Noah Gordon, the American novelist and essayist, who died on 12 March in New York at age 95, brought together a classic tradition of American fiction, celebrated in books such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Flaubert’s Parrot and James Baldwin’s Ishmael, alongside the definitive American verse collections in James Russell Lowell’s Letters of the Heart and Elizabeth Bishop’s The Spring of Leisure. Gordon was, along with his own work, a master of combining genres and styles, and his son Derek told the New York Times that he and his siblings grew up hearing stories of their father’s “embracing, poetic, even austere” work. He was educated in California and in Europe before relocating to New York in 1957 and writing regularly in the pages of the New York Review of Books. His first novel, The Comeback, published in 1962, was a critical success, as was his book of essays on Studs Terkel titled Farm Boy, which was published the following year. Other works, including his more recent novel In the Company of Patients and One of the Six, won him more acclaim. Gordon wrote movingly and incisively about his own relationships with the wars in Vietnam and the American south, as well as the consequences of his own childhood trauma and his mixed family heritage, and his interest in sexuality. In his commencement address at Dartmouth College in 1978, he put his writing career against the challenge of graduating from a boarding school that espoused Morrillian education, which encouraged natural selection, and among the floundering creative temperament, and which gave lower-class youth what they needed – an opportunity to take music lessons, a live-in mother. Writing, he said, was a “gift” that society needed to nurture, one that might be better exercised in leaving literary work behind than in remaining on college campuses. Gordon’s eventual move from academic respectability to the tabloid headlines was widely attended by admirers and critics alike. He had a public marriage to Clementine Zellar, but they split up in 2002, seven years after adopting daughter Simone.
Gordon enjoyed wide influence in the literary and creative worlds around him and, in 1986, Norman Mailer wrote that the American novel “lives with greater intensity in the poetry world than it does in the writing world”. To borrow lines from Robert Frost, Gordon was an “American genius, a writer who cared”. He is survived by his two children and three grandchildren.