Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
The writer of The World According to Garp (1978), John Irving attended the University of Pittsburgh.
Awards: Academy Award, National Book Award
Novelist John Irving, author of The World According to Garp (1978) and The Cider House Rules (1985), attended the University of Pittsburgh. Read more here.
Editors, Encyclopaedia Britannica. "John Irving: American Author." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 23 February 2018. 6 November 2018.
John Winslow Irving was born as John Wallace Blunt, Jr. after his biological father, a flyer shot down over Burma during World War II. Irving grew up without ever meeting his biological father and the rest of his family shrouded the absent parent in mystery. It was not until he was about 40 years old that learned more about his father. His mother, Frances Winslow Irving, married Colin F. N. Irving, who taught in the history department at Phillip’s Exeter Academy. Irving’s name was legally changed to John Winslow Irving at the age of six when his step-father adopted him. Irving attended the same boys’ prep school where his step-father taught, excelling in two things: wrestling and writing. His wrestling coach and writing teacher nurtured his two passions, and later Irving reflected that they were the biggest influences in his life and writing, along with his missing biological father. Irving struggled with dyslexia, though he was not diagnosed during his early schooling years, so his performance was measured as mediocre; but Irving went on to further his education despite his disadvantage.
He graduated from Exeter in 1961 to study briefly at the University of Pittsburgh (only a year—he was sorely disappointed with the wrestling program) and the University of Vienna before settling at the University of New Hampshire. He married his first wife, Shyla Leary (an artist), in 1964, with whom he had two sons, Colin and Brendan. In 1965, Irving’s first son, Colin, was born—in the same year, he received his bachelor’s degree (cum laude) from the University of New Hampshire and had his first work, the short story “A Winter Branch,” published in Redbook magazine. Irving went on to study at the famous University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop with future novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Irving and Vonnegut remained close friends throughout their lives until Vonnegut’s death in 2007.
Irving earned his Masters in Fine Arts in 1967, and over the next few years he worked as an assistant professor of English at Windham College in Putney, Vermont. Between 1967 and 1978, he traveled to various colleges and universities to write, teach, and support his young and growing family, though his primary residence remained in Putney, Vermont.
Irving published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968. This first work sold fewer than 6000 copies, and received rather indifferent, though slightly optimistic, reviews. Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson noted in their 1986 study that “Setting Free the Bears possesses the classic qualities of a first novel by a talented but underdeveloped writer: major weaknesses, signs of imitation and moments of unqualified literary success.” They go on to say, however, “much that here both succeeds and fails points ahead to, and helps clarify, the mature fiction.” The novel, put simply, is about man’s desire for and journey to acquire freedom. It follows two close friends on their quest through the many trials of their friendship, including a woman with whom they both become involved, the untimely death of one friend and the emotional journey thereafter of the other, and a comical, yet thoughtful, botched attempt at freeing the animals of the Vienna Zoo.
Irving, with his wife and son, traveled to Vienna so that Irving could work on a screenplay for Setting Free the Bears, and during that three year stay, his second son, Brendan, was born. When Irving and his family returned to the United States, he worked as a writer-in-residence at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for three years. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1972, he was able to publish The Water-Method Man (1972).
With his second novel, critics noticed that Irving was growing and evolving as a writer. Irving developed a penchant for complex plots and characters and a keen sense of the importance of details; all of which comes from a combination of his travels in Vienna and the United States and his love for Charles Dickens’ works. Irving wrote with a style that clearly indicated what he felt: that one cannot tell a story truthfully without giving the reader as descriptive a picture as possible. The Water-Method Man was explicitly intended as a comic novel. The story revolves around a man who starts his journey of finding himself at an urologist’s office, seeking help for a blocked urinary tract. The cure—the “water-method”—involves drinking vast amounts of water both before and after sexual intercourse. After a series comical events and half a lifetime of irresponsibility and indecision, he discovers the true value of having a family and a career. The Water-Method Man received relatively good reviews compared to Irving’s first novel, but it sold fewer copies than Setting Free the Bears.
In 1974, Irving received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, granting him more time and money to write. With that grant, he published The 158-Pound Marriage (1974). Irving’s critics regard it as his poorest and least significant work. Irving attempted to combine story elements and character/plot ideas of two separate works: Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges (1971). It was clear that Irving was struggling with his literary identity with his third novel, a story about two couples sexually involved with each other and the eventual deterioration of both marriages, all with a comparative thread between marriage and wrestling. In a 1974 article in The New York Times Book Review, Anatole Broyard wrote that in the novel
Irving seems to be saying that, unless we Americans start seriously grappling with our national and sexual history, we are lost. Though there is some truth in this, he exaggerates. In taking intellectuals as representative Americans, he flatters and slanders them at the same time. And his book, to borrow one of his own phrases, merely “stumbles toward profundity.”
Irving went back to teaching for a few years. Between 1975 and 1978, he was the Assistant Professor of English at the Mount Holyoke College and taught for another year at Brandeis University. He received the Guggenheim Foundation Grant in 1976-1977. Irving emerged from his dismally regarded third novel to write his most popular and critically acclaimed fourth: The World According to Garp (1978).It takes place in parts of New Hampshire and Vienna, places now well-known to Irving’s readers, but Irving brought in a whole new level of complexity and realism to his imaginative narratives. Irving also took his love of Dickens to an entirely different plane, positing that Dickens is not only a writer, but ‘Dickensian’ is a style of writing in and of itself. Irving uses his characters as the story, not just pawns within a story, just as Dickens was apt to do. He constructs immensely complicated and richly detailed characters by describing physical movements, professional habits, dress, and incidents in their lives that make them who they are, not just physical features and a name. In short, from The World According to Garp onward, Irving demanded that his readers see and feel his characters in all of the humanity, profundity, and absurdity of living in a postmodern world.
Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Hugh M. Ruppersburg wrote that “The concerns of Irving’s novels are inherently contemporary. Yet often they bear little similarity to other recent fiction, for their author is more interested in affirming certain conventional values--art and the family, for instance--than in condemning the status quo or heralding the arrival of a new age.... What is needed, [Irving] seems to suggest, is a fusion of the compassion and common sense of the old with the egalitarian open-mindedness of the new.” This view of the world is reflected in Irving’s The World According to Garp. In his most famous novel, Irving traces Garp’s life from beginning to end—his conception and birth, early childhood and education, his marriage and children, and his death and life thereafter.
Garp’s story starts in the 1940s with the impregnation of his mother, Jenny Fields, by Technical Sergeant Garp, a mortally wounded ball-turret gunner. The plot follows Garp’s early years and education at Steering Academy (a transparent interpretation of Irving’s own Exeter Academy) where his mother is the school nurse. Garp has numerous adventures with the Percy children and their dog whilst attending the academy. He becomes a wrestler and a budding writer, has his first sexual encounter with one of the Percy girls, and then meets Helen Holmes, the wrestling coach’s daughter, whom he later marries. Upon his graduation, Garp’s mother takes him to Vienna to “absorb experience” in order to be a writer. Garp experiences the coupling of sex and death numerous times in the novel, starting with a Viennese prostitute he gets involved with and whom later he learns is dying of cancer. This coupling helps him write a novel (which has recurring events in not only Garp’s life and future writings, but also a number of themes in the The World According to Garp itself). But Garp isn’t the only writer in the family- his mother begins to write, and her autobiography A Sexual Suspect becomes an international best-seller. Its famous first line says “In this dirty-minded world, you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore—or fast on your way to becoming one or the other.”
Garp and his mother return to the United States to find that Jenny has become a famous and controversial political figure, so she retires from nursing and moves to her parents’ home on the coast of New Hampshire to set up a safe place for abused and victimized women. Jenny is viewed as a feminist, but she denies the title, insisting that she is only doing what she believes to be the “right” thing.
Garp marries Helen, who by this time is a university professor, and they have two children, Duncan and Walt. Garp becomes a stay-at-home Dad and part-time writer. Both Garp and Helen divulge into numerous infidelities; Garp with babysitters and Helen with students. One of Helen’s affairs with a student, Michael Milton, ends tragically violent with the death of one son and the maiming of herself, her husband, and her other son; Michael Milton has three-fourths of his penis bitten off. The family retreats Garp’s grandparents’ home, where Helen conceives another child, named Jenny after Garp’s mother. Garp writes another novel, The World According to Bensenhaver, in which Garp mimics his world of sex and random violence. Garp’s mother is assassinated, and so is Garp later on by one of his childhood friends, Pooh Percy, who links Garp’s adolescent lust for her sister with the sister’s death in childbirth. The World According to Garp ends with an epilogue that ties the loose ends of the story up after Garp’s death, as well as reiterates significant themes and issues in Irving’s novel.
All the people in Irving’s novel had a genuine sense of particularity, a sense of realism and a connection with the reader: what critics call a “characterscape.” One becomes attuned to what is lost when these people die. Their deaths leave gaps-- bleeding holes – in the lives of those who (for the time being) survive them, and readers feel that pain as if those characters were personal friends. Garp has interweaving themes about good and evil, the combination of human tenderness and apocalyptic violence, and the necessity and limits of morals; morality is essential to a decent life, but, no matter how strongly one adheres to that moral system, morals can only take one so far. Evil is identified with amorality (not the refusal of morals, but their absolute absence), and is only present in the very brief appearances of rapists. Some of Irving’s principal characters are stupid, some crazy, but none are corrupt-- Irving does not make the mistake of equating evil with ignorance or insanity. Evil, to Irving, is a fact of life- good is more interesting, and harder to write about.
Garp is a complex meditation on what Irving perceives as the overarching interrelationship in contemporary culture between sex and violence, and after the death of most of the principal characters, this idea culminates in the last line of the novel: “We are all terminal cases.” The violence and death aspect of the novel, however, is misleading- Garp is richer and more subtle than that. The struggle defined in Garp is not the hopeless struggle of men and women to beat death (as “We are all terminal cases” seems to imply), but the struggle of men and women to keep faith with each other. “Irving has written what, these days anyway, is the rarest sort of novel: a long, unsentimental, intricate, unfaked story about people who are basically good,” said Greil Marcus in his article for The Critical Response to John Irving.
The World According to Garp achieved a cult status—T-shirts were printed, proclaiming “I Believe in Garp”—and was the focus of intense critical attention, the two combining to propel the novel’s author “into the front rank of America’s young novelists,” claimed a Time Magazine critic, R. Z. Sheppard. The novel became an international phenomenon; with its tremendous success, Irving could put aside his teaching career and devote his full attention to writing. The novel sold more than 120,000 copies in hardcover, and over 3 million in paperback. The paperback edition of The World According to Garp later earned the National Book Award in 1980 for the Best Paperback of 1979. The novel was adapted into film in 1982, directed by George Roy Hill, scripted by Steve Tesich, and starring Robin Williams, and received rave reviews. After Garp, Irving’s place in the list of extraordinary American novelists was set.
Though those eleven years in Irving’s life was physically and mentally wearisome, they did not restrict his productivity: he published four novels and reprinted his first three in a collection called Three by Irving (1980). In 1981, Irving published The Hotel New Hampshire, a novel following four generations of the troubled Berry family as they struggle to keep their family together and their failing inn afloat. He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with its release and Garp’s number-one fiction bestseller status. The Hotel New Hampshire was adapted into film in 1984, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Rob Lowe, Seth Green, and Jodie Foster.
In 1982, following his divorce with Shyla Leary, Irving moved to New York City, where he began writing his sixth novel, The Cider House Rules (1985). It is arguably his most Dickensian novel to date. With a wide range of characters of miraculous depth, and a controversial ideological vision, The Cider House Rules follows the story of Homer Wells, an orphan at St. Cloud’s in Maine, which ironically doubles as an orphanage and a secret abortion clinic. Homer becomes the unwilling protégé of Dr. Larch, the resident obstetrician (and covert abortionist). In order to escape the career that Dr. Larch has imposed upon him, he retreats with a couple who has recently used the doctor’s darker talents and works on their family’s apple orchard in Ocean View. Several love triangles ensue, and at the climax of the novel, Homer is finally forced to choose between sentencing a young girl to having her own father’s child or performing an abortion for her. Soon thereafter, he must also make a decision about whether to assume Dr. Larch’s work back at St. Cloud’s when he hears that the doctor overdosed on ether. The novel not only sold well, but was generally praised by reviewers and critics for its “straightforward storytelling” and its “firm focus,” as Edward C. Reilly recounts in his book Understanding John Irving. The Cider House Rules was also made into a film starring Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Michael Caine, for which Irving won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award in 2000 for the motion-picture.
Irving remarried in 1987 to a literary agent, Janet Turnball, with whom he fathered a third son, Everett, in 1998. Irving’s interest in teaching ground to a halt, but his passion for wrestling did not; he continued coaching at until 1989, and in 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for his 20 years of competitive wrestling and many years of coaching. In the following decade, Irving published the novels A Prayer for Owen Meany in 1989 (adapted into film under the title of Simon Birch in 1998), Son of the Circus in 1994, and A Widow for One Year in 1998, a story/essay collection (Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, 1996), and two memoirs; all of which contributed to Irving’s growing reputation for bestsellers. His first memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend (1996), was first collected in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. It combines a portrait of the world of wrestling that also portrays his dedication to his children, and is a tribute to the writers and wrestlers who played a mentor role in Irving’s development as a novelist, wrestler, and a wrestling coach. The second memoir reveals the process of transitioning The Cider House Rules to film, called My Movie Business (1999).
In this past decade, Irving published three more novels and a children’s book. His tenth novel, The Fourth Hand (2001), is a tale about a charming, promiscuous television reporter whose hand is bitten off by a lion on a live broadcast (thereafter labeled “The Lion Guy” by the media) and all the farcical people that flock to him and his unconventional fame, including a woman who is willing to give him her late husband’s hand in exchange for visitation rights with it and the right to be impregnated by him. The novel received mixed reviews- some said it was more of the violence and comedy fusion they’ve come to love about Irving’s work, whilst others found it boringly repetitive. Bonnie Schiedel, writing in Chatelaine, called The Fourth Hand “downright weird....but also funny and bracingly original.” Irving’s children’s’ book, A Sound like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound: A Story, was publishedin 2004, and was considered to be the perfect companion to anyone who fears things that go bump in the night.
His eleventh novel, Until I Find You (2005), is Irving’s longest novel to date, and it’s also his most personal: Edward Nawotka, in his review of the novel for People Magazine, said that “it’s the most intimate story he’s ever told.” The main character, Jack Burns, spends his life searching for his father; which runs parallel to Irving’s own life. Jack Burns and his mother travel the world trying to find the missing parent, but to no avail- and it is only when Jack Burns is much older that he discovers some darker truths about the man he never knew. Irving himself knew nothing of his biological father until he was 39 years old, as he revealed in an interview for the Academy of Achievement:
I was 39 and divorcing my first wife when my mother deposited on my dining room table some letters from my father which were written from an air base in India and from hospitals in India and China in 1943. He was a flyer, he flew the Himalayan route, as it was called. He and his crew were shot down over Japanese-occupied Burma and hiked for 15 days, some 225 miles into China. The letters were all patiently, painstakingly explaining to her why he didn’t want to remain married to her, but that he hoped to have some contact with me. My mom never permitted him that contact.
Further on in the interview, he speaks of his extended family that he finally met in his 60s whilst in the middle of writing Until I Find You (2005):
…in the middle of that book, which was, once again, a “missing father” novel, I was contacted by a 39-year-old man named Chris Blunt, who said, ‘There’s a possible chance that I might be your brother.” And of course, I knew it was not a possible chance at all, but a likelihood. And I since have met two brothers and a sister I didn’t know about, and I found out more about this man who died five years before Chris found me.
This missing parent element is prominent in many of Irving’s novels, and he is now well known for his carefully detailed characterization and setting descriptions, and multilayered, intricate plots. He has been viewed in his later years as a realistic fiction writer that has an intriguing tendency to write stories revolving around unusual concoctions of sex, macabre violence, love, family, and comedy, and how all such elements exist in humanity. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt quotes Irving in the New York Times in 1985 at a press release accompanying The Cider House Rules speaking on who he is as a writer, “I believe in characterization. I believe in linear narrative. I am not an experimental writer. I am a writer who tells stories about victims.”
Irving is admired for his writing style and the struggles he underwent to master it. Irving had to work around his dyslexia by coming up with a unique strategy for writing. Irving is able to envision the ending of every novel before he begins writing the beginning, and he constantly rewrites his manuscripts, occasionally in third person for a different perspective, to achieve the novel he desires. Irving reflects on his writing method in his memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend (1996), “Good writing means rewriting, and good wrestling is a matter of redoing—repetition without cease is obligatory, until the moves become second nature.”
To date, John Irving has written twelve novels--his twelfth novel was published in the fall of 2009, called Last Night in Twisted River—two memoirs, a short story and essay collection, a children’s book, a screenplay and several short stories in various magazines throughout his over forty-year writing career. He has adapted four of his novels into films, and is continuing to write and adapt more of his works to the big screen. John Irving and his family(s) currently live in Dorset, Vermont and in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Setting Free the Bears. New York: Random House, 1968.
The Water-Method Man. New York: Random House, 1972.
The 158-Pound Marriage. New York: Random House, 1974.
The World According to Garp. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978.
The Hotel New Hampshire. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981.
The Cider House Rules. New York: William Morrow, 1985.
A Prayer for Owen Meany. New York: William Morrow, 1989.
A Son of the Circus. New York: Random House, 1994.
A Widow for One Year. New York: Random House, 1998.
The Fourth Hand. New York: Random House, 2001.
Until I Find You. New York: Random House, 2005.
Last Night in Twisted River. New York: Random House, 2009.
Campbell, Josie P. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack. “John Irving.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 278: American Novelists Since World War II, Seventh Series. Ed. James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles. Detroit: Gale Group, 2003. 173-188.
Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack. The Critical Response to John Irving. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004.