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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, ...
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.
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.
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)
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
Julian Schnabel (1998)
Summary Notes on the Work in Progress (early 1960s)
Player Piano Chronology to 1929
Posted August 10, 2009
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