Jon Hassler Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1933. Education: St. John's University, B.A. 1955; University of North Dakota, M.A. 1961. Career: High school teacher of English for ten years; faculty member, Bemidji State University and Brainerd Community College. Since 1980 writer-in-residence, St. John's University. Awards: Friends of American Writers Novel of the Year, 1978, for Staggerford; Guggenheim grant, 1980; Society of Midland Authors Best Fiction award, 1987, for Grand Opening. D. Litt.: Assumption College, Massachusetts, 1993; University of North Dakota, 1994; University of Notre Dame, 1996.
Staggerford. New York, Atheneum, and London, Deutsch, 1977.
Simon's Night. New York, Atheneum, and London, Deutsch, 1979.
The Love Hunter. New York, Morrow, and London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, 1981.
A Green Journey. New York, Morrow, 1985; London, Allen, 1986.
Grand Opening. New York, Morrow, 1987.
North of Hope. New York, Ballantine, 1990.
Dear James. New York, Ballantine, 1993.
Rookery Blues. New York, Ballantine, 1995.
The Dean's List. New York, Ballantine Books, 1997.
Underground Christmas. Afton, Minnesota, Afton Historical SocietyPress, 1999.
The Red Oak and Other Poems. Privately printed, 1968.
Keepsakes and Other Stories. Afton, Minnesota, Afton HistoricalSociety Press, 1999.
Rufus at the Door and Other Stories. Afton, Minnesota, AftonHistorical Society Press, 2000.
Four Miles to Pinecone (for children). New York, Warne, 1977.
Jemmy (for children). New York, Atheneum, 1980.
My Staggerford Journal. New York, Ballantine Books, 1999.
St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota.
An Interview with Jon Hassler (includes bibliography) , Minneapolis, Dinkytown Antiquarian Bookstore, 1990.
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Until very recently, only one comprehensive essay had ever been published about Jon Hassler—by Andrew Greeley in a Catholic journal. Why this should be so is not greatly surprising. Hassler is a very traditional writer with exciting, real, complex, and intriguing subject matter. But his strengths are quiet and (on the surface) unremarkable. And he is not bold and audacious like so many of our writing personalities—like, say, Norman Mailer or Camille Paglia—and takes no overt political position. He is always present in his novels but he never identifies wholly with any of his major characters like Agatha McGee in Staggerford (his first novel) or Peggy Benoit in Rookery Blues (his most recent one). In fact, I would go so far as to say that although he is strongly attracted to characters like Agatha, Peggy, and Simon Shea, they don't much resemble him and often do things or take positions that he would probably not take himself. The only character he has created that is even remotely autobiographical is the young protagonist/observer of Grand Opening, Brendan Foster, whose father, like Hassler's, owns a grocery store in a small, rural Minnesota town called Plum.
Hassler's presence is subtle, quiet, and apparently unobtrusive. He is absorbed in what he is writing about and as indifferent to public recognition (as a persona) as Andrew Wyeth the painter. He does not take bold political positions, even though he sometimes seems obsessed with Church politics and the behaviors of the priests, sisters, and laypersons who people many of his novels. In some cases, he defuses potentially explosive conflicts by turning them into high comedy, as he does in Staggerford, with the confrontation between whites (or Anglos) and Native Americans, or in the strike action that takes place in Rookery Blues.
His four predominantly "Catholic" novels (Simon's Night, A Green Journey, North of Hope, and Dear James) more closely resemble the Barchester and distinctly Anglican novels of Anthony Trollope than they do the Catholic novels of Graham Greene (to whom he is sometimes compared). Like Trollope he is more fascinated with the political infighting and machinations of a huge and powerful Church that is in a state of transition than he is in the spiritual or mystical character of its clergy and laypeople. He is intrigued by the fact that laypeople like Agatha McGee and Simon Shea, both highly traditional Catholics, take vows and commitments more seriously than many of the clergy and are, in fact, "better Catholics." Shea, for instance, in one of Hassler's very best novels, Simon's Night, remains faithful for twenty years, not so much to the woman whom he marries early and who runs off with one of his colleagues as to their marriage vows. He gives up a warm and passionate relationship with one of his students who has seduced him not because he doesn't love this young woman but because he regards his vows to his unfaithful wife, Barbara, as binding. And Agatha McGee, who, at sixty-seven and on the verge of retirement from her teaching position in a religious elementary school, is startled nearly out of her mind when she discovers that an older Irishman named James O'Hannon—with whom she has engaged in a long and deeply personal correspondence—is in fact a priest. This violates her whole conception of herself as a Catholic and her conception also of what it is proper—and sacred—for a priest to do and not do. Yet the power of that friendship and its personal if not sexual intimacy fuels the action of two novels, A Green Journey and Dear James.
In a radio interview, Hassler once said that he likes to challenge his protagonists. This means, first of all, that his characters are fully alive to him, as if they were actors in a repertoire company or simply real, breathing human beings. Sometimes, as with Agatha McGee and her friend, James O'Hannon, they are central to more than one novel, larger than that one canvas. They are fully alive to him but also creatures of his own imagination and in the end they challenge him—his creative ability to make them work convincingly in new contexts and sometimes highly complex plots.
As a mark of his traditional practice, Hassler never uses stream of consciousness and other techniques perfected by such early modernists as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson, even though he regularly enters the minds and sensibilities of his protagonists. Nor does he use first person singular narrative as perfected by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the soliloquy familiar to readers of Melville's Moby-Dick.
What Hassler does use with increasing mastery and fluidity are three other mnemonic techniques: flashbacks, journal entries, and letters. He does this because he knows all too well that what a particular character does in the present is strongly conditioned by what he or she has done or believed in the past. In his most recent novel, Rookery Blues, he inserts five two-or three-page flashbacks (set in italics) at various and appropriate points in the novel to tell us crucial things—in a very funny way—about each of the five members of the Icejam Quintet, the jazz group that forms the heart and soul of the book from beginning to end. In Staggerford, he uses the sometimes extensive journal entries written by protagonist Miles Pruitt about his early love life, especially his attraction to Carla Carpenter, the high school girl whom his brother seduces. In Dear James (as the title suggests), he makes extensive and highly dramatic use of some of the letters that Agatha McGee writes to James O'Hannon (but only mails to him much later) and the letters that she has saved from him.
Traditionally, plot is character in action or, in Hassler's case, many characters in action. For a novel to succeed, the protagonist and other major characters must first of all be rich and interesting in themselves; second, the actions they are involved in should be at least worthy of that depth and flow from it. Thus Simon Shea, in Simon's Night, is both an excellent college professor and a strong, believing Catholic. As the novel opens, he has retired from his college position and commits himself to a weirdly comic nursing home because he feels he is losing his ability to remember anything significant and is thus ready to cash in his chips. The young female doctor who regularly visits that home immediately decides that Simon is too interesting and has too much to live for to give up and in essence put himself to sleep or to death. She engineers his reunion with his wife, Barbara, and the novel ends with their beginning life together anew.
That Hassler is fascinated by richly compelling individuals who have sacrificed themselves to principle of one sort or another is equally manifest in his two later Agatha McGee-James O'Hannon novels, A Green Journey and Dear James, both of which test Agatha's rigidly held Catholic principles; she, like Simon Shea, is forced by the external circumstances of her life and her age to compromise that rigidity. This compromise grows out of the depth and richness of Agatha's character, her resilience, and the fact that she acts finally out of a character that those rigidly held principles don't explain.
In Rookery Blues, his most complex, funniest, and most satisfying novel to date, he manages to control in every respect the five protagonists—each radically different from one another—who make up the Icejam Quintet: Victor Dash is a hotheaded labor organizer, who happens also to be an aptly hotheaded drummer in the quintet; Neil Novotny is a poor teacher and an obsessed but dreadful novelist, who thinks he is in love with Peggy Benoit; Leland Edwards is a conservative, mother-bound professor and opponent of the teachers' strike Dash foments, who is a superb jazz pianist; Connor is a good portrait painter obsessed with doing paintings of mothers and daughters, who is a bass player and in a dreadfully unhappy marriage; and Peggy Benoit herself is a beautiful music professor and blues singer, who falls in love with Connor and eventually succeeds in wresting Connor away from his marriage. Any one or two of these characters might well have been the subject of a novel because each is fully, comically, ironically developed, but their interreactions and their roles in the external tensions of Rookery State University together form a complex, comic, and believable series of actions.
What makes Hassler such an interesting and engaging novelist—and what will probably make him outlast all or almost all of his flashier contemporaries—is not just that he is unashamedly a traditional novelist but that he does so well what he does, that he involves the reader so deeply in his characters that no matter who we might be we really care about them, talk about them as if they were very real and interesting people. Limited, sometimes myopic, often obsessive, they work their slow and ironic ways through recognizable and familiar situations or even rather unlikely ones (like the relationship between Agatha McGee and James O'Hannon) as if they were familiar. We come to know many of his characters better than we know most people and even ourselves (sometimes). I suspect that Jon Hassler will come to be recognized as a major 20th-century novelist.
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