The death of 95-year-old American novelist Noah Gordon, author of “The Level of the Land,” becomes further evidence of the diminishing pull of the American novel overseas.
Gordon, who became a symbol of how far authors from major American houses had fallen after leaving English-language publishing houses, died in his native New Jersey on March 31, a spokesman for Pinnacle Publishing said. Pinnacle publishes his memoirs and poetry.
“The level of the land” was a short story published in the New Yorker magazine in 1958. It focused on a journey by a country priest who had been sent to Taiwan by the West to control one of the island’s shrines.
The anecdote was an allusion to the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of the 1850s, when Christians were persecuted in China.
Gordon was raised in Winchester, England, and at 20 got his first job in New York City as a book boy for Melville House. He didn’t start writing full time until he was 25. He did it on a typewriter that the family brought from England and sent to Switzerland, where he kept it and submitted his writings for consideration.
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“He had a fantastic news conference in Switzerland. People were very interested in his work,” his daughter, Anne Henry, recalled of her father. “My mother later said that no one had ever in her 34 years of publishing published a full-length book of his.”
Gordon’s reviews from the New York Times and his efforts with Pinnacle eventually won him a public audience.
Gordon was working on another novel when he was transferred to London in 1967 to a publisher called Canongate. He worked on his novel but then lost the job at Canongate. He decided to move to the United States.
Although Gordon struggled on with poetry for years, “The Level of the Land” was published in 1967 as an unwritten first novel in its own right, set primarily in Taiwan and Asia, rather than in his native England. He claimed it had received a wide reception because of an editorial error in The New Yorker.
He composed it after a long period when he felt depressed and wrote of one of his sorrows in a poem, “The Virtues,” which is prefaced in his autobiography, “On Short Notice: and Other Stories”:
“The poets wend their ancient way / To the lonely and buried sites / Of love’s melted hearts / Staring from a massive park screen. / From there they snake their way through mansions and bungalows. / But in the middle of the building / Is the forbidden stepping stone / That points to romance and hope. / ‘Fires set’ my poem / And spark from winter to fall / And winter to dusk again. / Lights in silver synapses of devotional candles.”
The kind of universal love he captures in his poetry is the currency that has made his story, which involves a sensitive young monk grappling with the romantic corruption of the West and his struggle to escape, a publishing sensation.
His novels were praised for their beauty but were pilloried in an era of the psychedelic drugs and the hippie rebellions in Vietnam. Gordon decried the drug culture and some of his books were unprintable on drug-related websites. He described his novels as “the ‘trick’ of writing a story that is too long.”
He was married in 1951 to his high school sweetheart and for 33 years, Patricia Hamilton, a suffragette. They had no children.
Gordon moved to Haddonfield, N.J., in 1996. His medical problems began in the 1990s. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in October, and he died at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.
William Dean Gordon was born July 3, 1923, in Winchester, England.
Survivors include his wife, Patricia, and other relatives.
Friends also remembered him as a caring old man who loved to give baby teeth pulled from a child’s baby teeth to that child’s mother.