Gaddis in 1975
December 29, 1922|
New York City, New York, USA
|Died||December 16, 1998
East Hampton, New York
|Notable work(s)||The Recognitions (1955)
J R (1975)
A Frolic of His Own (1994)
|Notable award(s)||National Book Award|
William Thomas Gaddis, Jr. (December 29, 1922 – December 16, 1998) was an American novelist. The first and longest of his five novels, The Recognitions, was named one of TIME magazine's 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005 and two others won the annual U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. A collection of his essays was published posthumously as The Rush for Second Place (2002). The Letters of William Gaddis was published by Dalkey Archive Press in February 2013.
Gaddis is one of the first and most important American postmodern writers. Because of their complexity and inventiveness in structure and style, his novels are often challenging to read; for example, his National Book Award winners J R and A Frolic of His Own are written almost entirely in unattributed dialogue and without much description, leaving the reader with only different characters' verbal tics, stock phrases and obsessions to identify who is speaking. Some readers find this a source of difficulty; others, finding his ability to make distinctive characterizations using only dialogue a virtuoso stylistic feat, find it a pleasure unique to his work. His books are also known for their extensive use of literary and cultural allusions, most of which are annotated in The Gaddis Annotations.
Gaddis was born in New York City to William Thomas Gaddis, who worked "on Wall Street and in politics", and Edith Gaddis, an executive for the New York Steam Corporation. When he was 3, his parents separated and Gaddis was subsequently raised by his mother in Massapequa, Long Island. At age 5 he was sent to Merricourt Boarding School in Berlin, Connecticut. He continued in private school until the eighth grade, after which he returned to Long Island to receive his diploma at Farmingdale High School in 1941. He entered Harvard in 1941 and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon (where he eventually served as President), but was asked to leave in 1944 due to an altercation with police. He worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker for little over a year (late February 1945 until late April 1946), then spent five years traveling in Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, England, and North Africa, returning to the United States in 1951.
His first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work, it had to wait to find its audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual, overwritten, and perhaps on the principle of omne ignotum per obscaenum ("all that is unknown appears obscene"), filthy. (The book was defended by Jack Green in a series of broadsheets blasting the critics; the series was collected later under the title Fire the Bastards!) Shortly after the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis married his first wife, Patricia Black, who would give birth to two children: Sarah (who has written a novel, Swallow Hard, inspired by her relationship with her father) and Matthew.
Gaddis then turned to public relations work and the making of documentary films to support himself and his family. In this role he worked for Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, IBM, and the United States Army, among others. He also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, a Rockefeller grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, all of which helped him write his second novel. In 1975 he published J R, a work even more difficult than The Recognitions, told almost entirely in dialogue, where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking. Its eponymous protagonist, an 11-year-old, learns enough about the stock market from a class field trip to build a financial empire of his own. Critical opinion had caught up with him, and the book won the National Book Award for Fiction. His marriage to his second wife, Judith Thompson, dissolved shortly after J R was published. By the late 1970s, Gaddis had entered into a relationship with Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, and they lived together until the mid-1990s.
Carpenter's Gothic (1985) offered a shorter and more accessible picture of Gaddis's sardonic worldview. Instead of struggling against misanthropy (as in The Recognitions) or reluctantly giving ground to it (as in J R), Carpenter's Gothic wallows in it. The continual litigation that was a theme in that book becomes the central theme and plot device in A Frolic of His Own (1994)—which earned him his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction—where it seems that everyone is suing someone. There are even two Japanese cars called the Isuyu and the Sosumi.
Gaddis died at home in East Hampton, New York, of prostate cancer on December 16, 1998, but not before creating his final work, Agapē Agape (the first word of the title is the Greek agapē, meaning divine, unconditional love), which was published in 2002, a novella in the form of the last words of a character similar but not identical to his creator. The Rush for Second Place, published at the same time, collected most of Gaddis's previously published nonfiction.
Legacy and influence
Among fans of post-modern fiction, Gaddis is often acknowledged as being one of the greatest of American post-war novelists. A critic who early on appreciated his work and recognized its value is Steven Moore: in 1982 he published A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's "The Recognitions" and in 1989 a monograph on Gaddis in the Twayne series. Gaddis's influence is vast (although frequently subterranean): for example, postmodern authors such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon seem to have been influenced by Gaddis (indeed, upon publication of V., Pynchon was actually speculated to have been a pen name for Gaddis due to the similarity of styles and the dearth of information about the two authors; the Wanda Tinasky letters also claimed that Gaddis, Pynchon, and Jack Green were the same person), as well as authors such as Joseph McElroy, William Gass, David Markson, and David Foster Wallace, who have all stated their admiration for Gaddis in general and The Recognitions in particular. Jonathan Franzen, who in an essay in The New Yorker called Gaddis "an old literary hero of mine", dubbed him 'Mr. Difficult', stating that "by a comfortable margin, the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety was Gaddis' nine-hundred-and-fifty-six-page first novel, The Recognitions." Franzen continued: "In the four decades following the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis's work grew angrier and angrier. It's a signature paradox of literary postmodernism: the writer whose least angry work was written first."
Characters in fiction based on Gaddis include "Harry Lees" in Chandler Brossard's 1952 novel Who Walk in Darkness, "Harold Sand" in Jack Kerouac's autobiographical 1958 novella The Subterraneans and possibly "Bill Gray" in Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II. (DeLillo was a friend of Gaddis.) The characters "Richard Whitehurst" in Kurt Wenzel's Lit Life: A Novel (2001) and "Joshua Gel" in Stephen Dixon's I: A Novel (2002) likely are based on Gaddis. Authors clearly influenced by Gaddis include Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), David Markson (Epitaph for a Tramp), Joseph McElroy (A Smuggler's Bible) and Stanley Elkin (The Magic Kingdom).
His life and work are the subject of a comprehensive website, The Gaddis Annotations, which has been noted in at least one academic journal as a superior example of scholarship using new media resources. Gaddis's papers are collected at Washington University in St. Louis.
Awards and honors
Beside the awards for particular works, Gaddis has received three other awards and honors:
- The MacArthur Foundation’s "Genius Award" (1982);
- Election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1989);
- The Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement (1993).
- The Recognitions (1955)
- J R (1975)
- Carpenter's Gothic (1985)
- A Frolic of His Own (1994)
- Agapē Agape (completed 1998, published 2002)
- The Rush for Second Place (collection, published 2002)
Notes and references
- Alberts, Crystal (August 11, 2005). "William Gaddis, 1922–1998. American author". Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
- Gussow, Mel (December 17, 1998). "William Gaddis, 75, Innovative Author Of Complex, Demanding Novels, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. October 16, 2005.
- National Book Foundation: Awards: "National Book Award Winners: 1950–2009". Retrieved March 28, 2012.
- Entropy in William Gaddis's Novels
- See section entitled "The Difficult Cliche" in Jack Green's Fire the Bastards and Jonathan Franzen's essay "Mr. Difficult"
- The Gaddis Annotations is a free online archive compiled by Steven Moore, an authority on Gaddis' novels, and curated by Victoria Harding.
- Gutkin, Len (June 3, 2013). "The Last Obscenity: William Gaddis’s Collected Correspondence". Los Angeles Review of Books.
- "Fire The Bastards!: The Great Defender of William Gaddis". Mark O'Connell. The New Yorker, February 20, 2012.
- "Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books". Jonathan Franzen. The New Yorker, September 30, 2002. Transcribed by adilegian.com
- "National Book Awards – 1976". National Book Foundation. Retrieved March 28, 2012.
(With essay by Chad Post from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "National Book Awards – 1994". National Book Foundation. Retrieved March 28, 2012.
(With essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "Who's Writing Whose Writing? Gaddis, Green, Pynchon, and Tinasky".
- "William Gaddis: A Portfolio," Conjunctions 41 (2003), 373–415.
- "The Gaddis Annotations: Gaddis in Fiction". Retrieved June 20, 2011.
- Grayson, Erik; Harding, Victoria; Moore, Steven (2005). "The Gaddis Annotations". Modern Language Studies 35 (2): 107–109. doi:10.2307/30039831. JSTOR 30039831.
- The Gaddis Annotations, a comprehensive scholarly site
- Works by or about William Gaddis in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- The William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in St. Louis
- The William Gaddis pages at The Modern Word
- Zoltán Abádi-Nagy (Winter 1987). "William Gaddis, The Art of Fiction No. 101". Paris Review.
- John Sherry (June 1999). In Recognition. Remembering William Gaddis.. Hamptons Country.
- William Gaddis at Library of Congress Authorities, with 15 catalog records