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…

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