Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments.” Critique 37 (1995): 51–70.