John Hawkes, 1925-1998

By Norman Boucher / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
On May 15, one of literature's most highly praised voices was silenced when Professor Emeritus of English John Hawkes died of a stroke while undergoing heart bypass surgery at Providence's Rhode Island Hospital. He was seventy-two.



John Hawkes


The author of nearly twenty books, Hawkes first displayed his highly original brilliance in such early works as the 1961 novel The Lime Twig. His stature as one of the nation's great experimental novelists was solidified in the 1970s with the publication of The Blood Oranges; Death, Sleep and the Traveler; and Travesty. Hawkes's fiction rejects such traditional fictional devices as plot, character, and setting, which he once decried in an interview as "the true enemies of the novel." Having abandoned them, he continued, "totality of fiction or structure was really all that remained. And structure - verbal and psychological coherence - is still my largest concern as a writer."

Hawkes was in many ways a novelist's novelist. Writing in the New York Times Book Review a few weeks after Hawkes's death, novelist John Barth called him "one of the steadily brightest (and paradoxically darkest) lights of American letters through our century's second half, a navigation star for scores of apprentice writers however different their own literary course, and as spellbinding a public reader of his own work as I have ever heard."

Over three decades of teaching at Brown (from 1958 until his retirement in 1988), Hawkes gave student writers the confidence to find their own voices while holding them up to high critical standards. Recalling a Hawkes fiction-writing workshop, Meg Wolitzer '81 wrote in the November/December 1997 issue of the BAM: "Jack, as everyone called him, was a writer we all admired; I recall purchasing a rummage-sale copy of his novel The Lime Twig the summer before I was to take his class and reading it with a reverence usually reserved for Scripture."

Hawkes's own literary preferences, Wolitzer insisted, seldom interfered with his ability as a teacher to see what a writer was trying to do and to help guide the way to accomplishing it. "What struck me then," she wrote, "and what strikes me all the more deeply now, is how he gave the work of beginners the full freight of his attention and respect. He approached each piece as though it had the possibility to amaze; and when it often didn't do just that, he seemed puzzled, wanting explanations."

Hawkes's first novel, The Cannibal, came out in 1949, and his last, An Irish Eye, was published just last year. After nearly fifty years, he was still working, still amazed and trying to amaze.

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July / August 1998