I spent more years at Binghamton University (SUNY) than I care to remember. This is not to say that I received a poor education there, because I don’t think that I did. What I mean by this is that I don’t think it’s a good idea for any student to go through the same university pursuing an undergraduate and graduate degree, let alone a doctorate. Nevertheless, I did, for the most part, enjoy my time at Binghamton University. I certainly met some wonderful (and not so wonderful) people there. Although my doctorate is in comparative literature, I did receive my MA and BA in English. Haunting the English program is the ghost of John Gardner.
It is probably fair to say that the creative writing program at Binghamton is one of the best in the world; at least it was when I attended the university. It is also perhaps fair to say that the success of the program (and by success I mean its reputation in this case) is in large part thanks to John Gardner. Even before I started taking classes at Binghamton I heard the name John Gardner mentioned often. In the early 1990s I was working at B. Dalton Booksellers in downtown Binghamton. My manager and friend at the time, Brandon Amo, would often mention Gardner’s name and I remember the other graduate students in creative writing stopping by the bookstore and talking about Gardner and his ex-wife Liz Rosenberg. Rosenberg also teaches at Binghamton and is quite a successful writer herself. Although I had read “Grendel,” Gardner’s retelling of the Beowulf epic from the monster’s point of view, I never appreciated the connection John Gardner had with Binghamton, and the only thing that I remember is wanting to leave Binghamton (the area) at any cost. Now, many years later, I deeply regret not doing my doctoral dissertation on Gardner.
This past summer I took a ride with my father in law, who lives in Deposit, New York, out to Susquehanna, PA to look at Gardner’s farmhouse. Gardner died in 1982 in Susquehanna in a motorcycle accident. I picked up a copy of “Mickelsson’s Ghosts,” one of Gardner’s last books (one that takes place largely in Susquehanna) and wanted to see the farmhouse made famous in that book. In “Mickelsson’s Ghosts” the protagonist Peter Mickelsson comes across an ad for a house in a brochure that reads, “Beautiful old farmhouse, 4 bedrooms, outbuildings, pond, woods, pasture.” When my father in law and I rode up the hill approaching Gardner’s farmhouse it was as if a scene from the novel stood right before our eyes. We turned around and stopped for a few minutes looking at the farmhouse. I snapped a few pictures, and we went off to look for the spot that Gardner’s motorcycle crashed. My father in law is a good friend with the Susquehanna coroner and we talked with him before our ride out to get the geographic particulars.
I would like to go on with my new obsession with John Gardner’s fiction, but something strange happened to me that day. As we took in the sights around Susquehanna I started to feel like a celebrity stalker. More than once I felt as though I was crossing a line and invading someone’s privacy. But it was too late and I felt an undeniable need to merge the fiction with reality. At what point, then, does research (for that is what I felt I was doing since I planned to write something on Gardner and Susquehanna) cross an ethical line?
Since that day in early August 2010 I have been making my way through the fictional worlds of John Gardner. He was a genius pure and simple. His fiction is as good as any in American literature, and better than most. Since then I’ve also driven out to the farmhouse on several occasions. This summer I plan on trying to interview people who might have known Gardner while he lived in Susquehanna. I also plan on trying to interview the people who knew him while he was at Binghamton. I’m not sure what will come of all of this. Perhaps it will be an article, perhaps something more, perhaps nothing at all. What I do know is that the ghost of John Gardner has joined a chorus of spectral voices that continue to crowd my own world.