The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings


William Gaddis published only four novels during his lifetime, but with those works he earned himself a reputation as one of America's greatest novelists. Less well known is Gaddis's body of excellent critical writings. Here is a wide range of his original essays, some published for the first time. From "'Stop Player. Joke No. 4,'" Gaddis's first national publication and the basis for his projected history of the player piano, to the title essay about missed opportunities in America during the past fifty years, ...
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The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings

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William Gaddis published only four novels during his lifetime, but with those works he earned himself a reputation as one of America's greatest novelists. Less well known is Gaddis's body of excellent critical writings. Here is a wide range of his original essays, some published for the first time. From "'Stop Player. Joke No. 4,'" Gaddis's first national publication and the basis for his projected history of the player piano, to the title essay about missed opportunities in America during the past fifty years, to "Old Foes with New Faces," an examination of the relationship between the writer and the problem of religion-this diverse collection displays the power of an autonomous literary intelligence in an age increasingly dominated by political and religious conservatism.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Author of the deeply satirical novel JR (which features an 11-year-old capitalist who trumps up his Army surplus company in a manner that seems eerily prescient today) and of The Recognitions, Gaddis (1922-1998) was a fact-checker at the New Yorker and a corporate speech-writer before coming to prominence, but published very little essay-based work. Editor Joseph Tabbi here collects 29 short and occasional pieces, some left in manuscript at the time of Gaddis's death, others admiring encomiums to Saul Bellow or Julian Schnabel, all of which, as he notes, "create a sense of the environment in which Gaddis worked." (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The great novelist (Agape Agape, p. 1053, etc.) explores his fascination with machines, greed, violence, and art in odd bits of nonfiction, some appearing in print for the first time.

Gaddis (1922–98) never hesitated from targeting the nation’s economic elite in his densely packed fiction, and his essays are no different. For example, in a piece that first appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1995, he has no trouble linking Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America to Samuel Butler’s 1872 utopian novel, Erewhon. Both Butler and Gingrich, he argues, predicate their passion for law and order on stamping out difference, and their intent resembles the function of most technology, another Gaddis obsession. In an essay written as a script for an IBM promotional film, he writes that a player piano performs its music as beautifully as a real player might, raising the question of the artist’s purpose, but it also leaves one feeling cold, because ultimately the same humans replaced by the piano are the sources of, and the ones listening to, the music. There’s a connection here between Gaddis’s criticism of the Contract with America and of the player piano; both beget an alienated and usually underserved audience. The title piece argues that this audience, the American public, has opted for second place: the good life as defined by status and three square meals a day. Instead of holding fast to the Protestant work ethic that views material success as tantamount to goodness, Gaddis would prefer Americans to work on goodness and let the material success follow. Will the business leaders of American society ever make this transformation? On that point, the author is cynical. Joseph Tabbiprovides an excellent introduction and biographical background that’s particularly helpful in a collection that spans 50 years.

Sometimes dense, but always discerning: essential for Gaddis fans and those seeking an offbeat critique of American civilization.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142002384
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/2002
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,309,670
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.81 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

William Gaddis
William Gaddis (1922-1998) was a master of the American novel who was frequently compared with Joyce, Nabokov, and Pynchon. Two of his novels, J R and A Frolic of His Own, won the National Book Award. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient of a MacArthur Prize.
Joseph Tabbi was the first scholar to be given access to the Gaddis archives. He conducts research in American literature and new media writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Joseph Tabbi was the first scholar to be given access to the Gaddis archives. He conducts research in American literature and new media writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


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)

Table of Contents


1. "Stop Player. Joke No. 4" (1951)

2. Agape Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano (early 1960s)

3. Treatment for a Motion Picture on "Software" (early 1960s)

4. Cover Illustrations from the Corporate Writings (A Selection)
The Growth of American Industry (For the National Association of Manufacturers)
Educational Technology Shapes the Future... Are You Ready? (For the Eastman Kodak Company)
Answers to Cancer (For General Motors/Western Electric)

5. In the Zone (1978)

6. The Rush for Second Place (1981)

7. J R Up to Date (1987)

8. An Instinct for the Dangerous Wife
(Review of More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow, 1987)

9. Erewhon and the Contract with America (1995)

10. Old Foes with New Faces (1995)

11. Occasional Writings
This Above All (1990)
J. Danforth Quayle (1992)
On Creative Writing and the National Endowment for the Arts (1994)

12. Speeches
On Receiving the National Book Award for J R (1975)
How Does the State Imagine? The Willing Suspension of Disbelief (1986)
On Receiving the National Book Award for A Frolic of His Own

13. Tributes
Dostoevski (1996)
Mothers (1996)
Julian Schnabel (1998)

Summary Notes on the Work in Progress (early 1960s)
Player Piano Chronology to 1929

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