Moral Purpose, As In … Writing?

John Gardner, Novelist & Professor (2)

John Gardner, Novelist & Professor (2)

I sorely regret one thing about my education: that I was never able to take coursework under John Gardner, who taught in the University System where I earned my English degree (SUNY.) Had I learned what he taught earlier on, the course of my whole life may have run differently thereafter.

Here is a quote from Gardner that illuminates why I say this:

“Let me quote at some length Tolstoy’s closing argument in ‘What Is Art?’ for though we may not be as sure as Tolstoy that the Kingdom of God is nigh, the argument for moral art, and against so-called art that ridicules ideals, still seems to be correct, with or without its religious premise. Tolstoy writes:

The task of art is enormous. Through the influence of real art, aided by science, guided by religion, that peaceful cooperation of man which is now maintained by external means—by our law-courts, police, charitable institutions, factory inspection, and so forth—should be obtained by man’s free and joyous activity. Art should cause violence to be set aside.

And it is only art that can accomplish this.

All that now, independently of the fear of violence and punishment, makes the social life of man possible (and already this is an enormous part of the order of our lives)—all this has been brought about by art. If by art it has been inculcated on people how they should treat religious objects, their parents, their children, their wives, their relations, strangers, foreigners; how to conduct themselves towards their elders, their superiors, towards those who suffer, towards their enemies, and towards animals; and if this has been obeyed through generations by millions of people, not only unenforced by any violence but so that the force of such customs can be shaken in no way but by means of art: then by art also other customs more in accord with the religious perception of our time may be evoked. If art has been able to convey the sentiment of reverence for images, the Eucharist, and for the king’s person; of shame at betraying a comrade, devotion to a flag, the necessity of revenge for an insult, the need to sacrifice one’s labor for the erection and adornment of churches, the duty of defending one’s honor, or the glory of one’s native land—then that same art can also evoke reverence for the dignity of every man and for the life of every animal; can make men ashamed of luxury, of violence, of revenge, or of using for their own pleasure that of which others are in need; can compel people freely, gladly, and spontaneously, to sacrifice themselves in the service of man.

The task for art to accomplish is to make that feeling of brotherhood and love of one’s neighbor, now attained only by the best members of society, the customary feeling and the instinct of all men. By evoking under imaginary conditions the feeling of brotherhood and love, religious art will train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art thus educates will naturally pass.”(1)

All of that is why I am reading Gardner now and enjoying his works so much. I’m finally learning what I needed to know all along (the above only partially covers it) about writing books. If I’m going to go through the agony, I also want the ecstasy part of becoming a notable writer. That means nothing that really matters to Literature’s meaning and value can be left out of my own works.

I know why I write and that I do it for a truly worthy reason far surpassing monetary compensation or even acclaim. Not that money and acclaim wouldn’t be good, some day, even if I write works worthy to be called “literary.” Maybe, especially in spite of their literary character, it would be good. Even thrillers can be literary. Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogs is a case in point. Ask me later about all of the other works of Gardner’s that I study. I have a hunch I’ll find mostly more of the same.

I find in John Gardner a writer whose fierce loyalties agreed with my own. If I could bring one teacher back from the dead, it would be this man who I never had the pleasure of meeting or studying under.

Such is the power of books, and of morality found in many of them. That goodness makes us yearn for more of the same, to seek it out and create more of it in our own lives.

Many, if not most, of Gardner’s works are available on The triple-book collection of his didactic books is a treasure trove for aspiring writers. These three books are available as a set in Kindle for the cost of a cheap lunch.

— JR

1 Gardner, John, (quoting Tolstoy,) On Moral Fiction (p. 27). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

2 Public Domain,