Critical Essays Revealing, Nurturing Literary pursuits.(BOOKS)

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George Garrett, who recently retired from the University of Virginia as Henry Hoyns professor of English, where he ran the program in creative writing, has written 32 books and edited some 20 others. He is the old-fashioned man of letters who has won prizes not only for fiction but poetry.

Perhaps his most distinguished and celebrated work is his trilogy of Elizabethan novels. In addition to fiction long and short, plays, poetry, movie scripts, critical biographies and much else, Mr. Garrett has written a great deal of lively and acute criticism. Ten years ago two selections of this criticism appeared in the same year: "The Sorrows of Fat City" (University of South Carolina Press) and "Whistling in the Dark" (Harcourt Brace).

His most recent book, "Going to See the Elephant," contains pierces written in a literary vein and essays struck as types of reminiscence and of tribute. All of them are informal and easygoing in nature, even those, such as "A Day's Fair Work: The Poetry of Fred Chappell," which are literary criticism. "Nobody that I can think of," Mr. Garrett casually but seriously says, "is as easy and fluent in such a variety of forms as Chappell. Nobody else that I know of has the art of speaking in such a variety of voices."

Tributes to other writers include "The Good Ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald" ("he was, line by line, move by move, one of the most gifted writers we Americans have ever known"); "Miss Eudora When Last Seen" ("how many other writers have kept your attention and given you nothing but joy for fifty years?"); and Madison Jones (of his novels Mr. Garrett writes: "I had and have strong memories of them, of the great pleasure and envy I felt").

There are dissenting reports on Truman Capote, especially his "In Cold Blood" ("Perry Smith becomes . . . a spooky embodiment of Capote's early fiction"), and on James Dickey ("The press shares Dickey's lack of interest in the tyranny of fact. Literary journalists . . . are more interested in a good story than in prosaic truth. From the beginning, Dickey understood the expectations of the press and lived up to them"). Both pieces deal with the manipulation of fact and fiction by two writers indifferent to telling the truth.

Mr. Garrett's critical essays, whether formal or informal, are devoted largely to modern and contemporary fiction (James Gould Cozzens, John Cheever, Saul Bellow), to Southern letters (William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty), to contemporary poetry (Mr. …