George Garrett; Critically Acclaimed Novelist and Poet

George Garrett, left, with writer Herbert Gold, was a University of Virginia professor.
George Garrett, left, with writer Herbert Gold, was a University of Virginia professor. (By Mario Tama For The Washington Post)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

George Garrett, 78, the author of more than 30 books of fiction, poetry, biography and criticism, including an acclaimed trilogy of historical novels set in Elizabethan England, died May 26 at his home in Charlottesville. He had bladder cancer.

Dr. Garrett retired in 2000 from the University of Virginia as the Henry Hoyns professor of creative writing. He earlier had directed the school's creative writing department.

In a multifaceted career, he was regarded by his admirers as a classic man of letters. He wrote poetry and short stories that were deceptively colloquial, deeply moralistic and concerned with one's place in a corrupting world.

He was poet laureate of Virginia from 2002 to 2004 and the recipient in 1989 of the Ingersoll Foundation's T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing, which recognized him as "one of the most inventive and artistic writers of his generation."

He wrote across many genres, from a political drama set in modern Florida ("The Finished Man" (1961) to a Southern gothic tale of a revivalist preacher ("Do, Lord, Remember Me" (1965).

He wrote his Elizabethan trilogy -- "Death of the Fox," "The Succession" and "Entered From the Sun" -- over three decades, and he chose radically different forms of storytelling in what Richard Dillard, a Garrett expert who teaches at Hollins College, called "his quest never to write the same book twice."

"Death of the Fox" (1971) provided Dr. Garrett with his only bestseller. Originally part of his Princeton University doctoral thesis, he spent 13 years writing the book about poet and adventurer Walter Raleigh. Its sweep and authority were widely praised, as were its vivid recreation of the period and its personalities. It was a product not only of his empathy and literary gifts but also of painstaking research.

Critic J.R. Frakes writing in the Chicago Tribune said "Death of the Fox" "illuminates the entire swarmy world of royalty and commoners, jewels and gutter-garbage, politic church and sharkfight state."

"The Succession" (1983) focused on the ascension of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth I and was told through a variety of characters, including two runaway Catholic priests. Renaissance scholar Maureen Quilligan wrote in the New York Times that the book was "a subtle, complex meditation on the poetry of time."

"Entered From the Sun" (1990) used the device of two detectives, an actor and a spy, looking to solve the stabbing death of playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Raleigh appears at the end, drawing the trilogy to a close.

Many profiles drew attention to Dr. Garrett's devotion to craft, but he was a notably good-humored man who treasured the "Golden Turkey" award bestowed on "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster," a cheapie Hollywood film he wrote as a lark in 1965. He was teaching at U-Va. at the time and named the crazed general in the fright movie after the English department chairman.

He liked to joke that the film, also released as "Mars Invades Puerto Rico," was "the only movie I've ever seen that's greatly enhanced by regular commercial interruption."

George Palmer Garrett Jr. was born June 11, 1929, in Orlando. He was a lawyer's son and had an aunt who wrote children's books and a screenwriting uncle, Oliver Garrett, best known for his "happy ending" adaptation of "Moby Dick" (1930) starring John Barrymore as Captain Ahab.

While attending Princeton, George Garrett won national poetry contests and published 39 short stories in the college literary magazine.

After graduating in 1952, he spent several years in the Army as a field artillery sergeant in Trieste, Italy, an experience that provided the subject and locale of his 1961 novel, "Which Ones Are the Enemy?"

He returned to Princeton to complete his master's degree in English in 1956 and received his doctorate decades later, after the university accepted parts of his Elizabethan trilogy as his thesis.

Dr. Garrett enjoyed telling stories about his early publishing woes, noting that Doubleday only agreed to print "Do, Lord, Remember Me" as a tax write-off for the company. He joked of being "a candidate for the Tomb of the Unknown American Writer."

But he was revered by his peers and won the PEN/Malamud award, earlier bestowed on John Updike and Saul Bellow. He served on literary judging panels and led literary organizations, supported federal funding of the arts and was known for mentoring younger writers, including Madison Smartt Bell and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Henry Taylor.

After other teaching positions, Dr. Garrett rejoined the U-Va. faculty in 1984. He continued publishing short stories, essays and books, including one each about novelists James Jones and Mary Lee Settle.

His final novel was "Double Vision" (2004), ostensibly about an attempt to write a biography of the late author Peter Taylor, his colleague and neighbor. But the book became a meditation on the nature of memory, which Dr. Garrett viewed as fictional because it is subject to constant adjustment.

Dr. Garrett was quoted in the reference book Contemporary Authors as saying that he constantly felt like a novice in his craft.

"Because one is always beginning, always challenged to learn newly," he said. "And what one learns is how you should have done the last book, the last story, the last poem. With that knowledge one commences the next and new ones with innocence rather than experience, with hope and faith and no security."

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Susan Jackson Garrett of Charlottesville; three children, William P. Garrett and George G. Garrett, both of Charlottesville, and Alice Garrett of Havertown, Pa.; two sisters, Rozanne Epps of Richmond and Alice McClelland of Park Ridge, N.J.; and two granddaughters.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company