Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about John Winslow Irving, the American author of such novels as A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Fourth Hand. For the billionaire, see John E. Irving
Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in unusually contradictory circumstances that have since fueled the plots and themes of several of his novels: his mother Helen, a descendant of the Winslows, one of New England's oldest and most distinguished families, gave birth to Irving (his birth name was John Winslow) out of wedlock, refusing to expose her child's anonymous father. Helen Winslow later married Colin F. Irving, a teacher at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. John Winslow became John Irving, taking his adoptive father's name. He has never sought the identity of his biological father—"I already have a father," he says. Irving attended Exeter, where he was a mediocre student due to then-undiagnosed dyslexia, but was an outstanding wrestler. The trials of pre-sexual revolution single-motherhood, wrestling, and New England academic life feature prominently in Irving's novels, particularly The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. The primary settings for both novels are based on Phillips Exeter Academy.
While a student at Exeter, Irving was mentored by famed Presbyterian theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner and writing teacher George Bennett , who later helped Irving gain admission to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, America's most elite graduate writing program, then the only one of its kind. Irving briefly studied at the University of Pittsburgh and eventually graduated from the University of New Hampshire. At Iowa, Irving studied alongside future award-winning novelists Gail Godwin , John Casey , and Donald Hendrie, Jr. , among others. He was mentored there by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
While on foreign study in Vienna, Austria, Irving met his first wife, Shyla Leary, an art student. They married after Shyla became unexpectedly pregnant, and eventually had two sons before divorcing in the mid-1980s. Irving subsequently wed his agent, Janet Turnbull, with whom he has a third son.
Irving's career began at the age of 26 with the publication of his first novel, Setting Free the Bears . The novel was reasonably well reviewed, but failed to garner much of an audience. His second and third novels, The Water Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, were similarly received. Frustrated at the lack of promotion his novels were garnering from his first publisher, Random House, Irving chose to offer his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1979), to Morrow, which promised him a stronger marketing push. The novel went on to become a massive international bestseller and cultural phenomenon, and was a finalist for the American Book Award(now the National Book Award) for hardcover fiction in 1979(the award went to Tim O'Brien for Going After Cacciato). Garp won the National Book Foundation 's award for paperback fiction the following year. Garp was later made into a film directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp's high school wrestling matches. Irving also has a cameo appearance in the film version of The Cider House Rules as a train station agent.
Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, guaranteeing bestseller status for all of his subsequent books. He followed "Garp" with The Hotel New Hampshire(1981), which was poorly received by critics but sold well and, like Garp, was quickly made into a film, this time directed by Tony Richardson and starring Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges.
In 1985 he published The Cider House Rules, a sprawling epic centered around a Maine orphanage. The novel frankly explores the controversial subject of abortion, and is perhaps the most obvious example of the influence of Charles Dickens on Irving's work. He followed in 1989 with A Prayer for Owen Meany, another New England family epic centered around themes of religiousness. Again, the main setting is a New England boarding school, and inspirations for the characters can be found in many of Irving's influences, including The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the work of Dickens. For the first time, Irving examined the consequences of the Vietnam War - particularly mandatory conscription, which Irving avoided since he was already a married father and a teacher when the draft was instituted. Owen Meany became Irving's bestselling book since Garp, and is now a frequent feature on high school English reading lists.
Irving returned to Random House for his next book, A Son of the Circus (1995). Arguably his most complicated and difficult book, it was dismissed by critics but became a national bestseller on the strength of Irving's reputation for fashioning literate, engrossing page-turners. Irving returned to better form in 1998 with A Widow for One Year, which was named a New York Times Notable Book. His most recent novel, The Fourth Hand , was published in 2001. Savaged by critics, it nevertheless became a bestseller.
In 1999, after nearly ten years in development, Irving's screenplay for The Cider House Rules was made into a film directed by Lasse Halstrom and starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Since the publication of "Garp" made him independently wealthy, Irving has been able to concentrate solely on fiction writing as a vocation, sporadically accepting short-term teaching positions (including one at his graduate school alma mater, the Iowa Writer's Workshop) and serving as an assistant coach on his sons' high school wrestling teams. In addition to his novels, he has also published Trying to Save Piggy Sneed , a collection including a brief memoir and unpublished short fiction, and My Movie Business , an account of the protracted process of bringing The Cider House Rules to the big screen. He divides his time between residences in Vermont, Toronto, and New York. In recent years, his three most highly regarded novels, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been published in Modern Library editions. "Owen Meany" was adapted into a children's film, "Simon Birch" (Irving disowns this adaptation, going so far as to request that all of the characters' names be changed for the film version). In 2004, A Widow for One Year was adapted into The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.
Irving's literary stature is a subject of some debate. Advocates consider him the heir to Charles Dickens, a populist who uses eccentric characters and heavy doses of comedy and pathos to gain an audience for his politically liberal social perspectives. Detractors dismiss him as an author of crude sex comedies that exploit melodramatic circumstances to manipulate readers. Both perspectives have credence: Irving's body of work is uneven, and his meandering plots and relatively plain prose style do not compare well with the work of more unanimously praised contemporaries such as Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Joan Didion; Irving, on the other hand, enjoys a wider audience than all of those novelists combined—particularly among younger readers—and is frequently cited by younger literary writers as a major influence. Arguments about Irving's merit tend to reflect the division between those who see literature's primary value as aesthetic and those who believe that for a work to be great it must influence culture writ large. Regardless of the differing opinions on the critical merit of his work, Irving is guaranteed to be one of the few American novelists of his era who will be read and discussed for many years to come.
- Setting Free the Bears (1968)
- The Water-Method Man (1972)
- The 158-Pound Marriage (1974)
- The World According to Garp (1978)
- The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)
- The Cider House Rules (1985)
- A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
- Trying to save Piggy Sneed (collection, 1993)
- A Son of the Circus (1994)
- A Widow for One Year (1998)
- The Fourth Hand (2001)
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