New York State Author, 1993-1995
“What writing is all about is what happens on the page between the reader and the page . . . What I want is a collaboration, really, with the reader on the page where the reader is also making an effort, is putting something of himself into it in the way of understanding, in the way of helping to construct the fiction that I am giving him.” - William Gaddis, Albany, April 4, 1990
William Gaddis is one of the most highly-regarded American novelists, celebrated by other writers and critics as a great innovator of contemporary fiction. New York Times Book Review contributor, George Stade, described Gaddis as “a presiding genius . . . of post-war American fiction.” Through the use of dry satire and inventive irony, he examines such social, artistic and cultural themes as the fading of American culture, the fragmentation of modern society, entropy, fraud and alienation.
Gaddis was born in New York City in 1922. Educated on Long Island and in Connecticut, he attended Harvard College, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon in 1941. He was a fact checker with the New Yorker for two years and then spent five years traveling in Central America, the Caribbean, North Africa and Paris, returning to the U. S. in 1951. It was during this time that Gaddis wrote his first novel, The Recognitions, which was published in 1955.
The Recognitions is an immense work filled with literary, historical, mythological, and religious allusions. The novel follows more than 50 characters over a 30–year period as their paths cross in New York, New England, Paris, Italy, and Spain. While the novel had little immediate impact, generally regarded as long and difficult, it was rediscovered years later as having a unique and primary place in contemporary literature. Richard Toney, in the San Francisco Review of Books, described The Recognitions 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 the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis made his living as a free-lance writer, writing speeches for corporate executives, doing public relations for companies, writing for magazines, and teaching. He received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, a Rockefeller grant and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, all of which helped him write his second novel, JR.
Published in 1975, twenty years after his first novel, JR, at 726 pages is another gargantuan, intricate novel. A satire of corporate America and its obsession with money, JR is an account of the corporate exploits of an eleven-year-old boy who amasses, through cunning and deceit, an enormous financial empire. The novel is composed almost entirely of dialogue that reads like a transcription of actual conversations with ungrammatical, incomplete sentences and constant interruptions by other characters. L. J. Davis, in his National Observer review described JR as “the equal of—if not superior to—its predecessor.” JR won the National Book Award for best fiction of the year but still did not produce commercial success for the book or widespread recognition for Gaddis.
For his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, published in 1985, Gaddis turned away from the long novels and wrote a shorter, different sort of book. Taking place over a month’s time in a Victorian house in a small Hudson River Valley town, Carpenter’s Gothic presents its author’s most characteristic themes and techniques with flair and economy. “This fine and tightly-made book shows again that Gaddis is among the first rank of contemporary American writers,” said Malcolm Bradbury in his review of Carpenter’s Gothic that appeared in The Washington Post Book World.
Gaddis’s most recent novel is A Frolic of His Own which is scheduled to be released in January 1994. In this, his forth novel, Gaddis takes on the legal system, in a funny and realistic tale of lives caught up in the toils of the law. Gaddis juxtaposes the cultural values of art, literature, and originality against the dry language of the law and the ever-present power and lure of money.
In 1982 Gaddis received the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius award” and in 1989 he was elected to the 50-member American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He recently received the 1993 Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement.
from the works of William Gaddis
“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality. But the procession up the foreign hill, bounded by cypress trees, impelled by the monotone chanting of the priest and retarded by hesitations at the fourteen stations of the Cross (not to speak of the funeral carriage in which she was riding, a white horse-drawn vehicle which resembled a baroque confectionery stand), might have ruffled the shy countenance of her soul, if it had been discernible.
The Spanish affair was the way Reverend Gwyon referred to it afterwards: not casually, but with an air of reserved preoccupation. He had had a fondness for traveling, earlier in his life; and it was this impulse to extend his boundaries which had finally given chance the field necessary to its operation (in this case, a boat bound out for Spain), and cost the life of the woman he had married six years before." — from The Recognitions
“— Coen God damn it can’t you see what I mean? Can’t you see this is what’s going to happen right here, after all it took to put all this together? Can’t you see you go public and all these people owning you want is dividends and running their stock up, you don’t give them that and they sell you out, you do and some bunch of vice presidents some place you never heard of like the ones that turned this out, this wood product they call it, they spot you and launch an offer and all of a sudden you’re working for them trimming and cutting and finally bringing in people to turn something out they don’t care what the hell it is, there’s no pride in their work because what you’ve got them turning out nobody could be proud of in the first place...” — from J R
Books by William Gaddis:
THE RECOGNITIONS. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.
JR. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
CARPENTER’S GOTHIC. New York: Viking, 1985.
A FROLIC OF HIS OWN: A NOVEL. New York: Poseidon Press, 1994.
Green, Jack. FIRE THE BASTARDS! Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992.
Johnston, John. CARNIVAL OF REPETITION: GADDIS’S THE RECOGNITIONS AND POSTMODERN THEORY.
Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.
Kuehl, John and Steven Moore, eds. IN RECOGNITION OF WILLIAM GADDIS. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984.
LeClair, Thomas. THE ART OF EXCESS: MASTERY IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN FICTION. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Moore, Steven. A READER’S GUIDE TO WILLIAM GADDIS. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
_____. WILLIAM GADDIS. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Auchincloss, Louis. “Recognizing Gaddis.” New York Times Magazine. November 15, 1987, pp. 36, 38, 41, 54, 58.
Comnes, Gregory. “A Patchwork of Conceits: Perspective and Perception in CARPENTER’S GOTHIC.” Critique, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 13–26.
Johnston, John. “JR and the Flux of Capital.” Revue Francaise d’Etudes Americaines, vol. 15, July 1990, pp. 161–71.
Ozick, Cynthia. “Fakery and Stony Truths.” New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1985, p. 1.
Weisenburger, Steven. “Contra Naturam?: Usury in William Gaddis’s JR.” Genre 13, Spring 1980, pp. 93–109.
Abady-Nagy, Zoltan. “The Art of Fiction CI: William Gaddis.” The Paris Review, vol. 29, Winter 1987, pp. 55–89.
Brabury, Malcolm. William Gaddis in Conversation. Videocassette. ICA Video in conjunction with Trilion. Northbrook, IL: Roland Collection, 1986.
“William Gaddis.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 2, Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978, pp. 162–170.
Previous Articles and Information:
William Gaddis, State Author Award Ceremony
Washington University Libraries Gaddis Site
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