John C. Gardner Jr., 49, a literature professor, Chaucerian scholar and novelist who won the 1976 Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for "October Light," was killed yesterday in a motorcycle accident in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania state police said Mr. Gardner was riding his motorcycle along Rte. 92 near Oakland, Pa., when he went onto the dirt shoulder of the road and was thrown from the vehicle. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Barnes-Kasson Hospital in Oakland.
His skills as a classical scholar helped him become one of the country's most distinctive and innovative writers. His philosophy as an author, he once wrote, was similar to that of Tolstoy: "that the highest purpose of art is to make people good by choice."
"October Light," which is set in rural Vermont, is the story of the battles between a widower and his widowed sister. The novel was hailed as one of the 10 best books of 1976 by both Time and The New York Times.
His other books included "Grendel," a retelling of the Beowulf saga from the monster's point of view, "The Sunlight Dialogues," which focuses on a jail escape by the Sunlight Man, who falls from grace and becomes a demonic magician. His latest book was "Michelsson's Ghost."
Mr. Gardner taught English at the State University of New York at Binghamton, N.Y., and lived in nearby Oakland. From 1965 to 1976, he taught medieval literature at Southern Illinois University. He spent two years on the faculty of George Mason University in Northern Virginia before going to SUNY at Binghamton in 1978.
He also taught in writing workshops and literary centers. His students included John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O'Brien.
Mr. Gardner was born in Batavia, N.Y., and grew up on a dairy farm. His family included a grandmother who, he once told a Washington Post reporter, taught him that angels were "as real as trees or hay wagons" and "made my world mythic." His mother was a high school literature teacher and his father a farmer and lay preacher.
Mr. Gardner was a 1955 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and earned master's and doctoral degrees in classical and medieval literature at the University of Iowa.
"I knew by the time I was five that the best thing in the world to be was a storyteller," he said in a Post interview.
Mr. Gardner's marriage to the former Joan Louise Patterson ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, the former Liz Rosenberg, and two children.