John Irving

On this date in 1942, novelist John Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, as John Wallace Blunt Jr. He became John Winslow Irving after his mother remarried when he was 6. His religious upbringing was in a liberal Episcopal congregation. He earned his B.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1965 and his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1967.

His early books included Setting Free the Bears (1968), The 158-Pound Marriage (1972), the enormous best-seller The World According to Garp (1978), The Cider House Rules (1986), A Prayer for Owen Meany (his top-seller ever, 1989) and A Widow for One Year (1999). Irving won the 2000 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. A Widow for One Year was excerpted for the 2004 movie “The Door in the Floor.” Robin Williams starred in the 1982 movie “The World According to Garp.”

The Cider House Rules portrayed a sympathetic abortionist during the era when it was illegal. Irving told Mother Jones magazine (May/June 1997): “I have no respect for the right-to-life position, though I have every respect for an individual who says, ‘I could never have that procedure, I could never see a film or read a book about that procedure.’ It doesn’t bother me if people feel that way. But when you legislate personal belief, you’re in violation of freedom of religion.”

Irving has said he holds agnostic views and resents strident atheism as much as he does religious proselytizing. “Contrary to what many fundamentalist religions would tell us, I don’t think the humanist position should be confined to atheists. I think humanism means a belief in the possibility of the goodness of the human being.” (Brave Souls: Writers and Artists Wrestle with God, Love, Death and the Things That Matter by Douglas Todd, 1996) 

He has also published the novels Last Night in Twisted River (2009), In One Person (2012), Avenue of Mysteries (2015) and Darkness As a Bride (2020). Irving married Shyla Leary in 1964 and they had two sons before divorcing. He later married Janet Turnbull, his publisher at Bantam-Seal Books, and they had a son in 1992. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007 and had a radical prostatectomy.

FFRF announced in 2022 that Irving was the recipient of its Emperor Has No Clothes Award for “plain speaking” on religion’s shortcomings.

PHOTO (public domain): Irving in 1989 in the Netherlands.

Freedom From Religion Foundation