Gaddis, William 1922–1998
Gaddis, William 1922–1998
PERSONAL: Born 1922, in New York, NY; died of prostate cancer December 16, 1998, in East Hampton, NY; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Attended Harvard College, 1941–45.
CAREER: New Yorker, New York, NY, fact checker, 1946–47; lived in Latin America, Europe, and North Africa, 1947–52; freelance writer of film scripts, speeches, and corporate communications, 1956–70; novelist. Also taught at universities. Distinguished visiting professor at Bard College, 1977.
MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1963; National Endowment for the Arts grants, 1967 and 1974; Rockefeller grant and National Book Award for fiction, both 1976, both for J R; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1982; nomination for PEN/Faulkner Award, 1985, for Carpenter's Gothic; National Book Award, 1994, and National Book Critics' Circle Award, 1995, both for A Frolic of His Own.
The Recognitions, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1955, corrected edition, Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
J R, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975, corrected edition, Penguin (New York, NY), 1993.
Carpenter's Gothic, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
A Frolic of His Own, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
Agape, Agape, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings, Penguin (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, Antaeus, New Yorker, New York Times, and Harper's.
SIDELIGHTS: William Gaddis was one of the most highly regarded yet least-read novelists in late twentieth-century America, and was described by New York Times Book Review contributor George Stade as "a presiding genius … of post-war American fiction." Although many readers remain unfamiliar with Gaddis's work, certain critics have made extravagant claims for it. Richard Toney, in the San Francisco Review of Books, described the novelist's first book, The Recognitions, as a work "of stunning power, 956 pages of linguistic pyrotechnics and multi-lingual erudition unmatched by any American writer in this century—perhaps in any century." L.J. Davis, in the National Observer, wrote that Gaddis's second novel, J R, "is the equal of—if not superior to—its predecessor"; but the work remains, as Frederick Karl asserted in Conjunctions, "perhaps the great unread novel of the postwar era." With the publication in 1994 of A Frolic of His Own, which won a National Book Award, Gaddis's work received wider recognition.
Gaddis drew heavily on his own background for the settings of his novels. Born in Manhattan in 1922, he was raised in Massapequa, Long Island, in the house that was the model for the Bast home in J R. Like the Basts, Gaddis's maternal relatives were Quakers, though he himself was raised in a Calvinist tradition, as is Wyatt Gwyon, protagonist in The Recognitions. Like Otto in the same novel and Jack Gibbs in J R, Gaddis grew up without a father. Haunting all four novels, in fact, is the spirit of a dead or absent father who leaves a ruinous state of affairs for his children, a situation that may be extrapolated to include Gaddis's literary vision of a world abandoned by God and plunged into disorder. The writer's fifth through thirteenth years were spent at a boarding school in Berlin, Connecticut, which not only furnished the fictional Jack Gibbs with the bleak memories recalled in J R but also provided the unnamed New England setting for the first chapter of The Recognitions. Returning to Long Island to attend Farmingdale High School, Gaddis contracted the illness that debilitates Wyatt in the first novel and that kept Gaddis out of World War II. Instead he attended Harvard University and edited the Harvard Lampoon until circumstances required him to leave college in 1945 without a degree.
Back in New York, Gaddis worked as a fact checker at the New Yorker, a job he later recalled as "terribly good training, a kind of post-graduate school for a writer, checking everything, whether they were stories or profiles or articles…. A lot of the complications of high finance and so forth in J R—I tried very hard to get them all right. And it was very much that two years at the New Yorker," he once told Miriam Berkley in a Publishers Weekly interview. At this time he also mingled in the Greenwich Village milieu recreated in the middle section of The Recognitions. Here he became acquainted with future Beat writers William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Ansen, Chandler Bros-sard, and Jack Kerouac. (In fact, Kerouac converted Gaddis into a character named Harold Sand in his 1958 novel The Subterraneans.) In 1947 Gaddis set off on a five-year trip wandering through Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, and North Africa. In 1952 he returned to America to complete his first novel.
Published in 1955, The Recognitions is an account of personal integration amid collective disintegration, of an individual finding himself in a society losing itself. Protagonist Wyatt Gwyon, a failed seminarian, turns to forging the paintings of the Old Masters in an earnest but misguided attempt to return to an era when art was authentic and sanctioned by God. Gaddis sets Wyatt in stark contrast to most of the other artist figures in the novel: Otto, the playwright; Esme, the poet; Max, the painter; Sinisterra, the counterfeiter—all of whom plagiarize, falsify, or discredit the artistic process. These personages, along with the rest of the novel's large cast of characters, are representative of a society crumbling in a shoddy world so encrusted with counterfeit that "recognitions" of authenticity are nearly impossible.
The action in The Recognitions runs on two narrative planes that occasionally intersect. On one plane lives Wyatt, whom Karl in Conjunctions calls "an avenging Messiah … because he perceives himself as bringing a purifying and cleansing quality, a 'recognition,' to a society that has doomed itself with corruptive sophistication." But Wyatt is hobbled in his pursuit of a "vision of order"—as it is later defined in Carpenter's Gothic—by a psychologically crippling boyhood that has instilled in him a mixture of guilt, secrecy, and alienation. The author exposes the compromised worlds of religion and art in the first two chapters, and Wyatt's brief fling with conventionality—complete with wife and nine-to-five job—fails by chapter three, leaving him open to the temptations of the novel's Mephistopheles, Recktall Brown, a corrupt art dealer. Selling his soul to the devil, Wyatt retreats offstage for the entrance of his parodic counterpart, Otto Pivner, whose comic misadventures in Central America and Greenwich Village constitute the second narrative plane of the novel.
Here the "corruptive sophistication" mentioned by Conjunctions's Karl appear as endless discussions of art and religion are carried on through endless parties and bar conversations by those whom Gaddis lampoons as "the educated classes, an ill-dressed, underfed, overdrunken group of squatters with minds so highly developed that they were excused from good manners, tastes so refined in one direction that they were excused for having none in any other, emotions so cultivated that the only aberration was normality, all afloat here on sodden pools of depravity calculated only to manifest the pricelessness of what they were throwing away, the three sexes in two colors, a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size."
With the realization that the major cause for the godless condition embodied by and surrounding modern humanity may be attributed to the absence of love, Wyatt abandons forgery, travels to Spain where his mother is entombed, and finds the love necessary to baptize his new life. Spurning love, the rest of the novel's characters are last seen rushing headlong into death, madness, or disintegration.
The Recognitions presents a multi-layered complexity necessary to dramatize the novel's themes of imitation versus reality. As Tony Tanner pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, "If at times we feel lost, displaced, disoriented as we move through the complicated edifice of the book, we are only experiencing analogically a lostness that is felt in varying ways by all the characters in the book." Often eschewing traditional narrative exposition, Gaddis abandons the reader at the various scenes of action, forcing the reader instead to overhear the confused gropings, deliberate lies, and mistaken notions of the characters, to sort them out as best he can. In other words, the reader must participate in the novel and make the same "recognitions" demanded of its characters by the title. An immense network of allusions, references, motifs, and gestures are introduced and repeated in countless convoluted permutations, demanding much more than casual attention from the reader. The novel is also very erudite, but any negative effects of this characteristic have often been overemphasized; the sense, if not the literal meaning, of Gaddis's hundreds of references, allusions, and foreign language phrases is usually clear enough from the context.
The Recognitions had little immediate critical impact upon publication. Unfortunately, 1955 was "one of American criticism's weakest hours," as Maurice Dolbier noted in a New York Herald Tribune article seven years later, and most reviewers were put off by this gargantuan novel by an unknown writer. A few readers recognized its greatness immediately, but only in later years did a historical perspective allow critics to gauge its importance. In a Saturday Review assessment of Gaddis's second novel, John W. Aldridge adopted such a perspective: "As is usually the case with abrasively original work, there had to be a certain passage of time before an audience could begin to be educated to accept The Recognitions," commented the critic, who added that "The most authoritative mode in the serious fiction of the Fifties was primarily realistic, and the novel of fabulation and Black Humor—of which The Recognitions was later to be identified as a distinguished pioneering example—had not yet come into vogue. In fact, the writers who became the leaders of the Black Humor movement had either not been heard from in 1955 or remained undiscovered. Their work over the past 20 years has created a context in which it is possible to recognize Gaddis's novel as having helped inaugurate a whole new movement in American fiction. Rereading it with the knowledge of all that this movement has taught us about modern experience and the opening of new possibilities for the novel, one can see that The Recognitions occupies a strikingly unique and primary place in contemporary literature."
Little was heard of Gaddis in the decade and a half after 1955. Denied the life of a "successful" novelist, he began a long line of jobs in industry, working first in publicity for a pharmaceutical firm, then writing films for the U.S. Army, and later writing speeches for corporate executives. With the 1970 appearance in the Dutton Review of what would later become the opening pages of his second novel, Gaddis broke his fifteen-year silence. Two more fragments from J R appeared, in Antaeus and Harper's, before the novel was published in the fall of 1975 to much stronger reviews than those received by The Recognitions. J R won the National Book Award for the best fiction of the year and has since earned the praise of such writers as Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, William H. Gass, Stanley Elkin, Joseph McElroy, and Don DeLillo.
Although Gaddis's intricate, 726-page novel resists easy summary, it is essentially a satire of corporate America, a "country" so obsessed with money that failure is all but inevitable for anyone who does not sell his soul to Mammon. The first word of the novel is "money," a word that reappears throughout the novel as its debasing touch besmirches everything from education to science, from politics to marriage, from the arts to warfare. At the center of the novel is eleven-year-old J.R. Vansant, a slovenly but clever boy who transforms a small "portfolio" of mail order acquisitions and penny stocks into an unwieldy paper empire in an improbably short time. The most radical feature of the novel is its narrative mode: except for an occasional transitional passage, the novel is composed entirely of dialogue. While novels composed totally of dialogue had been written before, none followed Gaddis's extreme format. For his dialogue is not the literary dialogue of most novels, tidied up and helpfully sprinkled with conversational conventions and explanatory asides by the author helping to clarify what the characters actually mean. Instead, J R reads like a tape-recorded transcription of real voices: ungrammatical, often truncated, with constant interruptions by other characters (and by telephones, radios, and televisions), with rarely an identifying or interpretive remark by the author.
Such a literary mode makes unusual demands upon the reader; it requires that he read actively with involvement and concentration, rather than passively, awaiting entertainment. Jack Gibbs, a major character, pinpoints this problem during a drunken conversation with Edward Bast, a young composer: "Problem most God damned readers rather be at the movies. Pay attention here bring something to it take something away problem most God damned writing's written for readers perfectly happy who they are rather be at the movies, come in empty-handed go out the same God damned way I told him Bast. Ask them to bring one God damned bit of effort want everything done for them they get up and go to the movies." In his interview with Publishers Weekly, Gaddis reiterated the point: "For me it is very much a proposition between the reader and the page. That's what books are about. And he must bring something to it or he won't take anything away…. Television is hot, it provides everything. In the so-called situation comedies, you go with a completely blank mind, which is preoccupied for a half hour, and then you turn it off. You have brought nothing to it and you take nothing home. Much bad fiction is like this. Everything is provided for you, and you forget it a week later." What the attentive reader takes home from J R is a ringing in the ears from what Sarah E. Lauzen, in Postmodern Fiction, labeled "the constant cacophony of America selling America."
Just as everyone in the counterfeit cultural world of The Recognitions moves in relation to Wyatt, everyone in the phony paper world of J R moves in relation to the young title figure, who embodies what Gaddis called in his Publishers Weekly interview: "Simple naked cheerful greed, no meanness, no nastiness, and not a great deal of intelligence, as I say. Just doing what you're supposed to do." J.R. gleefully accepts the corrupt civilization handed down to him, wanting only to know how fast he can get his share. By following the letter of the law at the expense of its spirit, he is able to build his "family of companies" with the assistance of adults as amoral as he is.
The only adults who attempt to infuse a moral sense into J.R. are his teacher, Amy Joubert, and his reluctant business associate, Edward Bast, a struggling musician. But Amy is too preoccupied with her own problems to be of much help, and Bast causes more problems than he solves. Although one of the major conflicts in the novel is between such outwardly directed people as J.R. and such inwardly directed people as the book's artists, all of the latter figures have largely themselves to blame for their artistic failures rather than the crass business world to which they belong. Despite their failures, however, most are seen at work on new art projects at the novel's end, for as Johan Thielemans noted in an essay in In Recognition of William Gaddis, "Artistic perfection represents the only possible escape from entropic processes."
The term "entropy" is introduced in the novel almost as early as "money," and this concept—the tendency for any system to move from a state of order to one of disorder—operates throughout the novel. Nearly everyone in Gaddis's novel is caught up in a desperate attempt to hold things together in the face of encroaching disorder and dissolution. But the attempts are largely futile: families break up, artists burn out and/or commit suicide, businesses close or are swallowed up by conglomerates, children are abandoned, coitus is interrupted, and communication breaks down. In J R, everyone's life is chaotic, and the exclusive use of dialogue creates what Thomas LeClair described in Modern Fiction Studies as "a massive consistency in which characters with different backgrounds, money-men and artists alike, come to have the same rushed habits of speech, the inability to complete a message or act." As Saturday Review's Aldridge concluded about J R: "It is undoubtedly inevitable that the novel promises at almost every point to fall victim to the imitative fallacy, that it is frequently as turgid, monotonous, and confusing as the situation it describes. Yet Gaddis has a strength of mind and talent capable of surmounting this very large difficulty. He has managed to reflect chaos in a fiction that is not itself artistically chaotic because it is imbued with the conserving and correcting power of his imagination. His awareness of what is human and sensible is always present behind his depiction of how far we have fallen from humanity and sense."
Like its predecessor, J R is primarily a comic novel. As Alicia Metcalf Miller noted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "If Gaddis is a moralist, he is also a master of satire and humor. J R is a devastatingly funny book. Reading it, I laughed loudly and unashamedly in public places, and at home, more than once, I saw my small children gather in consternation as tears of laughter ran down my face." Such is the reader response for which J R aims.
Gaddis's underground reputation surfaced somewhat following the publication of J R in 1975. The National Book Award for fiction was followed by a steady stream of academic essays and dissertations, culminating in 1982 with the first book on Gaddis's work, a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and his receipt of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Two years later, the second book on his work appeared, Gaddis was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and he finished his third novel.
For this novel—originally titled That Time of Year: A Romance but published in the summer of 1985 as Carpenter's Gothic—Gaddis turned away from the "mega-novel" and set out to write a different as well as shorter—262 pages—book. As he once explained in a Washington Post interview with Lloyd Grove: "I wanted it to move very fast. Everything that happens on one page is preparing for the next page and the next chapter and the end of the book. When I started I thought, 'I want 240 pages'—that was what set I out for. It preserved the unity: one place, one very small amount of time, very small group of characters, and then, in effect, there's a nicer word than 'cliche,' what is it? Staples. That is, the staples of the marriage, which is on the rocks, the obligatory adultery, the locked room, the mysterious stranger, the older man and the younger woman, to try to take these and make them work."
Gaddis restores to worn-out literary clichés some of their original drama and intensity, particularly in Carpenter's Gothic. Like The Recognitions, his third novel is concerned with the ambiguous nature of reality; "there's a very fine line between the truth and what really happens" is an oft-repeated line in Carpenter's Gothic. The novel also attacks the perversions done in the name of religion. From J R it takes its narrative technique—an almost total dependence on dialogue—and its contempt for the motivating factor of capitalism. Sometimes seen by critics as a smaller, less-important reflection of the author's two preceding novels, this novel presents Gaddis's most characteristic themes and techniques with economy and flair.
Carpenter's Gothic is rooted in a specific time and place: the action takes place over a month's time—internal references date it between October and November of 1983—in a "carpenter gothic" style Victorian house in a small Hudson River Valley town. (Gaddis owned just such a house on Ritie Street in Piermont, New York.) Almost continuously on stage is Elizabeth Booth: "Bibbs" to her brother Billy, "Liz" to her husband Paul, and "Mrs. Booth" to McCandless, the house's owner and a failed novelist. These men subject Liz to the bullying, self-serving dialogue that makes up the bulk of the novel and that brings the outside world onto Gaddis's one-set stage. With newspapers and telephone calls filling the roles of messengers, a complicated plot quickly unfolds concerning Christian fundamentalism, political chicanery, African mineral rights, and a half-dozen family disputes. Long-suffering Liz endures it all, helpless to prevent her men from rushing headlong into—and even creating—the Armageddon that looms on the final pages of the novel.
In Carpenter's Gothic, as in all of Gaddis's novels, the males do most of the talking and create most of the problems. Like Esme in The Recognitions and Amy in J R, Liz is the still point in a frantic male world, "the only thing that holds things together," as her brother Billy admits. Though flawed, she is perhaps the most sympathetic figure in all three of Gaddis's novels. For that reason, her sudden death at the end gives Carpenter's Gothic its bleaker, more despairing tone.
Liz's husband Paul, a Vietnam veteran once attacked by his own men, is in one sense a grown-up J.R. Vansant—an identification Gaddis encourages when someone dismisses Paul for "know[ing] as much about finance as some snot nosed sixth grader." Like J. R., Paul simply does what people do to "make it" in America, never examining for an instant the ethics or morality of his questionable dealings. But the man who brings the greatest disorder into Liz's life is McCandless, the mysterious owner of the house, whom she transforms into a wearily romantic figure out of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a movie version of which serves as a backdrop to Liz and Paul's joyless lovemaking. McCandless, no longer feeling any connection between his world and himself and outraged at the stupidity that has severed that connection, can only envision a bleak future.
This vision of deep disorder and empty outlook belongs to Gaddis as well, for Carpenter's Gothic, as Peter Pres-cott declared in Newsweek, "is surely Gaddis's most pessimistic, his most savage novel." No one in the novel demonstrates any possibility of sidestepping, much less overcoming, the novelist's vision of the world's crushing stupidity. An escape hatch through which characters such as Wyatt and Bast can save themselves is present in the first two novels, but no such option exists in Carpenter's Gothic. As Robert Kelly noted in Conjunctions, Gaddis does not seem to have "an optimistic bone in his body—at least not in his writing hand." This pessimism bothers many readers, but Kelly explained: "We are foolish if we expect the skilful anatomist who excoriates vicious folly to provide a cure for it too—and doubly foolish if we credit any panacea he does trick himself into prescribing."
In Listener Peter Kemp described the work as Gaddis's "grimmest book," observing, "A scathing, exacerbated tour de force, Carpenter's Gothic seems the last word on a society whose doomed babble it so vehemently transmits." In the Nation, Terrence Rafferty mentioned the novel's "sour, contemptuous tone and its formal bad faith," adding: "The real story of Carpenter's Gothic isn't the end of the world, it's the end of the imagination, the world gone dark in the writer's head." Carol Iannone remarked in Commentary that "Gaddis means to show us the consequences of stupidity…. Carpenter's Gothic shows that Gaddis is not so much an artist as an anti-artist, working with cartoon characters and disembodied ideas."
Even art, the panacea prescribed in the first two novels, is suspect in the third book. On one level, Carpenter's Gothic is a meditation on fiction, specifically on the dubious motives for writers' fiction-making impulses. For Liz—as perhaps for the younger Gaddis—fiction offers "some hope of order restored, even that of a past life in tatters, revised, amended, fabricated in fact from its very outset to reorder its unlikelihoods, what it all might have been." But McCandless insisted on the suspect, compromised nature of art in his commentary on the carpenter-gothic style of his house, a passage that doubles as a description of the novel itself: "All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions,… a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside's a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale." In this sense, any reader who flees the disorder of life for the order of art will find cold comfort in Carpenter's Gothic.
Throughout Gaddis's novels there is a sense of bitter disappointment at America for not fulfilling its potential, for events not working out as planned. In this regard Gaddis resembles his beloved Russian novelists of the nineteenth century; in the New York Times Book Review William H. Gass reported a talk of Gaddis's in Lithuania where he insisted "the comic and satiric side of his work was attempting to save his version of his country as the earlier Russian writers had endeavored to redeem theirs." In the third novel, however, America seems to have reached the bottom of the psychosocial abyss. Carpenter's Gothic implies that it is too late to reverse the tide, to restore the promise of the American dream, too late for anything more than "one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing."
Emphasizing litigiousness and greed as characteristics of contemporary American society, Gaddis's award-winning novel A Frolic of His Own focuses on Oscar Crease, his family, his friends, and the various lawsuits in which they are all enmeshed. Employing elements of humor and farce, Gaddis exhaustively details the absurdities of his characters' suits and subsequent countersuits. For example, Oscar is plaintiff in a plagiarism case he has brought against Constantine Kiester, a top Hollywood producer whose real name is Jonathan Livingston Siegal. Oscar is also, paradoxically, plaintiff and defendant in a suit concerning a hit-and-run accident in which he was hit by his own car—a Sosumi ("so sue me"). Taking its title from a British legal phrase used to describe an employee's actions which, though they resulted in on-the-job injuries, do not entitle the employee to compensation, A Frolic of His Own is largely noted for its satire of justice and law in contemporary American society and for its unusual narrative structure.
Except for the inclusion of excerpts from Oscar's writings, legal documents, and court opinions, Gaddis relayed the novel's story line primarily through dialogue that is unattributed and only lightly punctuated. Critics have praised Gaddis's realistic depiction of everyday speech—complete with pauses, interruptions, and unfinished thoughts—and stressed the difficulty such a narrative technique, reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness writing, places on readers. As Steven Moore observed in the Nation, A Frolic of His Own "is both cutting-edge, state-of-the-art fiction and a throwback to the great moral novels of Tolstoy and Dickens. That it can be both is just one of the many balancing acts it performs: It is bleak and pessimistic while howlingly funny; it is a deeply serious exploration of such lofty themes as justice and morality but is paced like a screwball comedy; it is avant-garde in its fictional techniques but traditional in conception and in the reading pleasures it offers; it is a damning indictment of the United States, Christianity and the legal system, but also a playful frolic of Gaddis's own." Zachary Leader in the Times Literary Supplement called A Frolic of His Own a "bleak, brilliant, exhausting novel."
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"Gaddis, William 1922–1998." Concise Major 21st Century Writers. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/gaddis-william-1922-1998
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Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.