Unrecognized Recognitions: The Letters of William Gaddis

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The Letters of William Gaddis, Ed. Steven Moore, Afterword by Sarah Gaddis

By Jeff Bursey 

The Letters of William GaddisIn a January 1988 letter to his daughter, the novelist Sarah Gaddis, William Gaddis (1922-1998) talks about the process behind his next book, A Frolic of His Own (1994):

Which is what I’m rather stumblingly doing now: folders with ribbons & ribbons of paper laying out the step by step of Oscar’s car accident insurance, his copyright lawsuit, Lily’s divorce, her malpractice suit, a dozen suits springing from the ill fated outdoor sculpture Cyclone 7, & many many more. I am rather aghast at what I’ve let myself in for in areas where I am marvelously ignorant. Most of my contemporaries seem to be fiddling around publishing reminiscences about what an interesting fellow I was at fifteen, how I Became a Writer &c.  Yawn. All this trepidation obviously over having pretty much got (though I haven’t yet signed) what I wanted in this contract with S&S [Simon & Schuster], everyone saying great, wonderful, me saying my God what have I done!

In a few sentences we pass from a father communicating what he’s doing and how his fourth novel is going, to a view from on high of what certain fellow writers were content to put out, and the pressure Gaddis felt to come up with an answer to “this question what is worth doing? that has dogged me all my life, both in terms of my own life and work…” These themes appear frequently in The Letters of William Gaddis, edited with succinct explanatory notes, and tact, by Steven Moore, among other things a Gaddis scholar who, as a prominent member of a small and vocal reader base, has worked to keep his name and reputation visible. (Disclosure 1: a letter to me appears in the book. Disclosure 2: those who regularly write on Gaddis are few in number and generally know each other.)

It is as true of this long-awaited volume, for Gaddis readers as for any other writer, such as John Cower Powys (whose letters Cecil Woolf of England has been assiduous in publishing), that they only permit a partial view into the subject’s life: not everything written has been found or could be printed. Some may argue that reading letters never meant for public viewing is, as Emmett Stinson put it, “slightly voyeuristic.” This sentiment is worthy of respect, but in the face of news stories, current and past, explaining how federal government agencies and their henchmen read people’s emails and listen to their telephone conversations, it may be harder to honour that feeling. The amount of personal information offered without reservation on Facebook, Twitter, websites and blogs deteriorates the meaning of ‘privacy,’ and the wish for it can appear old-fashioned to some.

Moore’s edition runs contrary to Gaddis’s wishes, as expressed to people like his mother, Edith, and to Moore himself—characterized by Gaddis as “my sympathetic ‘chronicler’ like it or not”—in such a passage as this: “like many fledglings, my early letters were many times written with the vain notion of eventual publication & thus obviously much embarrassing nonsense; & of the later ones, those of substance will probably never be seen for equally fortunate if exactly different reasons.” In general, for much of his life Gaddis denied requests for interviews and was dismissive of everything save for the work created. In a famous passage from his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), that is quoted throughout the letters, a character says: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”

Yet, we now have a handsome collection of his correspondence, and it’s a delight to read. The first letter is from December 1930 when Gaddis was almost eight, and the last from September 1998, only a few months before his death in December. His first correspondent, for many years, is his mother. She sends him money as he attempts to earn a degree at Harvard, and throughout his travels in the southwest US, Central America, Spain and France. Gaddis’s parents separated when he was three, and references to the father are few. As a boy and a young man he relied on Edith who, judging by what we see of their relationship, encouraged her son in his wide-ranging travels through gifts of money, and by sending him books and other material asked for. She also read and responded to Gaddis’s increasingly idiosyncratic views and style of expression.

That bond is not something we might suspect from the, at times, formidable image he projected as a writer. In letters to his children (Sarah and Matthew, both from the first of two marriages) as they grow up and face good and bad times, Gaddis passes on to them the kind of support that he was palpably grateful for receiving from their grandmother. “What is important, not just important but paramount, at the heart of it all,” he writes Sarah, “is how we’ve stood by each other & how both you & Matthew have stood by me Lord knows through some pretty dark times, even at the distances we’ve been apart, that has been & remains the by far best thing of my life…”

The tenderness shown between a son and his sole parent normally would appear commendable, unless you’re Sheri Martinelli, a flame from the late 1940s who, apart from inspiring an important character in The Recognitions, counted Anaïs Nin and Ezra Pound among her friends. In an interview with Moore she classified Gaddis as a “mama’s boy,” a label denied by Gaddis—it “hardly bears dignifying”—but it’s a characterization that Stinson embraces. With respect, that seems uncharitable. What comes through the letters between son and mother is an abiding support (emotional, as well as financial) as Edith nurtures his self-expression and belief in his talent. This positive influence appears to have guided Gaddis in his role as a father. There’s more than one interpretation to be drawn from their relationship.

One of the expected benefits of the letters is the opportunity to see how Gaddis started out, and how his books did (critically and commercially), but we gain an appreciation for the business of the writing life: negotiations around contracts, battles with publishers, and the relationship with one of his agents, Candida Donadio (who also represented Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller and Philip Roth). Moore has tied the sections of the book, apart from the first, to the time frame occupied by the books Gaddis wrote, so readers interesting in pursuing the origins of a particular work can do so with ease.

As Gaddis is more often cited than read, a few words about his novels are in order. The Recognitions, a satire that deals with counterfeiting, faith and the pursuit of the genuine, which may be only a chimera, is both Modernist and Postmodernist. Set in the art world of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the book contains expansive, allusion-rich sentences, delivered with a wild wit that incorporates high and low humour. At almost 1,000 pages it defeated reviewers and critics who didn’t give it an honest chance, and the novelist David Markson stands out for recognizing its significance immediately. (More on its critical reception can be found in this New Yorker article.) After it was republished in the 1960s it slowly entered the general consciousness of non-mainstream writers, affecting, among others, Don DeLillo, Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.

The Recognitions’ critical and commercial failure meant Gaddis had to turn to writing for Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, and other businesses as he tried to complete his second novel, the innovative, hilarious J R (1975) where, over 700-plus pages, an eleven-year-old amoral schoolboy, J R, learns to play the stock market. Tying the splintering of companies to the way the material is presented—mostly in shards of dialogue, sometimes from unknown (or hard to discern) voices—it is a primer on what capitalism does, as relevant today as it was then. Though it won the National Book Award, harsh criticism from John Gardner and others indicated not much had changed in terms of comprehension or respect for Gaddis’s aims.

In 1985, after struggling to find a topic that would result in “another novel not a crusade this time like its 2 predecessors but simply, I hope, a ‘romance’ of sorts,” Carpenter’s Gothic came out, and proved, according to the standards set by the two previous novels, successful commercially. Perhaps its modest length (less than 300 pages) and a canvas that features a dreadful marriage, religious fundamentalism, and an apocalyptic vision spoke to life under Ronald Reagan.

In the 1990s Gaddis finished his last two books: A Frolic of His Own (under 600 pages), a mingling of lawsuits and legal opinions that comprised a system the characters had to exist within, and where the best that can be expected are verdicts, not justice, that won the National Book Award in 1995; and, in 1998, shortly before his death, the slender novella Agapē Agape, a Thomas Bernhard-like monologue by an old man concerned with the role of the artist in an age of mechanization—a long-held obsession for Gaddis—and mortality. Like The Rush for Second Place, a collection of essays, Agapē Agape came out in 2002.

Gaddis’s demanding and rewarding fiction took time to write, and over fifty years there were the expenses associated with two divorces, two children and a household to tend. The Letters show us not the glamorous life lived by someone like Norman Mailer but the day-to-day struggles common to most artists. Len Gutkin reviewed the letters recently for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and downplayed the neglect Gaddis endured—“(after all, two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant hardly a forgotten author make)”—adding that his readers find it “fun to get angry over Gaddis’s shoulder as he kvetches about the critics and book reviewers who panned J R…” (These readers include William Gass, Stanley Elkin, Louis Auchinloss and others who would be well aware of the perils and inanities found in publishing.)

Gutkin’s remarks come across as smug. While Gaddis received 55 reviews for his first book, 53 were negative, and that’s not a blow one’s ego easily or quickly absorbs. Despite winning the National Book Award for J R, at the end of 1982 the book “still owes Knopf some $37 thousand” (about $89,000 today). The practicalities of being a writer can be painful and ceaseless—“writing what one thinks is worth writing is a rough way to try to make a living”—and despite the grants and the occasional stretches of employment, there is concern over finances.

In addition to money worries, frustration at not being published and, when published, recognized, Gaddis’s use of alcohol becomes a feature of the letters. On one occasion he refers to “this dangling drinking life” (perhaps unconsciously echoing a Saul Bellow title), and later in life became more abstemious. Tensions within the home spring out suddenly, and we can only partially trace the dissolution of the marriages to Pat Black and Judith Thompson, and the end of the relationship with Muriel Oxenberg Murphy. Yet within Gaddis’s fictions, especially, to my mind, J R and Carpenter’s Gothic, there are probing depictions of the damage partners can cause each other.

Devoted readers of Gaddis will find it interesting to see the evolution of the presentation of content (complete with erratic spelling and the absence of punctuation) and the acquiring of a voice that, while not the same as that heard in the fictions (the lyricism in The Recognitions barely survived its reception, for instance), bears a resemblance that brings back memories of the excitement that accompanied the first reading of his novels.

That returns us to a point mentioned earlier. Moore had many letters to choose from, for Gaddis kept extensive files. His editorial efforts have not yielded the complete man—Joseph Tabbi’s biography, tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2014, hopefully will provide more details—and he terms this selection “a kind of autobiography in letters.” What Moore has done, the best thing he has done, is to choose, shrewdly, letters that allow, as indicated above, multiple interpretations. Gaddis can be seen as above base commerce while deeply needing funds, as a guardian of his privacy but willing for others to get his name out, and in the roles of only son, husband and father. One reviewer may find a Gaddis who only partially resembles the Gaddis found by another. Thanks to Steven Moore’s criteria, readers have the freedom to arrive at their own notions of the motives and drives behind the man. This open-endedness is a feature of Gaddis’s fiction, and fittingly forestalls a consensus or definitive reading. The letters, for what they discuss and what they only hint at, do a service to William Gaddis and to literary history.

Without closure, there is always the risk of misinterpretation or impatience. Gaddis, who saw his books misjudged and misread, knew this, and in a letter to Sarah offered some advice to her and Matthew (MHG) on this matter:

MHG is deeply involved in his film project (which I have not read), I only worry what is at stake as it is for you & was for me with The Recognitions and I guess all of us trying to do anything well of inevitably so much riding on it, with the fear (from my own experience obviously) of the day when the world shrugs or simply turns its back—but those are the risks we take.


The Letters of William Gaddis Ed. Steven Moore, Afterword by Sarah Gaddis | Dalkey Archive | 600 pages |  $37.00 | cloth | ISBN # 978-1564788047

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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey


Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015). Bursey is a special correspondent for Numero Cinq and an associate editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries, Rain Taxi, and many other publications.