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America’s Best Unknown Writer

Flavio Toma/Washington University Libraries
William Gaddis, far right, with Ivan Nabokov, Dominique Sanda, and Christian Bourgois at the Village Voice Bookshop, Paris, 1988

It’s hardly a surprise to find that the author of weighty, bitter comedies about the disintegration of social and personal life in America experienced serial disintegrations of his own, but one notes the pattern set by his affair with Williams, and remembers how Ormonde de Kay described his first marriage: “He was a good uxorious fellow. Until they broke up.” Gaddis, by his own account, was always the deserted party who had tried to hold things together as the relationship worsened. Writing in 1993 to his daughter Sarah (whom he could address as a fellow warrior in the marital and literary trenches, since her own first marriage had ended, and she had published her first—and so far only—novel, Swallow Hard), he sent a disillusioned report on his own career as husband and writer:

I know you are discouraged…. As you know I’ve been there myself—right from our start really from just the time you were born, living till then with and for this Great Book I was writing, had written, saw it drop like a shot & started a new life “raising a family”; 2 years writing a long play & saw it as hopeless; 7 years writing another Great Book & saw it drop like a shot…& another marriage with it….

Even as he wrote this, his relationship with his last companion, Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, was speeding to its expiration date, and his last novel, A Frolic of His Own, was heading for publication and the National Book Award.

Gaddis arrived in New York with a pile of pages that by March 1952 had grown to “almost 100,000 words,” or “just barely more than half finished.” For the winter of 1952–1953 he holed up in a borrowed farmhouse outside Montgomery, New York, emerging in the spring with a completed novel of around 500,000 words. By then, he had also signed a contract with Harcourt, Brace, and collected an advance of $1,000, which enabled him to work full-time on revising his enormous manuscript, and ditch his part-time job with the US Information Service, writing propaganda pieces for the magazine America Illustrated. That winter of hectic composition shows. For all its life, inventiveness, and seriousness of intent, The Recognitions is riddled with clumsy sentences to which an author in less haste would have mailed rejection slips. As Homer may sometimes nod, Gaddis can take disquietingly long naps.

One catches glimpses in the letters of the social life that Gaddis was leading in Manhattan when he wasn’t writing. It is surprising (at least it surprises me) to learn that this late high modernist, this fervent disciple of Eliot and Waugh, was not far from the center of another avant-garde, the Greenwich Village Beats. Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Alan Ansen (a Harvard contemporary who’d spent a year as secretary to W.H. Auden) were close friends. Kerouac put Gaddis in The Subterraneans as Harold Sand (“a young novelist looking like Leslie Howard who’d just had a manuscript accepted and so acquired a strange grace in my eyes”). Gaddis spent the winter of 1953–1954 in Ansen’s Long Island house while Ansen was abroad. (“A house that is just the definition of a suburban house,” he told the Nappers. “But there is a vast and very select collexion of books, and a battery of records and machines to play them, and by now I’m almost mad enough to be at home only in an empty house….”)

As the manuscript (there was only one copy) traveled back and forth between Gaddis and his publishers, he grew increasingly frustrated. “Day after day passes in impatient unemployment while I wait for them to finish whatever editorial reading they appear to find necessary,” he wrote to the Nappers in August 1953. By January 1954, the novel had become the “same damned book, same parade of megalomania,” “this thing,” “this piece of present lunacy.” To another friend, “This ‘work’ bores me infinitely, a lousy long boring pretentious adolescent parade of attempts at experience.” In September 1954, it was a “half million word anagram,” and it was in this familiarly glum, pre-publication mood that he met his first wife, Patricia Black, a fashion model and aspiring actor. (“It is strange indeed on this quiet & beautifully grey afternoon, to think that you are somewhere, at this very instant, being real.”)

When at last advance reading copies were ready, in December 1954, he could not disguise his swelling ambitions for the “book which took 7 years trying to explain itself to me,” though he admitted its faults (“The bulk could have been cut down greatly, and some of the tiresome sophomorics…removed”). He arranged for a copy to be sent by Harcourt, Brace to J. Robert Oppenheimer after he read a lecture that the physicist had delivered at Columbia. Quoting Oppenheimer back to himself, he wrote:

I believe that The Recognitions was written about “the massive character of the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual and in temporal order,…” about our histories and traditions as “both bonds and barriers among us,” and our art which “brings us together and sets us apart.” And if I may go on presuming to use your words, it is a novel in which I tried my prolonged best to show “the integrity of the intimate, the detailed, the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful” standing in “massive contrast to the vastness of life, the greatness of the globe, the otherness of people, the otherness of ways, and the all-encompassing dark.”

Even though he had to use another’s words, Gaddis here achieved the best encapsulation of The Recognitions yet written.

Publication day was March 10, 1955, and it brought gigantic disappointment. Granville Hicks in The New York Times Book Review and Maxwell Geismar in the Saturday Review both condescended with faint praise and many strictures, setting the tone for a generally dismal reception. Twenty years would pass before his next novel. The critical and commercial failure of The Recognitions wounded Gaddis deeply, and bred in him a lifelong wariness of publishers (“a razor’s edge tribe between phoniness and dishonesty”). When offended by a bad review, he never forgot: Hicks, Geismar, George Steiner, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt lived on as thorns in his flesh for years after their slighting notices appeared.

He married Pat Black in May 1955, and their daughter Sarah was born in September. He took a job he loathed at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, where he wrote speeches for senior executives and reluctantly ingested the spirit of corporate capitalism that infuses JR. Meanwhile, The Recognitions began to slowly gather readers in college English departments who delighted in the features that so annoyed its newspaper reviewers—its great length, its profusion of quotations and allusions (has any novel, before or since, had so many?), its thematic intricacies, and its reputation for baffling obscurity. A trickle of letters from professors and graduate students turned into a flood.

Invitations followed, to conferences and teaching gigs. “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?” asked Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions; “the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.” Gaddis, never a shambles, always an impeccably sharp dresser, with lean, patrician good looks, became a prized academic ornament. But he never found the “general readership” he craved: “Why am I always the Best Unknown Writer in America?” he asked Joy Williams and Rust Hills in 1977.

JR, Carpenter’s Gothic, and A Frolic of His Own won him a galaxy of honors, including two National Book Awards, a MacArthur “genius” Award, a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, and many others, though they had only a small fraction of the sales enjoyed by popular novelists like, say, John Updike or Anne Tyler. He was nearly sixty when the MacArthur Award saved him from the usual hand-to-mouth exigencies of the freelance. He sent a photocopy of the Times announcement to the Nappers:

Can you imagine this! The entire thing a stunning surprise to me & I am still trying to absorb it after those 40 years of mistrustful approaches to the world and fortune: 5 years of “security”!

Puritan frugality was a part of his Gaddis heritage and of his personal character. His well-cut clothes came from thrift stores, and he was careful to recycle every aspect of his experience in his fiction. His travels in Central America and Europe went into The Recognitions; the five-year term he served at Pfizer was turned to profit in JR; his unperformed play, Once at Antietam, became part of A Frolic of His Own; and, at the end, he returned to the first long piece of writing that he’d attempted in his youth, a nonfiction essay on the player piano and the mechanization of art. The Atlantic had published a short excerpt from this piece in 1951.

Forty-five years later, in 1996, Gaddis signed a contract to write a book on the subject, provisionally titled Agapē Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano, which ultimately turned into the Beckett-like half-soliloquy, half-tirade of a dying man on prednisone (the drug Gaddis took for chronic emphysema) trying to set to rights his manuscript about the history of the player piano. Agapē Agape was first performed as a monologue on German radio, and later published as a novella in 2002, four years after Gaddis’s death. These last words form a single paragraph, ninety-six pages long, composed of epic but barely punctuated sentences that gasp desperately for breath as they swerve and redouble on themselves in the effort to articulate the predicament of art and artists in the industrial and digital age:

That’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist….

Steven Moore in his introduction to the letters worries that Gaddis might take a dim view of their publication and of the biography by Joseph Tabbi that is now in progress. More than most writers, he insisted on the primacy of the work over the life, and was temperamentally averse to interviews and journalistic profiles, which he saw as trespasses on his dignity. Yet Moore and Tabbi might take heart from the fact that Gaddis was an avid consumer of literary biography. In 1992, replying to Gregory Comnes, author of The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis, he quoted from Joseph Frank’s five-volume life of Dostoevsky, whose heroes, losing faith in God, “inevitably destroy themselves because, refusing to endure the torment of living without hope, they have become monsters in their misery.” He went on: “(& to see this rambunctious agony played out in our own time stagger through the marvelous new Stannard biography of Evelyn Waugh vol. 2).”

More than a month later, writing to Jack Green, he touched on the “future threat of publication of my letters even & ‘biography’? which is dull stuff I would proclaim having just finished v. II of Stannard’s marvelous Evelyn Waugh.” It’s true that Gaddis’s letters pale in this comparison (they lack, among other things, the concision, the mischievous invention, the appetite for gossip, the inspired malice of Waugh’s), but they add up to a complicated, rather somber self-portrait of the novelist who always felt himself to be misunderstood, and whose most repeated quotation in all of literature was the complaint in Eliot’s “Prufrock,” “That is not what I meant at all;/That is not it, at all.”

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