William Gaddis (December 29, 1922 – December 16, 1998) was an American novelist, who is now considered one of the most important American authors of the post-World War II period. Deeply influenced by the Modernist novels of the early twentieth century, especially the works of James Joyce, Gaddis invented a highly complex, sardonic style that was unlike almost anything being written by other American authors in the 1950s and ‘60s when Gaddis first began to publish. While most other American authors of Gaddis' period, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, wrote in the vein of modern realism, Gaddis' prose freely experimented with form and language, in a style that is both incredibly fascinating, but at times incredibly difficult.
As a result of his uniqueness, Gaddis was largely misunderstood by critics during his life-time, and although he would eventually win two National Book Awards for JR (1975) and A Frolic of His Own (1994), Gaddis' importance to the history of American literature has only begun to be fully appreciated in very recent years. Today, critics believe Gaddis to be a writer who lived in a time of critical transition, not only politically, but artistically; Gaddis' works are now seen as a major link between the works of the early English Modernists, such as Joyce, and contemporary American postmodernist authors such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Gaddis' savagely funny sense of satire, his enormous erudition, and his uncanny talent for language and dialogue in particular have made him one of the most memorable and unique fiction writers in recent American history.
Gaddis was born in Manhattan 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 three, his parents separated and Gaddis was subsequently raised by his mother in Massapequa, Long Island. At age five 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 famously wrote for the Harvard Lampoon (where he eventually served as President), but was asked to leave in 1944, after a drunken brawl. He worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker for two years, then spent five years traveling in Central America, the Caribbean, North Africa, and Paris, returning to the United States in 1951.
His first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work, it would have to wait to find an audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual, overwritten, and, in some cases, obscene. (The book was notably defended by Jack Green in a series of broadsheets blasting the critics, which were later collected in a volume and published under the title Fire the Bastards!) Shortly after publishing The Recognitions, Gaddis married his first wife, Patricia Black, who would give birth to his only children: Sarah and Matthew.
Greatly disappointed by the failure of The Recognitions to win a wide audience, Gaddis swore off writing for twenty years. He turned to doing public relations work and making documentary films for corporations to support himself and his family. In this role he worked for Pfizer International, 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 JR, an even more difficult work than The Recognitions, and a technical tour de force. The 700-page novel is told almost entirely in dialogue, with no direct indication of who is speaking at any given time, and it is only through Gaddis' phenomenal talent for capturing the language and speech-patterns of his large cast of characters that the reader is able to coherently navigate the text. In the novel, its eponymous protagonist, J.R., an 11-year-old, learns enough about the stock market from a class field trip to build a financial empire of his own.
By the time JR was published, critical opinion had finally caught up with Gaddis, and the book won the National Book Award. A few years later the hugely successfully television show Dallas featured a tycoon named "JR," albeit somewhat older, and the real-life market of the '80s and since has borne an alarming resemblance to some of the machinations described in Gaddis' novel. Gaddis' marriage to his second wife, Judith Thompson, dissolved shortly after the book was published.
Carpenter's Gothic (1985) offered a much shorter and more accessible picture of Gaddis's sardonic worldview. The satire of the American legal system and frivolous litigation that was a major theme in Carpenter's Gothic takes center stage in A Frolic of His Own (1994)—another sprawling, incredibly complex novel which earned Gaddis his second National Book Award, and an American Book Award.
Gaddis died 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), a novella in the form of the last words of a character similar but not identical to Gaddis himself, which was published in 2002. The Rush for Second Place, published at the same time, collected most of Gaddis's previously published nonfiction.
After years of critical neglect, Gaddis is now often acknowledged as one of the greatest of American post-war novelists. His influence is vast: for example, postmodern authors such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon seem to have been influenced by Gaddis. Some have noted that Gaddis' dialectical narrative style is echoed in the works of contemporary writers such as Christopher Wunderlee and Jonathan Safran Foer, while authors such as Joseph McElroy, William Gass, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen have all stated their admiration for Gaddis in general and The Recognitions in particular.
The Recognitions, published in 1955, was Gaddis' first novel and is widely considered by critics to be his masterpiece. Although widely praised today for its depth and masterful prose style, the novel was poorly received when it was initially published. Despite its unenthusiastic critical reception, the novel acquired a sort of "cult status" among a number of writers, including Thomas Pynchon, who would later be associated with literary postmodernism, and with time the novel's influence has only grown. It is widely cited today as one of the most influential American novels of the latter part of the twentieth century. Its extremely complex style, rife with dense historical and literary allusions, frequent shifts in tone, tense, and point-of-view, and its enormous number of characters and themes have even led some critics to refer to the novel as "the American answer to Ulysses."
The story loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon, a Calvinist minister's son from rural New England. He initially plans to follow his father into the ministry, but he leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Out of frustration with his own career, a need for money, and a disregard for anything but perfecting his own skills, he takes on work as a forger, making copies of paintings that successfully pass for originals. This eventually develops into making "new" originals—paintings that so perfectly imitate the style of known masters that they pass for newly discovered works.
Much of the story follows the lives of people around Wyatt, referring again and again to the notion of "forgery" and the more fundamental themes of faleshood and deception as reflected in other parts of life. Wyatt's acquaintance Otto, for instance, is a playwright who deludes himself into believing that he is a Byronic hero; he spends most of the novel jotting down witty things other characters say so that he can put them in his play, in the mouth of the character representing himself. Otto idolizes Wyatt, who tends to ignore him. Wyatt's wife, Esther, is frustrated with his inattention to her, and they separate, after which she has an affair with Otto. Esme is a drug-addicted poet and model who has an affair with Otto, works for Wyatt and falls in love with him, and then travels to Europe to become a nun. Recktall Brown is the unscrupulous art dealer who moves Wyatt's paintings onto the international market and is generally portrayed as the novel's antagonist. Another character who acts as a mentor to Wyatt appears in the form of Basil Valentine, an art critic who steals original works to move them back to Europe, "where they belong," replacing them with forgeries.
As the novel continues the consequences of forgery and self-dissimulation become more and more problematic for all the characters involved. Wyatt eventually begins to lose his artistic identity—and ultimately his mind—from the pressure of having to learn and imitate so many master painters. Otto spends his life too preoccupied copying down the witticisms of others to ever get around to writing his play. The novel ends with Wyatt's father, who has amused himself over the years by slipping pagan elements into his sermons. Over time, without realizing it, he gradually converts himself and his congregation from Calvinism to Catholicism to Mithraism, and the novel concludes with the minister being forced out of his parsonage and into an asylum.
The Gaddis Annotations
With the advice of noted Gaddis scholar, Steven Moore, The Gaddis Annotations is a comprehensive online Gaddis resource edited by Victoria Harding. With extensive annotations for each of Gaddis's novels, a complete bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and the entire text of Moore's monograph on Gaddis, The Gaddis Annotations is considered to be one of the finest examples of scholarship utilizing new media resources, even receiving coverage in academic journals.
- The Recognitions (1955)
- J R (1975)
- Carpenter's Gothic (1985)
- A Frolic of His Own (1994)
- Agapē Agape (2002)
- The Rush for Second Place (2002)
- Erik Grayson, "The Gaddis Annotations," Modern Language Studies 35.2 (Fall 2005), 107-109.
- "The William Gaddis papers" University Libraries, Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved April 9, 2008.
- Tim Conley, February 22, 1999 "The William Gaddis pages" The Modern Word The Sciptorium. Retrieved April 9, 2008.
- "William Gaddis", The Gaddis Annotations. Retrieved April 9, 2008.
All links retrieved October 4, 2020.
- Annotations to The Recognitions at williamgaddis.org
- Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!, a response to the original critics of The Recognitions
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