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America’s Best Unknown Writer

William Gaddis was nineteen in 1942, when he wrote to his mother, Edith Gaddis, saying that the “section man” in his Harvard English class had recommended a book to him:

I got it and turns out to be history of Communism and Socialism—Marxism—enough to make me actively ill—so don’t care about mark in this test but am going to tell him what I think of his lousy piggish socialism &c—sometimes I think he’s turned that way—he recommends many such books—so I’m going to tell him how stinking I think it is and not worry about an E.
Martin Dworkin/Bernard Looks
William Gaddis at the time of the publication of his first novel, The Recognitions, 1955

One might think this simply callow, a snobbish reflex of class and family, but it does expose the bedrock on which Gaddis later built his idiosyncratic conservatism, just as it points to his unusually candid relationship with his mother.

His parents had separated when he was three and he didn’t see his father again for twenty years. William Gaddis Sr. worked on Wall Street and was mainly prized by his son for bequeathing him his name (“a family as fine and as noble as I feel the name of Gaddis to represent”). Edith Gaddis eventually became the chief purchasing agent of the New York Steam Corporation, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison. She brought up her only child in her Manhattan apartment and a house in Massapequa on Long Island, and when he was away from home, at boarding school and Harvard, or traveling in the southwestern states and Central America, then in Europe, Gaddis wrote her frequent, often copious letters.

For the first two hundred pages of this book, his mother is his chief—almost his only—correspondent; not because he was short of friends, but because mothers are better than most people at saving their children’s letters. He relied on her to hunt down books for him in New York, be a sympathetic sounding board for his ideas, respond at speed to his requests for money, and be a dependable source of wise advice on everything. In return, he sent her lively commentaries on his life and its frequent changes of scenery.

Gaddis’s college education was interrupted by illness, and ultimately ended when he was suspended from Harvard after a drunken incident involving the Cambridge police. In 1943, he tried to enlist in the Merchant Marine, but was rejected because of albumin in his urine (this seems to have kept him out of the military draft too); otherwise the war hardly ever gets mentioned in his letters, and between girls, shows, and the Harvard Lampoon, of which he became president and editor, he appears to have been too busy to pay much attention to academic classes. After the suspension he never went back to Harvard. He found a job at The New Yorker in the fact-checking department, where he worked for a year before motoring south with a friend to Mexico City, hoping for an opening in journalism.

What he found instead was his vocation as a novelist, and a self-prescribed curriculum for a literary education more intense and driven than his Harvard studies. He asked his mother to send him his Bible and his copy of Worth Smith’s Miracle of the Ages: The Great Pyramid and to buy the abridged, one-volume version of Toynbee’s A Study of History, Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and Frazer’s The Golden Bough, along with books by Fichte, Saint Anselm, Hesse, and Balzac. His novel, begun in earnest in the spring of 1947, was titled Blague, and he expected to finish it in a few weeks, but it expired on him sometime after he returned to New York in the early summer.

By the end of November that year, he was back in Central America, in Panama, where, under the influence of Toynbee’s grand synthesis of the rise and disintegration (one might say entropy) of successive civilizations, he started work on a new novel. “It is to concern vanity,” he told his mother. Ducdame would evolve over the next seven years into The Recognitions. Besides Toynbee (“that brilliant man has somehow the meaning of meaning, and never in a smart way, you know, like so many of the books now”), the two writers he most revered were T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh. Both were converts, Eliot to High Anglicanism, Waugh to Catholicism, and Gaddis himself was religiously inclined. He was prone to indiscriminate superstition: he associated people with their Zodiac signs and forecasts and he took seriously the prophecies extracted from the Great Pyramid by Worth Smith. To Katherine Anne Porter (whom he’d never met) he wrote:

Reading the prophesies in the Great Pyramid, or Nostradamus, and in Ezekial and Revelation. And have been obsessed with the idea of Armageddon coming in 1949. That we will live to see Good & Evil defined in battle?… This thing (it is still just a thing) that I am trying to work on now ends with that; and so I have put myself under this insane press of time, that it must be done before, just before, this final violence comes.

Porter, understandably, made no reply.

He read the New Testament (“such a wonder”), and discovered Spengler and Ortega y Gasset. In his immediate surroundings of the Canal Zone, with the Jack Benny radio show playing from every window of the identical, gray frame-houses in Pedro Miguel, Gaddis found a suitable symbol for the barren end times of American civilization. As he told his mother:

Because I am an American, and my whole problem lies in American society; that is, in thinking it out, in understanding where that country has gone all wrong, and perhaps eventually being able to contribute something on the way to right it. About 90% of USA needs to be rescued from vulgarity, and it is the responsibility of them—us—all. Doubtless the most critical time in history.

He sounds young for his age (he was twenty-five) and rather priggish in his moralism, but these qualities served him well as a writer who would remain productively surprised and offended by ordinary American life.

In April 1948, he flew from Panama to Costa Rica, just in time to catch the last few days of the Costa Rican civil war, in which he volunteered on the side of the rebels under José Figueres. He lost his rifle, and helped build an airstrip for an incoming arms shipment from Guatemala. In Costa Rica and its “splendid people” he found an ideal counterweight to the vulgar and industrialized United States. “The country here is high and cool, and this city [San José] a model of order and organization.” In another unanswered letter to Katherine Anne Porter, he explained why Costa Rica so appealed to him:

The disinterestedness of all the people, the almost entire absence of grasping, of self-promotion…. Because CostaRica is still traditional—and largely I suppose due to the hold of the Church—and the family is still family, and it is splendid and interesting to see the hospitality that such a traditional society can afford, as to one rootless, which our (eastern) society cannot because it is rootless itself.

This is as much about Gaddis’s own loneliness and deracination as it is about Costa Rica—the country to which, fueled by Toynbee and Eliot and Waugh and Spengler and Ortega, he attributed all the conservative virtues. But “it would not do to stay in this good land,” he told his mother, and in May, barely a month after he arrived, he sailed for New York.

In November he was on the move again, carrying the growing manuscript of The Recognitions, aboard a small Polish passenger ship that stopped in Gibraltar (“a great pile of shale”), from where he made the long train journey to Madrid. In Franco’s Spain he saw the same characteristics of a “traditional” society that had endeared him to Costa Rica, though his difficulties with the language stopped him from looking very far or deep. Some of his observations have an annoying ring today. “There is always some hag who comes to clean up: no trouble in this country over emancipated women, one of Spain’s seductive qualities to the American Boy.”

Throughout Gaddis’s two-and-a-half-year spell in Europe, his most important relationships were with other Anglophones. A chance meeting on the beach at Palamós, a fishing village and resort north of Barcelona, led to a long and close friendship with the English painter John Napper and his wife Pauline. Napper (in 2001 his Guardian obituarist described him as “a large, gentle-mannered man, an expert on everything, with a twinkle of self-parody in his eye”) was five years older than Gaddis, to whom he presented a model existence: an artist independent of fashion, happily married on the second try, living in an ancient mill-house in the Sussex countryside.

Some details of Wyatt Gwyon, the painter in The Recognitions, echo the painting life of John Napper. (Gwyon, a minister’s son from New England, sets up as a painter in Paris, and after initially failing as an artist, begins successfully forging Dutch and Flemish old master paintings.) In Majorca, Gaddis introduced himself to Robert Graves, who would write a blurb for The Recognitions; and in Paris he began an extended love affair with Margaret Williams.

In letters to his mother, Gaddis liked to depict himself as someone repeatedly smitten by beautiful women. Ormonde de Kay, a friend from his Paris days, said in 1993 that Gaddis was “extremely active in the lady-pleasing department.” In December 1948, writing from Madrid, Gaddis asked his mother to find a copy of Norman Douglas’s South Wind and send it to Miss Williams at her New York address, in time for her to read it on the ship to Italy.

Soon the “loveliest lady on the continent” became the primary subject of his letters home. “There is, as you may have foreseen, may have hoped, the sudden gigantic gigantic consideration, of another person. That is Margaret.” He made, and recast, plans for their wedding, and all the while tried to enwrap his mother within the ambit of his love for Williams. “I must say first, again, how fortunate I am in both of you,” he wrote to his mother:

What she is going through is a hideous difficulty on every hand, a financially, psychologically, and the sense of time passing, but she is magnificent about it. And you. I suppose I’ve know this, but not until recently appreciated it so fully. And to have her letter saying this to me,—I just don’t know anything, what to say to you, what to say to your mother! I have been so touched by all that your mother says and does and her attitude…I do love her so much already, can you know that? I do honestly. And think she is magnificent and how lucky you are, and this I, and how exciting it is to have her adored, so quickly and genuinely, by everybody….

In the waterfall of pronouns, mother and fiancée merge ambiguously into one another. But Williams soon put the distance of the Atlantic between herself and Gaddis in his ardor. Five months later he wrote from Seville:

I ’phoned Margaret from Madrid on Sunday. And of course I cannot tell you, how wonderful it was to hear her, nor how sad eventually, the conversation. Oh I tell you, I tell you (you know) what a magnificent, and splendidly brave person she is. I know now that she is having, and has had consistently a ghastly time of the whole thing, paid and paid and paid.

Yet he did not budge from his European perch. The novel was going well, and Spain was again living up to its early promise of being a better, kinder society than was to be found elsewhere. As he told the Nappers:

And the welcome back. People I hadn’t seen in almost two years, and almost all of them servants or bar tenders &c, but glowing welcome, […] It is wonderful, and heart-breaking, this lavishness with nothing, and such friendship isolates me in embarrassment even more, somehow, than London’s civilised indulgence or Paris’s hard, dull, dreary, absurd, pretentious, stupid, tiresome, indifference.

Eventually, at the end of April 1951, he sailed for New York. From his cabin he wrote to John Napper, mentioning a Spanish girl he’d met in Seville, along with a throwaway remark about Margaret Williams: “thinking now that after two to four months in America to re-cross this sea, with either a wife or the Encyclopaedia Britannica in tow.” Although a snapshot dated June 1951 shows Gaddis and Williams together in a country garden, there is no further reference to her in the letters.

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