The Letters of William Gaddis


Now recognized as one of the giants of postwar American fiction, William Gaddis (1922--98), author of The Recognitions and J R, shunned the spotlight during his life, which makes this collection of his letters a revelation: an intimate look at one of the great literary minds of the 20th century.

Dalkey Archive Press

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Now recognized as one of the giants of postwar American fiction, William Gaddis (1922--98), author of The Recognitions and J R, shunned the spotlight during his life, which makes this collection of his letters a revelation: an intimate look at one of the great literary minds of the 20th century.

Dalkey Archive Press

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Dirda
Even though Gaddis's letters tend to be descriptive (of his travels or his state of mind) or businesslike and informational, they never lack for wit…if you're a Gaddis devotee, you should definitely acquire this superbly edited collection…
The Barnes & Noble Review

Reading the letters of the legendarily reclusive, interview-shy William Gaddis, it is impossible not to wrestle with the following question: why read the letters when we can just read the man's novels' Gaddis himself makes a vigorous case against turning from art to biography in a fulminating letter dated March 2, 1955, just after the publication of his mammoth first novel, The Recognitions, which was first greeted with almost universal misunderstanding and derision but is now recognized as a landmark work that stands like a bridge between the baroque modernism of James Joyce and the playful postmodernism of Thomas Pynchon. The occasion for Gaddis's ire is a "women's magazine" that asked to serialize a chapter of The Recognitions, only to recant (in what Gaddis surmises was "frightened awe") in favor of a facile profile of Gaddis himself. The full rant goes: "if you are a writer, they don't want to buy and print yr writing, but rather a picture and what you eat for breakfast, &c. But then good God! that's what the book's about — It's difficult not to strike a pose, for being 'eccentric' enough to try to get across that: What do they want of the man that they didn't find in the work?"

That concluding question brings to mind Tolstoy's response when asked to, distill Anna Karenina; if he could have put it more succinctly, he replied, he wouldn't have written the book. Still, I can think of at least three good reasons to read Gaddis's letters, now finally available to us in a stately volume edited by longtime Gaddis scholar and critic Steven Moore. The first would be that a better understanding of Gaddis as a human being will surely bring him down to earth for many curious readers who have taken a look at The Recognitions' 900 pages (or even J R's 700) and immediately turned elsewhere. Some tourism in Gaddis's personal life is surely worthwhile if it gets more people to try his books. The second reason is that these letters open a fascinating window onto a lifestyle that seems to be disappearing from the mass conception of what an author is: the non-careerist novelist, for whom writing is more akin to a calling that bobs and weaves through a multifaceted existence, rather than someone whose personal life is imagined to be nothing but sitting at a desk, writing page after page day after day.

And third and perhaps most important is the opportunity to gauge just why Gaddis wrote — and why he wrote the way he did. In the letters we can finally comprehend his often ambivalent, anxious relationship to his novels, his sporadic, long-drawn-out mode of composition, the way literary creation clearly draws him in to another space. He evokes it beautifully here, when he was feverishly working to complete J R: "[A]pparently I'm regarded as an 'experimental' writer, and one thing that takes so much time with J R seems to be that since it's almost all in dialogue I'm constantly listening, write a line and then have to stop and listen, does it sound like this character talking?" In a later letter we get an idea of just what called Gaddis to write: "I suppose it has a lot to do with creative lag, the attempt to rekindle one's fires after the dampened blaze of J R but I've simply not yet got any grasp of a central idea for another book of the obsessive proportions that kept both other books going."

Indeed, the picture that emerges of the off-the-record, daily existence of a literary genius may be the biggest bonus of this treasure-laden volume. Though The Recognitions was published in 1955, it was seven years before it was published in the U.K., over a dozen before Gaddis received any prizes of note, and close to two decades before he found a place within a community of like-minded intellectuals. It is most rewarding to watch the rich journey, from the young man embarking on a project whose scope and duration he could hardly guess at to a middle-aged author who had finally found a small but dedicated collection of peers and readers. In this, the letters offer us a glimpse of literary "success" quite different than what's typically represented in mass media, a version of success that I would argue is a more appropriate and honest depiction of the rewards a dedication to art should want. The fact that even a man of Gaddis's indomitable will and lasting vision still must feel the cuts of indignity and poverty adds poignancy and a hint of irony to his struggle, as few 20th-century writers waged a more articulate defense than he of the rewards an artist should want to accrue within the capitalism system.

If the letters are a sort of autobiography, as Moore asserts in his useful introduction, then it is a satisfying story with a few lags here and there. Roughly the first half of the book occupies Gaddis' college years, subsequent wanderings, and the writing and publication of The Recognitions. Kicked out of Harvard in his third year due to an incident involving drink, as a young man he was so in love with the education had while traveling Latin America, Spain, and France on a shoestring budget that it is clear that this was the education he was meant to have. Gaddis performed physical labor in Panama, worked on construction of a pipeline off of a boat on the Mississippi River, wrote for UNESCO in Paris, and apparently did sundry odd jobs in between. He also frequently wrote home to his mother for money, and it is beyond argument that these regular infusions of cash permitted him to travel the world, achieve his education, and write the first significant chunk of what would become The Recognitions.

With his mammoth first novel behind him, Gaddis settled in the United States with a wife and two children, and money concerns began to loom large; the awarding of generous grants finally permitted him to make serious headway on his second novel, J R, which he conceived of in 1956 but did not publish until 1975. The tone of the letters in this time changes substantially. He writes less and less frequently to his primary young adulthood correspondent, his mother, and we begin to see his consciousness refracted through the multiple relationships that tend to nourish a healthy adult life: his peers, his children, his romantic partners, and the mature friendships that last the duration of his life.

Gaddis was conspicuous for his refusal of almost all interviews, and much of that hidden personal life emerges here. A continual delight in the mature letters are the moments when Gaddis is clearly writing more to himself than to his correspondent, as in this letter that he enclosed with a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack-Up, which he had just given to his fourteen-year-old daughter:

Obviously it's not for you to sit down and read straight through but I thought you would be interested in what one writer turned the idea into and continue and expand your own along the lines of catching ideas, impressions, thoughts, images, words and combinations of words and overheard remarks and stories and anecdotes at that instant you encounter them, which is so often one you can never recreate purely from memory and may in fact lose forever. Of course in this case, assuming Fitzgerald never expected these notes to be published, I think you find a lot of material which he would have reconsidered and thrown out and never wanted published; but at least, having written them down, he gave himself that choice, rather than putting himself through those long moments of trying to remember — What was it? that remark I heard yesterday, that idea I had last night . . . What is it that makes end of summer at Fire Island unlike anywhere else, and yet like a concentration of the whole idea of summer's end everywhere . . .
The letters from this period of Gaddis's life also contain more than their share of publishing gossip. Gaddis's reaction to his nomination for the 1976 National Book Award typifies the jaded, necessarily mercantile eye he cast at the publishing business:
Into fuzzier areas, the one I mentioned to you last night which both Candida and Bob do not appear to attach practical ($) significance to, Bob says for now regard it as an entertainment (my word). Books nominated for the Nat Book Award are mine, Woiwode's, Bellow's, then 3 books of stories (!) by Nabokov, Hortense Calisher, and Joanna Kaplan whom nobody's heard of (Bob published it & can't understand its inclusion). No Ragtime, no Dead Father, no Guerillas. But if the book selections are odd, the judges are even odder; a writer, a critic, and a complete idiot: Wm Gass, Mary McCarthy, and Maurice Dolbier. [Dolbier was an early detractor from The Recognitions whom Gaddis later decried as a "phony" when he wrote a fluff piece surrounding its 1962 U.K. release.]
In the 1980s and '90s we see Gaddis having finally found a way to more or less survive as a permanent outsider artist, taking no small comfort from the efforts of those few souls determined to explain him to the rest of the world (leading the way are Tom LeClair and Steve Moore), yet still railing against the idiocy of the marketplace and feeling the sting of condescension from his intellectual inferiors.

Overall Gaddis's letters make for remarkable, stimulating reading. They have been extremely well curated by Moore, and although there are a few places where one might want to skim, they make for a surprisingly gripping read for a book of this nature. Moore's cross- referencing and notation of sources, as well as his sharp eye for individuals and phrases that would later crop up in Gaddis' books, is impressive. My only criticism would be that at times his notes can be overbearing: is it really necessary to remind someone acquainted enough with literature to be reading Gaddis's letters who Dostoevsky was? Or, arguably worse, when Gaddis asks his mother for a "Jackson," Moore dutifully annotates it "Jackson: their code for a $20 bill." Yes, their "code" — and everyone else's who spends American currency.

With the letters and Gaddis's major works now published by the Dalkey Archive Press, it seems this author whose major writing was out of print and largely unavailable as late as the 1990s is in good hands. These letters will surely be rewarding for those who have found common cause with Gaddis's novels, and they should be read by anyone who seriously cares about being a writer or understanding the struggles of the true artist in a capitalist society.

Scott Esposito is a critic, writer, and editor whose work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2004 he created the widely praised literary website Conversational Reading, which can be found at

Reviewer: Scott Esposito

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781564788047
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
  • Publication date: 3/14/2013
  • Pages: 600
  • Sales rank: 693,132
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

William Gaddis

William Gaddis (1922-98) stands among the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. The winner of two National Book Awards (for J R [1976] and A Frolic of His Own [1995]), he wrote five novels during his lifetime, including Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Agapē Agape (published posthumously in 2002), and his early masterpiece The Recognitions (1955). He is loved and admired for his stylistic innovations, his unforgettable characters, his pervasive humor, and the breadth of his intellect and vision.

Steven Moore earned his Ph.D. at Rutgers University. He is a noted William Gaddis scholar and wrote William Gaddis, the first comprehensive critical guide to his work, and A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions. Moore has edited a number of books, including Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowski & Sheri Martinelli 1960-1967 and In Recognition of William Gaddis. He has also contributed essays, articles, and reviews to a number of newspapers, journals, and magazines.


William Gaddis published only four novels in his lifetime, but those four books were influential enough that George Stade, writing in the New York Times Book Review, could dub Gaddis the "presiding genius of post-war American fiction." Though Gaddis is now celebrated as a master of experimental fiction, his work initially met with indifferent or hostile reviews.

Gaddis left Harvard University during his senior year, worked for two years as a fact-checker for the New Yorker, then spent five years traveling through Central America, North Africa and Europe. After returning to the United States in 1951, he wrote The Recognitions, a densely allusive, darkly comic novel centered on the Faustian figure of Wyatt Gwyon, an aspiring painter whose obsession with beauty and order eventually leads to a career as a forger of Flemish masterpieces.

The Recognitions bewildered book critics when it was published in 1955, but it has since come to be viewed as a pivotal work of American literature, one that marks a turning point between the great modernist authors like William Faulkner and postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Richard Toney described it as "a novel of stunning power, 956 pages of linguistic pyrotechnics and multi-lingual erudition unmatched by any American writer in this century -- perhaps in any century."

Following its markedly unsuccessful publication, Gaddis went to work as a corporate speechwriter, a job he hated. But Gaddis's literary reputation began to grow as fellow novelists discovered and championed The Recognitions, reissued in 1962. Eventually, Gaddis received several grants, which helped him write his second book.

JR, a 726-page novel written almost entirely in dialogue, skewers the business world through the tale of an 11-year-old boy who builds a paper empire of penny stocks from his school phone booth. It won the National Book Award for 1975, thrusting a somewhat reluctant Gaddis into the limelight. "I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen," he said in his acceptance speech for the award.

His next two books also garnered high critical acclaim: Cynthia Ozick, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Carpenter's Gothic (which weighs in at a mere 262 pages) "an unholy landmark of a novel." Gaddis won a second National Book Award for A Frolic of His Own, which combined Swiftian satire of our litigious culture with deeper meditations on the nature of justice. His final book Agapé Agape, a novel about the history of the piano player, was published after his death in 1998.

Gaddis scholar Steven Moore wrote: "In Carpenter's Gothic, a character speaks of 'books that erode absolute values by asking questions to which they offer no answers.' This is very close to what Gaddis's fiction attempts, and close too to the work of two of the greatest American novelists, Hawthorne and Melville." In the current crop of novelists, writers like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace have carried out their own versions of the literary experiment that so flummoxed Gaddis's critics in 1955.

Gaddis's novels may be less widely read than those of his successors, but they remain compelling for their imaginative reach, sumptuous prose style and mordant wit. Gaddis seems to have known from the beginning that he was writing for a select audience, a recognition signaled at the end of his first book: "He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played."

Good To Know

After The Recognitions was panned by several critics, the independent publisher Jack Green wrote a 70-page diatribe titled "Fire the Bastards!" which excoriated the book's critics for their factual and interpretive errors. In 1962, Green wrote and paid for a full-page ad in The Village Voice, urging people to buy The Recognitions. Some readers suspected Gaddis had taken out the ad himself, and that Jack Green was a pseudonym.

When Thomas Pynchon's first novel V. was published in 1963, some readers suspected Pynchon was actually William Gaddis, a theory fueled by both writers' reclusiveness. In the mid-1980s, letters signed "Wanda Tinasky" began to appear in local California newspapers. They asserted that Pynchon, Gaddis and Jack Green were all the same person. In 1996, The Letters of Wanda Tinasky were published on the premise that Pynchon wrote them, though Pynchon denied any part in their authorship.

Don Foster, the literary sleuth who identified Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors, started to investigate the Tinasky letters in 1996. Foster eventually identified them as the work of Thomas Hawkins, a Mendocino County writer and fanatic admirer of The Recognitions who had killed his wife and then himself in 1988.

Gaddis enrolled at Harvard College in 1941 and was editor of the famous Harvard Lampoon; but was kicked out in his senior year. According to a Salon article, he was asked to leave “after a run-in with local police.”

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    1. Date of Birth:
      December 29, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      December 17, 1998
    2. Place of Death:
      East Hampton, New York
    1. Education:
      Attended Harvard University (no degree)

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