My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) by John Gardner is a spectacular novel from a time when many true novelists devoted decades crafting skillful masterpieces of fiction, unlike more recent authors who spend one to two years writing forgettable books. Although Gardner isn’t read or discussed by “mainstream” American readers, his books have continually withstood the test of time (which is the greatest test for any novelist).
As a patient and talented mentor, Gardner reshaped ancient myths into engaging narratives for contemporary readers and guided young writers in the art of storytelling with such wonderful works, fiction and non-fiction, as Grendel (1971), Jason and Medeia (1973), October Light (1976), On Moral Fiction (1978), On Becoming a Novelist (1983), The Art of Fiction (1984), and On Writers and Writing (1994).
Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues was acclaimed as “an extraordinary accomplishment” by the Chicago Sun-Times. The Boston Globe called it “a novel in the grand lines of American fiction… a superb literary achievement.” Even the Boston Evening Globe remarked: “The odds are strong that it will come to be discussed in relation to such major works as Moby Dick and The Sound and the Fury.” So, what happened? Why has this beloved but forgotten American classic been shelved to the backs of cultural and intellectual discourse?
In many ways, The Sunlight Dialogues should have been a great American classic, but American literature shifted and surged with cultural and political agendas until literature by and for Americans fell victim to a tsunami of foreign investments (much like Hollywood in the twenty-first century) and publishing in America became a predominantly British-focused-dominated industry.
Beginning in 1878, and running for over 100 years, the Boston Evening Globe ceased publication in 1979. What happened to the Boston Evening Globe should’ve been a warning for American publishing and literature emerging into a new era of non-American publishing and literature soon to dominate the United States and its readers. Even among more recent young American-writers American spellings are often mistakenly replaced with British spellings, indicating a heavy influence of British reading material over its American counterpart. No wonder “New England” (mostly “New York,” not to be confused with the original “York”) is the arm and hand of control for “England” when it comes to American publishing and literature.
Looking at PBS’s contest for the “Great American Read” (2018), the Pulitzer-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by American writer Nelle Harper Lee squeaked by as “America’s Best-Loved Novel” against titles such as:
#2, Outlander (1991) by Diana Gabaldon (a sci-fi book about time travel set in 18th century Scotland; later made into a series); #3, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) by J.K. Rowling (a fantasy book by a British author about a young British wizard; later made into a series); #4, Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen (a book by a British novelist set in the United Kingdom in c. 1812); #5, The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien (a fantasy series by an English scholar and author); #9, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) by C.S. Lewis (a fantasy story by a British writer and theologian); #10, Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë (a book set in Northern England by an English writer); #11, Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery (a story set in Canada by a Canadian author).
More American-focused-based books like (#6) Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell (a Pulitzer-winning novel set during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era by an American author), (#7) Charlotte’s Web (1952) by E.B. White (a children’s book, which won the Newbery Honor, set in rural America by an American author), (#8) Little Women (1868-1869) by Louisa May Alcott (a story set in Massachusetts during the American Civil War by an American author)—bet you’re starting to see the point—are heavy and profound reminders of American history, American culture, and American identity (distinct from the Canadian and British).
One cannot fault the roughly 7,000 American readers in the initial survey for choosing from a list of 100 books for why these Americans chose mostly British books/stories, but one can begin to fault the thirteen advisory panel of experts who organized the list and who were likely politically and culturally biased. One could call these remarks nationalistic and nativist in nature, and to do so would further prove the above points to be true and accurate. Nationalism and Patriotism are not negatives, especially when they can be powerful economic drivers and motivators for unity.
Since the 1990s, which saw the emergence of “Political Correctness” in the United States (which after twenty years has started a stark decline into oblivion), more and more immigrants and foreigners began attacking Americans for the cherished belief of loving America for its traditions and its greatness, a patriotism that had never been considered to be ridiculed in the 1980s. Traditional and cultural phrases like “Merry Christmas” became demonized and Americans against their will were told, often forced, and shamed into saying “Happy Holidays,” a truly international remark from speakers who have learned English as their second language. (Gardner would have detested the 90s Political Correctness if he hadn’t been killed in a motorcycle accident in 1982.)
Regardless, American literature must, at some level, remain “American” in nature. One cannot fathom the idea or possibility of an American book by an American author winning a contest called the “Great Chinese Read” or the “Great Indian Read” or the “Great German Read.” And what’s happening in the cultural and political spheres (including the innocent patriotism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and in many European countries, often vilified by foreigners, immigrants, refugees) will further shape how literatures of these countries develop over the course of the twenty-first century and beyond. (That isn’t to say there isn’t a necessary and fundamental place for “Immigrant Fiction” or “Refugee Fiction” within any nation’s literature, but readers—and voters—are starting to question the basis for “citizenship,” “nationality” and “patriotism”—and what matters most is that people do not recklessly abandon dialogue for acts of violence.)
Already Netflix has begun to dominate Hollywood with its original content (mostly created with Americans in mind) harkening back to the 1980s America and the nostalgia Americans long for with such titles as Stranger Things and other retro hits and cult(ural) classics. One can see Hollywood breaking down beneath the cultural weight of foreign-funded projects (often from Communist China, which includes Hong Kong) like Blackhat (2015) with Chris Hemsworth, The Great Wall (2016) with Matt Damon, or the more recent Skyscraper (2018) with Dwayne Johnson. One must look at where the money comes from, which dictates the content being created and the cultural implications this has, as to why certain films in Hollywood fail and become artistic and investment disasters. The same is true for literature being published in America.
Why is Netflix (an independent studio) so popular and profitable? Why have patriotism and nationalism made a positive comeback? Because most citizens of any country love their country. Because patriotism isn’t an evil word nor is it an evil idea. Because culture (any culture) is akin to a living organism that will fight for its survival, even in the face of foreign hosts like the invasion of globalization which came quickly but quietly in the guise of foreign cultures through the arts (film and literature, etc.) directed and driven by foreign money. Is this a bad thing? No. Nothing in and of itself is ever truly bad or truly good. But we must consider the impact concerning the death of one culture for another culture; or in this case, the threat of an American-cultural death at the hands of a multi-cultural invasion motivated by China and Great Britain, and its Common Wealth. We can all agree that the death of an American culture (a truly American culture) would not be a good thing for the world which has always looked to the United States as a moral-intellectual-cultural leader.
Gardner’s historic The Sunlight Dialogues is set mostly in Batavia, New York (where Gardner was born), and the novel (as much as the Sunlight Man’s “dialogues” in 1966 with Police Chief Clumly) speaks to the crises civilization and American culture were undergoing during the 1960s, and in many ways these “four dialogues,” written and published in the middle of the twentieth century, have become even more relevant to the twenty-first century.
“The Sunlight Man,” the main villain wanted for murder and the main cause for social chaos in and around Batavia, constantly escapes from the police while he provokes Chief Clumly in a series of discussions known as “The Sunlight Dialogues.” These discussions, often containing lengthy monologues by the Sunlight Man, take place in a church (“The Dialogue on Wood and Stone”), in a tent suspended above train tracks in the path of an oncoming locomotive (“The Dialogue of Houses”), in a crypt (“The Dialogue of the Dead”), and in Stony Hill Farm’s empty wooden silo (linking to the discussion on the “towers of Babylon,” p 696, in “The Dialogue of Towers”). During the meetings, Chief Clumly is amazed by the Sunlight Man’s ability to manipulate, to deceive, and to distort reality through magic tricks and philosophical ideas. With his identity unknown (revealed to the reader by the end of the book), the Sunlight Man soon takes on a mystical-mythical status.
“He came to be known as the Sunlight Man. The public was never to learn what his name really was. As for his age, he was somewhere between his late thirties and middle forties, it seemed. His forehead was high and domelike, scarred, wrinkled, drawn, right up into the hairline, and above the arc of his balding, his hair exploded like chaotic sunbeams around an Eastern tomb…
“He talked a great deal, in a way that at times made you think of a childlike rabbi or sweet, mysteriously innocent old Russian priest and at other times reminded you of an elderly archeologist in his comfortable classroom, musing and harkening back. He would roll his eyes slowly, pressing the tips of his fingers together, or he would fix his listener with a gentle transmogrifying eye and open his arms like a man in a heavy robe. He pretended to enjoy the official opinion of the court, that he might be mad. ‘I am the Rock,’ he said thoughtfully, nodding. ‘I am Captain Marvel’…
“He could quote things at great length (there was no way for them to know whether he was really quoting or inventing) and he had an uncanny ability to turn any trifling remark into an abstruse speculation wherein things that were plain as day to common sense became ominous, uncertain, and formidable, like buttresses of ruined cities discovered in deep shadow at the bottom of a blue inland sea” (pgs 63-64).
Along the 747-page journey, Gardner doesn’t forget to transplant the reader into time and place, and one way of doing so is by continually evoking the images and sensations of sunlight:
“Beyond the machinery and toys, the hillside sloped toward pastureland, the broad valley, the basswood-shaded farther hill. The basswoods were yellow-green where the sun struck them, its light breaking in wide shafts through glodes in the overcast sky. It was beautiful, sad and unreal, where the sunlight struck. You felt as though life would be different there, the air lighter and cooler, the silence more profound” (p 180).
The four major dialogues center around ideas of social and individual mortality and immorality, among many other musings and ideas, which also connect to the story’s back-history at Stony Hill Farm, a once proud heritage of the Hodge family, but now the farm lies ruined and desolate.
In “The Dialogue on Wood and Stone” the Sunlight Man speaks:
“You don’t care to debate it, naturally. I must defend all points of view myself, my own antagonist. It’s my training, however. The defense insists, ladies and gentlemen of the jury… Yes. The defense insists that this gargantua you see before you has his reasons. This cyclops. This grendel. He was poor in his youth. He suffered much. He saw those around him—his fellow poor—tossed blindly on the current of their uncertain emotions, saw them reach out in all directions, undecided, feeble. It came into his mind that a man must have a purpose—some single, undeviating, divinely inexorable purpose. Purity of heart” (p 336).
In “The Dialogue of Houses” the Sunlight Man speaks:
“Let us make a distinction. Omen-watching, divination, has nothing whatever to do with magic. Divination is man’s attempt to find out what the universe is doing. Magic is man’s ridiculous attempt to make the gods behave as mortals. Divination asserts passivity, not for spiritual fulfillment, as in the Far East, but for practical and spiritual life. After divination one acts with the gods. You discover which way things are flowing, and you swim in the same direction. You allow yourself to be possessed. Soldiers understand it. The so-called heroes of our modern wars especially. A man runs up a hill with a machine-gun, gives up his will to live, his desire to escape: he has a sudden, overwhelming and mysterious sense that he has become the hill, the night sky, the pillbox he’s attacking. The machine-gun fires of its own volition—he ducks, spins, turns as the gods reach down to duck him, spin him, turn him. A fact of experience. A question for science, possibly, but not to the man with the machine-gun: for him it’s a thing done, sensual act: he’s one with God” (p 462).
In “The Dialogue of the Dead” the Sunlight Man speaks:
“Eleven of the twelve tablets tell of Gilgamesh’s life and adventures during his unsuccessful quest for immortality… The poet sets up two parallel scenes—one at the beginning of the first tablet, the other at the end of the eleventh tablet—as a frame which symbolically establishes the futility of the quest. He focuses on an image of walls—the walls of the city Gilgamesh has built, Uruk. There are parallel lines, at the beginning and end—the poet’s description and comment in the introit that the walls will be the hero’s only immortality (but his name will cease to be connected with them)—and Gilgamesh’s own description, an echo. The poet goes farther. The same walls that are the hero’s only glory seal his doom. To get the walls built, Gilgamesh is forced to make all the inhabitants of his city work for him like slaves. The people cry out to the gods, the gods are enraged and resolve to destroy him. There you have the paradox. The rest of the epic elaborates it, describing the kinds of immortality Gilgamesh tries for and misses—eternal youth, lasting fame, and so on. The twelfth book tells of Gilgamesh pointlessly ruling the pointless dead. It’s introduced—not by accident—by the tale of the universal Flood, the final destruction from which no one escapes except temporarily. Enough. One can’t say everything. In Babylon—I leap to essentials—personal immortality is a mad goal. Death is a reality” (p 587).
In “The Dialogue of Towers” the Sunlight Man speaks:
“Very well, then I say this. It’s a matter of fact that we can never control the secret powers of the universe or even match their force. Sexually, socially, politically—any way you care to name—our civilization is doomed, in the same way all civilizations have been doomed. And so I cannot join you. It’s not that I mind doom, you understand…
“Let me tell you a vision. The age that is coming will be the last age of man, the destruction of everything. I see coming an age of sexual catastrophe—a violent increase of bondage, increased violence and guilt, increased disgust and ennui. In society, shame and hatred and boredom. In the political sphere, total chaos. The capitalistic basis of the great values of Western culture will preclude solution of the world’s problems. Vietnam is the beginning. No matter how long it takes, the end is upon us, not only in the East but in Africa too, and South America. Civilizations fall because of the errors inherent in them, and our error will kill us” (pgs 697-698).
Despite being published forty-six years ago, The Sunlight Dialogues and the Sunlight Man continue to speak to modern times and perhaps we should listen.
In an age when novelists were far more prophets than simply writers, John Gardner reshaped the legendary myths of Grendel and Gilgamesh into a personalized story revolving around the Sunlight Man and the Hodge family struggle which deeply connects to the height of their former glory and a nostalgia for their lost Stony Hill Farm, a home that has been sold off to ruin and an ideal that speaks to the golden era for the American family which was headed by Congressman Arthur Hodge Sr. and his four sons—a reader might conclude one dialogue for each Hodge son.
Perhaps the Sunlight Man said it best to future generations:
“And which way will you go, my child? Either way, you have my blessing. So much revolution in you, so much hatred for order, so much hatred for anarchy—and so much love. How terrible! Where can you run to? I tremble for your soul” (p 682).
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 390,000+ followers