We asked our contributors a set of simple questions: what do you think Gaddis Studies has best covered already, what do you think are its prospects for the future, and what future avenues would you like to see explored?
As well as publishing Steven Moore’s centenary conference keynote on “New Directions for Gaddis Scholarship”, for this special issue of electronic book review we reached out to others who have contributed to the first hundred years of Gaddis Studies, from archival work, annotation, biography and influential scholarship. Many of Gaddis’s major early critics have retired. Fewer than half of those whose work Harold Bloom compiled in his 2004 set of Modern Critical Views on Gaddis lived to see the author’s centenary. But the next hundred years will build on the achievements of those who contributed to the first hundred.
Responses follow, in reverse alphabetical order,1Simply because our Z and A provide respectively the fullest survey of prior scholarship among our contributions, and the most direct culminating imperatives. from Anja Zeidler, Joseph Tabbi, Rone Shavers, Tom LeClair, Victoria Harding, Brigitte Félix, Tim Conley, Gregory Comnes, and Crystal Alberts.
Anja Zeidler: Past and Future, and Music
In October 2022, a conference at Washington University in St. Louis commemorated the 100th anniversary of William Gaddis’s December 1922 birth. By now, 25 years after Gaddis’s death, his complex auditory text-bodies have become classics in the canon of American literature. The 2013 (and 2023) publication of the Letters, edited by Steven Moore, add valuable biographical (sub)texts and new perspectives for all future readings of the novels, as does Joseph Tabbi’s 2015 biography presenting Gaddis' life and work as a tightly woven fabric. The increasingly documented archives, in particular, hugely enrich our knowledge of sources and our understanding of the composition process itself, as some excellent and revealing results already show (see Tabbi or Alberts on correspondences between life-events and literary narrative, or Chetwynd on the biographical sources of style). Generally, the turn from studies “often characterized by a tone of advocacy” and the wish “to enlarge his circle of readers” (Knight 22) to detailed critical exegesis has been well under way for some decades.
Gaddis scholarship up until now has produced insightful criticism on form, genre, narration, on stylistic characteristics and origins, focusing especially on J R when trying to find terms for Gaddis' unique and uncompromising dialogic form.2In this and subsequent bibliographical footnotes, I direct readers to the fuller citations in the online Gaddis bibliography at http://www.williamgaddis.org/bibliography.shtml. For formal analyses of J R see for example LeClair (Art of Excess, 1982), Félix (Conversation, dialogue, voix, J R and CG, 1988), Tabbi (Compositional Self, 1989, Technology of Quotation, 1995), Levine (Screenwriting 1998), Conley (Telephonic Satire, 2003), Chenetier (Fabric and Function of Narrative Voice, 2006), Chetwynd (Stylistic Origins, 2020). For form in The Recognitions see Safer (Allusive Mode, 1982; Ironic Allusiveness, 1988), Lathrop (Comic-Ironic Parallels, 1982), Johnston (Carnival of Repetition, 1990) Also the themes of the ever-expanding market reality and market mentality, of “art’s ever wider subjection [...] to ‘the Great Game of Exchange’” (Vanwesenbeeck 153), of art’s and the artist’s value and role in a rather disenchanted society, have been recurring topics in critical studies of Gaddis, as they were for the man himself (see for example Angela Allan’s excellent recent study on neoliberalism and the value of art). Due to the encyclopedic and allusive nature of the novels across abundant cultural, religious, and philosophical themes and aesthetic issues, interdisciplinary, intertextual, intermedial, and transgeneric critical approaches suggest themselves. Various of Gaddis’s acknowledged influences have thus been studied;3For influences and intertexts, see Fuchs or Knight on Eliot (in Miglior Fabbro, 1984, or Apophaticism, 2010), Klebes (Gaddis before Bernhard before Gaddis, 2020); Moore (Peer Gynt, 1984); Mosch (Faust Myth, 2012); Tyree (Henry Thoreau, 2004). visual art illuminates him through studies of the meaning and implications of perspective and technique of fifteenth-century Flemish painting for The Recognitions, on the importance of Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Sins Tabletop, or on the role of modern art in Gaddis' novels;4See Knight (Flemish Art, 1984) Morrissey (Recognizing a Masterpiece, 2004), Siraganian (Disciplined Nostalgia, 2009), Fahd (Centrelessness and Cubism, 2018). Mosch on Faustus (2012) includes an extended analysis of the significance of Bosch's Seven Sins Tabletop for The Recognitions. musically-informed studies elaborate on reading J R in the musical mode as Opera Comique and on the significance of Richard Wagner and his Ring Tetralogy for J R in particular,5See Irvine and Kohn (Musicology in CG, 2009), Shockley (Gaddis' Player Piano, 2009), Zeidler (Mark the Music, 2007). Wagner is addressed in chapter 5 of Moore (William Gaddis, 1989). Musical biographical background is addressed in chapter 1 of Tabbi (Nobody Grew, 2015). Gregory Comnes emphasizes the musical in Gaddis in all his critical texts. and a more general historical intermediality develops in Michael Wutz’s work examining Agapē Agape against the background of American media culture.
While Gaddis Studies has covered all these topics, I do however think that there are significant aspects of his intermediality and philosophy that need to be further analysed. Beyond the well-studied influence of other Flemish masters, I would love to see a dedicated study on Hieronymus Bosch in The Recognitions. Gaddis writes to his mother in January 1949 about “more trips to the Museo del Prado, [...] my new inspiration, [...] Hieronymus Bosch, [...] if you want some idea of the strange lands my mind is wandering now.” (Letters 135). Music and its many significations and textual realizations in Gaddis’s novels remain an even more importantly unexhausted topic. Music and hence the auditory are essential components of Gaddis’s writing at both the semantic and structural level. Direct attention to the frequent allusions to opera – Puccini’s Tosca, Verdi’s Aida, Wagner’s operas and Mozart’s, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (which scholars and philosophers like Sebastian Leikert (15) and Mladen Dolar have identified as an archetypal musical myth and basic psychoanalytical paradigm of opera) will not only point us to stories—in words and in music, of love, death, art, and power—disclosing psychological conflicts at work within and between characters, but will also open our senses to the operatic quality of Gaddis’s novels in general, with opera’s “penchant for exaggeration and its overt artifice” (Lindenberger 15). Reading Gaddis’s novels as operas of a kind directs our attention to the novels' synergistic power, highlighting polyphony and simultaneity. A close look at the way Georg Friedrich Händel on the phonograph (with Esther’s sister Rose acting as DJ) is employed and functions within the score of other songs in the many-voiced Christmas party scene at Esther’s apartment (“Living in the city, Handel was one of the first composers to be influenced by the bustle of urban activity and is said to have derived inspiration from the singing and noises in the streets,” Schafer 104) may be taken as poignant illustration of music’s organizing role in Gaddis’s artistic process. What Swedish literary critic Ulla-Britta Lagerroth promoted in her contribution on aspects of interart discourse during the First International Conference on Word and Music Studies in 1997 can find promising application in Gaddis. Within her framework, it can be said that music in his novels takes on “the function of reflecting on, problematizing and foregrounding the text’s own linguistic and textual premises,” providing a “metalanguage through musicalization [...] ‘theorizing’ of themselves by means of an interart method” (Lagerroth 199). Gaddis’s novels are examples of what Lagerroth calls “musicalized text”: “a text where the idea of music is integrated as a dynamizing agent” (206). Such medial self-reflexivity becomes poignantly apparent when one considers the play-within-the-play method at work in Gaddis (J R, for example, contains at least three fictional operas: “Philoctetes” by James Bast, “Locksley Hall” by Edward Bast, and Gibbs' improvised operetta).
The letters show that Gaddis was a reader of librettos. In March 1953 he asks his mother: “[I]f you could manage without searching at length a libretto of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman – you know I’ve had it on my mind for some time” (Letters 234). And in a letter from April the same year, he thanks her for sending that and the libretto of Tosca, “very much what I wanted, though the first is as bad as the second is good.” Music in Gaddis’s first novel is still unexplored critical territory, despite its abundant allusions and appearances. Steven Moore early on highlighted the importance of Puccini’s opera Tosca, yet a focus on the subject is still lacking. In A Frolic of His Own opera seems to have shrunk to a metaphor of the melodramatic (Harry’s repeated “The rest of it’s opera,” 11, 23, 52), but even here an allusive subtext referencing the Mozart-and-Salieri tale shines through waiting to be unearthed.6Cf. the one-act opera by Rimski-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri, based on a play by Alexander Pushkin of the same title, which is also said to have been an influence for the Milos Forman's film Amadeus. Both Pushkin and Shaffer "brought this story of envy and murder to life in distinctly different dramas." See Sabbag, Kerry, "Cain and Herostratus: Pushkin's and Shaffer's Reappropriation of the Mozart Myth." Pushkin Review 6-7: 2003-04, p25. Also compare the beginning of Pushkin's "little tragedy" to the beginning of Frolic. Generally, the list of real-world compositions and pieces of music heard and played within Gaddis’s novels is of considerable length. A count might not reach the 935 pieces gathered by Christian Hänggi in his study of musical references across all of Thomas Pynchon’s work. However, compiling such a playlist for all of Gaddis' novels for an analysis “in a statistical or otherwise empirically meaningful way” (Hänggi 183) is equally recommendable and would likewise provide insights into the possibility of meaningful groupings according, for example, to referenced places of appearance (New York, New England, Spain) or predominant genres.7One by-product of my own work on music in J R is a music compilation with the respective music mp3 files which has a place on the Gaddis Annotations site: http://www.williamgaddis.org/jr/jrmusic/index.shtml
Attention to music would include a heightened awareness of the auditory in general. Auditory-focused readings of Gaddis may well extend to what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht lately advocated as reading “with Stimmung in mind”: the hard to translate (perhaps untranslatable) German word “Stimmung” comprises the English words “mood,” “climate,” “atmosphere,” but also “voice,” “attunement,” and thus more than any English equivalent carries the musical dimension (Gumbrecht 3). Such atmosphere-oriented reading of The Recognitions may focus on the soundscape of place and setting: a close examination, that is, of the way the Greenwich Village of the 50s and its artistic Village community comes to life as an auditory felt presence, including the way music from jukeboxes, pieces sung, or pieces imagined acts as a mood-building marker and amplifier. Such too could be a reading of the autumnal staging of Carpenter’s Gothic, which for me would include attention to the way the inner mood and more melancholic tonality of Liz—a woundedness, loneliness, acute sensibility—resonates in the atmosphere of the house emanated by the (in Liz’s perception) beautiful objects and furniture (they are remnants of a past relationship not hers, “comme un petit musée,” 29), or by the music instrument evoking memories of a time music was played on it (but no longer is, and the soundboard is broken) and, last but not least, the way in which the dark schemes of the wider world outside the house echo and “harmonize” with these more private moods and atmospheres. A reading for Stimmung would also include special attention to the poetic quality of the language, and in fact to the “poetic” quality of the novel’s subject itself, summed up by Edgar Allan Poe as “the death, then, of a beautiful woman [which] is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” (Poe 486). Gumbrecht stresses that “texts affect the ‘inner feeling’ of readers in the way that weather and music do,” and that “[r]eading for Stimmung" always means paying attention to the textual dimension of the forms that envelop us and our bodies as a physical reality” (Gumbrecht 6).8He states that "the dimension of Stimmung discloses a new perspective – and possibility for – the "ontology of literature." An ontology of literature that relies on concepts derived from the sphere of Stimmung does not place the paradigm of representation front-and-center. Reading for Stimmung" always means paying attention to the textual dimension of the forms that envelop us and our bodies as a physical reality - something that can catalyze inner feelings without matters of representation necessarily being involved" (5). At one point in The Recognitions, the physical auditory reality of texts is directly thematized when Esme is reading aloud a part of a Gebrüder Grimm tale in German, not understanding the words, but enjoying their auditory impact. Gaddis’s novels have a strong physical presence if for their vocal power alone.
In Gaddis’s last novel almost all of the many incorporated texts themselves have to do with music. And it is Agapē Agape that brings forth an ontological question in musical terms when asking “but what is it?” Pozdnyshev’s definition(quoted on Agapē 75) that music “carries you off into another state of being that’s not your own, of feeling things you don’t really feel, of understanding things you don’t really understand, of being able to do things you aren’t really able to do” refers back to and creates joints with various other philosophical concepts directly or indirectly brought up throughout the novel: the moment of Socratic aporia as starting point for the philosophical quest,9On the enactment of the Socratic quest, the aporetic situation and the fertile moment of aporia see: Waldenfels, Bernhard. Das Sokratische Fragen. Aporie, Elenchos, Anamnesis. Meisenheim am Glan: Verlag Anton Hain KG, 1961. (The Socratic Questioning. Aporia, Elenchos, Anamnesis). The Platonic Dialog Menon in particular presents the necessary moment of aporia (impasse), the point where the knowledge of not-knowing turns into the movement of seeking, of longing for knowledge, and in the end “remembering” that knowledge. Aporia in Agape Agape is used with several definitions (AA 2.20: “the academics took the word from the Greeks for this swamp of ambiguity, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, anarchy,” and AA 6.10: “a game they played, the Greeks,[...] a parlour game proposing questions there was no clear answer to.”) the philosophy of play, early Nietzsche’s philosophy of music,10At one point in Agapē Agape the novel's anonymous first-person voice even assumes the role of Nietzsche's "Socrates the maker of music,” a complex concept in the argument of The Birth of Tragedy: see Nietzche 96. the concept of the Other, and last but not least, the concept of the “self who can do more” (Agapē 96), that constant multilayered leitmotif through all of Gaddis' novels. I think that Agapē Agape itself can be read as a philosophy of music, and read in the tradition of major philosophers of music, from Plato (mousiké in the control range of practical reason), the Romantic tradition of music worship, to European philosophers of the twentieth century like Adorno, Bloch, Jankélévitch, Deleuze and Guattari.11In assembling these four I follow Michael Gallope in Deep Refrains. There he focuses on the writings of these four European philosophers, "all of whom address the ineffability of music with an unprecedented level of precision. [...] From the broadest perspective, they ask: What is this nonconceptual, intoxicating, often highly technical art form that bears the force of sonic impact? And what is its philosophical significance? What does it help us think that no other medium does in quite the same way? And finally, if music can allow us to think something—if it has philosophical significance—how might it embody an ethics that resists and even disrupts the norms and strictures of modern life?" (6) By metamorphosing Pozdnyshev’s music definition into the “self-who-can-do-more” at the end of Agapē Agape, music in its effect is attributed the sense of possibility, the utopian sense, “this impulse to extend [...] boundaries” with which The Recognitions and Gwyon’s journey starts (Recognitions 3). With the musical philosophy retrieved from Agapē Agape the reader may then turn to those places in the other novels where the absence of music is explicitly thematized. “You never have music here do you?” Wyatt wonders talking to Brown, and a hundred pages later thinks the place might be less oppressive “If you had music” (Recognitions 249, 359). Gibbs during the stay at Amy’s apartment in J R asks the same question: if music is the haven of utopia, Brown’s apartment is not. The reader may equally turn to those places where music is not or cannot be performed any longer (the spinet in Carpenter’s Gothic buried under McCandless’s maps and geography books, the music room in Frolic closed down).
Beyond the musical, recourse to philosophy has proven beneficial in individual critical studies of Gaddis, though Gaddis’s philosophically-inflected critics are mostly drawing on philosophy as models for their readings, rather than pursuing direct allusions to philosophical influences and inspirations. Klaus Benesch compares Kierkegaard’s and Gaddis’s forms of repetition, Christopher Knight critiques Gaddis in light of Kant’s Third Critique and Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, John Soutter references Nietzsche, Spengler, Vaihinger, while Birger Vanwesenbeeck investigates the question of art and community within a phenomenological tradition. Beyond the philosophical musical context where he appears explicitly in Agapē, Plato’s decisive role in the novels still calls for critical treatment: his dialogues Politeiai, Phaidros, Phaidon, Menon, Kratylos, and Crito are all important in Gaddis, the first three in particular of relevance in any wider musical context.12And as editor Ali Chetwynd mentioned in a personal email “Crito, which is a direct reference in the last two Gaddis novels and was the template for the ending of Once at Antietam as early as 1960, ends with Socrates basically giving up on reason as he hears the voices of the laws in his head ‘like the mystic hears music.’” One important philosophical context that hasn’t yet been addressed is the role and significance of existentialism as philosophy and lifestyle, of interest especially for Gaddis’s first novel. Letters of 1948 reveal his reading of Sartre’s Les Mouches with “febrile excitement” (Letters 87, 101). It is also worth remembering in this context that Dostoevsky, so relevant to Gaddis himself, “was in his own right a major influence on religion, philosophy and culture in the era of existentialism” (Pattison & Kirkpatrick 182).
In close readings of Gaddis, it is a constant fascination to discover that despite the sheer length and extent of his novels, every detail, no matter how small, has its weight and significance in the grand scheme of his fictional universe. Also, certain objects and metaphors, seemingly small details, will reappear across the novels, worth attending to in intra-textual readings. J.M. Tyree, for example, follows a single quotation from Thoreau’s Walden throughout the novels from Recognitions to Frolic. Another yet-unstudied example I find quite striking and rich in implications is the statue of Laocoön appearing in gardens in both J R and Carpenter’s Gothic in the same botanical attire (by contrast to these horticultural Laocoöns, Stanley in Recognitions sees the real statue in Rome). That “Laocoön” is not only a mythic figure and famous statue but also the title of a famous essay on intermediality in the arts (among other things) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing makes this detail the more promising for a critical reading. There are at all levels these reoccuring constants in Gaddis’ work.
On the level of character, the constellation of sister and brother is notable and worth a closer look: Christina and Oscar, though stepbrother and -sister, Elizabeth and Billy, Amy Joubert and her brother Freddie, Esme and Wyatt in a more metaphorical sense… and also Edward and Stella, though cousins, but worth adding to a comparison of such constellations. They are in an emotionally problematic close “relationship,” they become siblings at least on the levels of an external resemblance—see a remark by the aunts, “Just hold still for a moment, Stella. Do you see it now, Julia? The resemblance to James?” (J R 60)—and of a mythical implication from the studio scenes between them and the beginning of the “Valkyrie” (2nd part of the Ring Tetralogy, in d minor as is the musical accompaniment in the studio scene) where Siegmund and Sieglinde meet for the first time, not knowing they are twins.
Finally, on the level of narration, of course, there is the constant of the dialogic form. While in that respect J R has received considerable analysis, Carpenter’s Gothic and Frolic are still waiting for more detailed analysis. In each of them, narration is quite different. In Carpenter’s Gothic there is the distinctly felt presence of a narrator between all the dialogue. In Frolic the feel of experiencing an actual theatrical staging is especially strong I think, suggesting—to return to the intermediality theme—transgeneric readings on the borderline between narrative and drama.
All these are only a fraction of viable suggestions for the field’s future. That field remains wide and beyond disciplinary boundaries, not to mention the treasures of the archive.
Joseph Tabbi: Biography and Future Gaddis Study
Having written William Gaddis’s biography (Nobody Grew but the Business, 2015), I’m particularly interested in how future study can further illuminate how the materials of Gaddis’s life helped create his fiction, and how that fiction then took its place in wider literary and cultural networks and systems.
Before looking forward to such future engagements with the Gaddis estate and archive, though, I should explain my own earlier archival experiences, and interactions with Gaddis scholars, his family, and his friends.
In 2009, I was contacted by Northwestern University Press regarding my interest in writing this biography. The inquiry was based on a scholarly involvement with Gaddis that had started with a 1989 article (see “The Compositional Self…”) in which I noted how Gaddis had “long been counted among the most reticent of authors,” by Tom LeClair who grouped Gaddis “in company with Pynchon, Salinger, and DeLillo.”13LeClair also cites Cynthia Ozick, reviewing Carpenter’s Gothic on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and identifying Gaddis “briefly as the writer who is famous for not being famous enough.” “Mister Difficult,” in the words of novelist Jonathan Franzen. My own involvement with Gaddis’s life, “company,” and archive began ten years later at the memorial gathering at the New York Academy of Arts and Letters in May 1999. As I note in the Acknowledgements page in my biography, the attendees and speakers that evening, among them William Gass, Don DeLillo, David Markson, Mary Caponegro, and Steven Moore, gave me a lasting impression of Gaddis’s uptown milieu. By the year 2000 I had been invited to view the Gaddis archive, before it found an institutional home. In due course, I edited and helped shepherd into publication the two posthumous books—Agapē Agape (2002) and the works collected in The Rush for Second Place (2004)—and then acted as an informal liaison between the Gaddis estate and the Special Collections at Washington University, St Louis (a half-day drive from my then home base in Chicago) which eventually housed Gaddis’s papers. Five years after Viking published Agapē and Rush, and two years after the scholarly essay collection I co-edited with Rone Shavers—Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System (2007)—Northwestern’s inquiry came at a time when the necessary archival, scholarly, and conceptual groundwork was finally in place for a biography: one that referenced a range of Gaddis scholarship and archival knowledge, while also seeking an active transnational readership in classic and contemporary U.S. novelists of world stature.
Gaddis’s “self that could do more” (and did)
In my introduction to Paper Empire, I confronted and tried to put to rest two myths about William Gaddis: that he is a “difficult” author and that his work is written for a small audience of literary connoisseurs. In the context of commercial fiction and an emerging Creative Writing discipline in American academia, Gaddis might appear marginal. But in the context of American literary studies, he is no more marginal than Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, or Ezra Pound – writers who engaged (for better or worse) in the construction of a literary tradition that knows the cultural centrality of commerce, mass media, and technological innovation but (more importantly) knows itself in conversation with a longer lasting, ever evolving world literature. When Gaddis speaks of “the self that could do more,” the more that he is suggesting exceeds biographical explorations. What is needed, as I argued in that introduction, “is to continue building the network of allusions, literary and historical references, and recognized sources for the similarly networked, similarly integrated world system that Gaddis inhabited, more fully than any American literary contemporary or follower so far” (Paper Empire 3).
It was in this sense that I wanted Nobody Grew to be a literary biography of William Gaddis. What distinguishes an author’s work as literary, on this model, is an ability to work variations on previous literary works, by writers who have created not just their own life stories and conversations with colleagues, but an ongoing intertextual, trans-national, more than personal conversation. Like Melville, Gaddis is a New Yorker rooted in a local patois who is also in conversation (and at times, contention) with the cosmopolitan world of literary arts and an emerging global culture.14Of course, in Agapē Agape Gaddis’s narrator-figure explicitly cites Melville’s struggles after the failure of Moby Dick, as does Judge Crease in A Frolic of His Own. The relevance of the two careers is often taken for granted but has yet to be systematically studied. As editor Ali Chetwynd noted in a personal email: “though the ‘failures’ of Moby Dick and Recognitions are sort of analogous […] it’s an especially interesting example/comparison in the context of your argument here about literary engagement with commerce and the mass media, because they had almost oppositely structured careers of fame and failure. Melville had his success and then lost his literary centrality, then regained it after he died for the very things he either lost it with (Moby Dick) or wrote while lamenting its loss (“Bartleby,” “Cereno,” etc). Gaddis never had early-Melville levels of success to lose, but his concern with that early failure set him on a path where, by the end of his life he was better regarded and more re/awarded than Melville at the end of his.”
What these distinctions in his acknowledged relationship to Melville tell us about Gaddis’s work is for future study to parse. These are the kinds of explorations and distinctions I hoped my biography might provoke. Chetwynd’s email also identified parallels and distinctions in the way the two authors’ early travels gave them the “global” perspectives I discuss. I hope there will be more study of Gaddis’s literary and institutional biography in light of the authors he explicitly identified as transnational or transhistorical peers. Like Pound, Gaddis is a writer whose work can be shown to define an “era.” Indeed, if literary scholar Hugh Kenner was able to condense a cumulative view of literary modernism in his part biographical, part scholarly work, The Pound Era (1971), I conceived, as I began the biography, that I might seek out ways for my own scholarship to offer something similar: a profile not just of Gaddis but of numerous major (and occasionally contentious) authors who together could knowingly contribute to an evolving world literature, written not just for one another but for an audience that forms itself across the generations. The biography of Gaddis could then open into an account of an entire period in post-war writing in America – a period that spans economic and trans-national boundaries that Gaddis lived through, felt, and documented more fully, arguably, by intertextual engagements with contemporary as well as established novelists. Future Gaddis studies can develop this account of another, wholly literary era.
The Personal, the Biographical, and the Generational
The biographical was not a simple category for Gaddis and his generation. At various stages of my scholarly career, I have been in close and extended conversation with authors who knew Gaddis personally; among them: Robert Coover, Sarah Gaddis, Mary Caponegro, David Markson, and Joseph McElroy. While researching the work of Thomas Pynchon during my last year as an undergraduate at Cornell University, I discovered the importance of Gaddis to this similarly reclusive author. At that time and place, Pynchon was Gaddis’s sole competitor in being recognized as a leading literary author of the post-world-war generations in the USA. This stature and significance meant that by the year 2015, a Gaddis biography could thus engage, not just the documentation and narrative presentation of one author’s professional and publication history, but the way this lifework was closely observed by peers, how each book was anticipated and received, and the influence of the work on authors who, many of them, were like Gaddis: partly insiders in the New York City publishing scene, in academia, and in business, but able to distance themselves imaginatively from professional assumptions and unreflective corporate collaborations.
One thing all the above-mentioned postwar, postmodernist authors have in common is an avowed distrust of the “personal” and, by extension, the biographical in literary art. This predisposition was expressed to me by Coover, when I asked him in an email if he knew of any biographies under way on Gaddis, or if for that matter anything was being written on Coover himself (who registered his own sense of not just an era’s ending, but the twilight of the age of print itself in his NY Times essay of 1995, “The End of Books”). In response to my email, he wrote:
Thanks, too, for the flattering suggestion, but as for biographies, I have to say I’m not at all interested in them. My favorite biography is Shakespeare’s, only insofar as any so called “facts” are removed, unless they are clearly shown to be creative inventions, as most are.
No, gratefully, there are no biographies under way that I’m aware of.
This is the voice of a writer not at the end of modernism, post-modernism, humanism, or other cultural periodization – but at the concrete end of an era when the printed book predominates as a source of information, knowledge, and entertainment. The skepticism in particular toward biography is shared by this generation of writers and can be understood partly in reaction to the onslaught of new media and noisy, raw, ubiquitous information. The literary skeptic also, understandably, resists the celebrity culture where even a life, in its final figuration, can be turned into a cultural commodity. As Gaddis himself said in a March 1970 letter to David Markson:
My feeling essentially is that a book really goes out on its own, for the human remains that wrote it to run along after it is suicidal since there’s no clear separating them until the mortal partner drops (Letters 325-6).
Yet the works of Gaddis, Coover, Markson, and other leading authors of this generation are filled with “so called ‘facts’” whose revisiting in a biography can illuminate both the life of an artist and the culture generally. But illuminating only if the fact-finding is done with a sensitivity to how information is used and transformed imaginatively in works of literature, and in a life primarily devoted to the creation of printed books that (like the authors themselves) persist while remaining slightly distant from the newly predominant, digital modes of communication and cultural exchange.
To write comprehensively on Gaddis meant interviewing family and business acquaintances, but also a range of writers influenced by his work. In preparing the posthumous publications, Agapē Agape and The Rush for Second Place, I worked with the immediate family and counted on their cooperation in documenting their father’s personal and professional fortunes, and also in providing me with introductions to Gaddis’s surviving friends and intimates. The fact that Gaddis’s daughter and son are artists – a novelist and a filmmaker – reinforced my ability to present the narrative of a distinctly literary life, and legacy. The literary and the biographical (or factual) do not have to be so separate as writers of Gaddis’s and Coover’s generation sometimes implied, and the future study of Gaddis can benefit from further exploration of this seam.
Further Archival Scholarship, and Prospective Futures
My biography was able to build on a small corpus of Gaddis scholarship with a biographical or archival emphasis, from Peter Koenig’s 1970s study of the composition history of The Recognitions to Crystal Alberts’s work of the 2000s (including her contribution to Paper Empire) that gives an overview of Gaddis’s life based on her curatorship of the archive during her graduate studies at Washington University. Steven Moore, for his part, has collected numerous biographical details in his many essays and annotations (published in print and online) to each of Gaddis’s works, and his contribution to this special issue of ebr provides even more biographical information, alongside his own projections for the future of Gaddis studies. His edition of Gaddis’s Letters brought further biographical material and information to public knowledge. Further archivally-grounded scholarship has emerged since the biography and the Letters were published, and much remains to be discovered.
The centenary conference of 2022—first airing for much of the further historical, contextual, or biographical information compiled in this special issue of electronic book review—was co-organized by the special collections librarian who oversees Gaddis’s archive (Joel Minor) and an academic who has published on that archive (Ali Chetwynd). The importance of archival material to that event, its papers and exhibitions, made clear the future impact that an incoming generation of scholars could have, as their study of Gaddis can be increasingly informed by accurate archival knowledge of his biography. The special collections library’s publicizing efforts have made the archive in St Louis available to visitors from around the world. Further scholarly attention to this material can open up new areas for studying how Gaddis’s works engage with that world.
At the time I wrote the biography, circa 2015, I noticed that there was “as yet no considered feminist, postcolonial, or neo imperialist response to the novels” written by Gaddis (Nobody Grew 157). That could not be said, a decade later, about the subsequent scholarly responses to Gaddis, and particularly those featured at the 2022 conference and this centenary ebr special issue. The imaginative distance separating professional and political, corporatist and collective initiatives has been crossed by a literary generation that is now (at its best) able to document unprecedented (and continuing) world-transformations while also, crucially, imagining different ways of living under the regime of capital and an American-led commercial culture grown to world-wide (dis)proportions. Even in the compilation of brief pieces that concludes this special issue, for example, we find Lalita Kashoba Mohan locating Gaddis at once within the “American Antihero Tradition” and as a transnational, intertextual source for “his Indian Inheritors,” while personal reflections by Gaddis-influenced artists—notably Rick Moody who tells the story of how he got a publisher to sign up A Frolic of His Own and then how they lost the manuscript—situate Gaddis concretely within the recent history of American arts.
Moody’s reflections on the Creative Writing courses at Brown University (long Coover’s home base) are particularly noteworthy because, in his description of his own seminar:
Everybody kept taking the class because it was so rewarding, was such a community, and in time it became a crew of highly motivated undergraduate writers.
That’s all I was thinking about. It was all I cared about: What were these renegade writers up to and when were we going to see more?
What the writers share, arguably, is a common interest in building, along with innovative narratives, new models for imagining and sustainable communities for reading and circulating literary works. Further study of Gaddis might best focus on directly developing this project. It is precisely by way of inter- and intra-active sharing within and among databases that a sustainable literary community can reconceive both the anticipations and legacy of authors such as Gaddis.
Rone Shavers: Gaddis and the Need for Critique
As long as The Recognitions and J R remain available to a reading public (or even sometimes spoken of, given the near-cult status Gaddis’s initial two novels have achieved and the devotion they evoke among the author’s fans), there will be scholars willing to take on the task of writing essays about the importance of including Gaddis’s works within the American literary canon, and therein lies the problem. Gaddis and his works are already canonized, and thus most critics who argue for Gaddis’s importance are more or less burnishing their reputations by preaching to the choir, so to speak. Perhaps because, as Cynthia Ozick once so aptly put it, Gaddis is “famous for not being famous enough,” Gaddis Studies has always been as much about a kind of pro-Gaddis advocacy as it has been about the analysis and explication of his texts, but the result of such vigorous author-advocacy has been to create a school of orthodoxy, an imbalance within Gaddis Studies (one that leaves it quite out of step with the larger field of contemporary literary criticism) wherein any critique of Gaddis or a Gaddis text is anathema, for thou shalt speak no ill of Gaddis.
Therefore, to correct this imbalance, I am of the opinion that for the field of Gaddis Studies to grow and expand, for a new generation of academics and critics to unpack and analyze Gaddis’s texts, critical space must be given to those who approach both Gaddis and the work he created as concurrent (and oftentimes, contradictory) constructed texts. In other words, we must be receptive to those who opt to judge Gaddis’s oeuvre according to when, why, and how his texts represent, present, and re-present social power dynamics according to cultural, economic, gender, racial, and sexual difference, for too often when discussing Gaddis’s books these things get dismissed as somehow “political” concerns that are not at all “about,” or germane to, his novels.15To be clear, I am not calling for scholars and critics to stop writing studies that are fundamentally pro-Gaddis or argue for Gaddis’s importance to American Arts and Letters. I am stating that Gaddis studies needs to be more receptive to works that include critiques—as well as celebrations—of Gaddis’s texts based on contemporary theoretical trends and ideas, because in order for Gaddis studies to survive, the field must move away from its current point of producing and promoting work that amounts to soft hagiography. The notion of the critical must be re-introduced to Gaddis criticism.
Yes, there are those, myself included, who love to discourse about the form and formal constructs within Gaddis’s novels, but we must make room for those who argue that the context in which Gaddis’s books were created is equally as important as their content. The field doesn’t need to shift to full-blown New Historicist analyses of his books, but we shouldn’t completely ignore those works that incorporate New Historical approaches and techniques either. In fact, quite a fruitful and fecund way to read Gaddis would be to read his texts as evidence of cis white male existential anxiety, especially since from the mid-1960s onward, the social position of cis white males has correctly undergone a long, slow, and inevitable descent from its perch as the assumed focal point of American identity and experience. In each Gaddis novel there is at least one male character who overtly laments the fact that a Eurocentric, cis white male identity is slowly losing its ideological—and I might add, perpetually, completely imagined—status as the apex of human subjectivity. Even a cursory read of Gaddis’s later fiction works (Carpenter’s Gothic, A Frolic of His Own, and Agapē Agape) is enough to indicate how those particular texts are more than well-suited for this kind of critical and aesthetic intervention, as they are the ones where this anxiety of waning influence is often explicitly and repeatedly mentioned and dramatized.16Moreover, such interventions would address the dearth of serious critical analyses of Gaddis’s later works. Space prevents me from making too much of it, but an unintended consequence of so much attention being given to Gaddis’s first two novels is that Gaddis scholars have inadvertently relegated Gaddis’s other, later, much shorter fictions to a realm of “minor literature,” wherein they are spoken of, when noted, with high regard, though seldom examined. However, the shorter length alone of the later works make them easier to include in syllabi, and perhaps if more critical attention were given to them, there wouldn’t be such perennial hand-wringing over how to teach Gaddis or introduce his material in undergraduate academic settings.
All to say that the field needs the infusion of energy that contemporary theoretical developments and critical perspectives, along with their extant modes of inquiry, will bring. We don’t need another essay arguing for Gaddis’s relevance and importance to the American literary canon; neither, for that matter, how sharply his texts critique capitalism, nor another impassioned screed concerning how Gaddis should be judged and only be judged according to his work and solely what’s in his work, no matter The Recognitions’ most famous line.17Of course, I refer to “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around” (Recognitions 97). I say that because while it’s nice to read books in a manner reminiscent of New Criticism, in the scores of years since New Criticism first reared its head, we’ve come to recognize such readings as fundamentally problematic because they are basically a way of whitewashing an author’s politics, the prejudicial hatreds and biases that may (or may not) appear in the text.
So now, if a critic wants to call out Gaddis’s work for having racialist, sexist, ableist, or other discriminatory undertones in order to make a larger statement about the state and material conditions of American arts and letters, we should let them. Especially since there are indeed characters in Gaddis’s novels who voice racialist, sexist, and a whole host of other prejudicial views. It also needs to be said that there are scenes and passages and even glib, offhand statements that can be isolated, read, examined, re-read, and presented as evidence of maybe not pernicious bias, but bias nonetheless. What I am ultimately calling for, then, is scholarship that helps to clearly delineate the difference between the (let’s call it, “conscious”) politics of the author, the (self-conscious) politics present in the text, and the politics the text tacitly preserves or endorses (the political unconscious), because those distinctions, important as they are to reading and understanding Gaddis, have to my knowledge never been addressed by those in Gaddis Studies in any significant, critical way.
Rather than excuse or elide the fact that there could potentially be bias in a Gaddis text, as has been done in the past, Gaddis Studies desperately needs those scholars and critics willing to distinguish and parse the politics to be found in Gaddis’s individual texts and overall oeuvre. Since to be political is to be inherently, essentially biased in some form or fashion towards one particular belief or set of ideas over another, it’s disingenuous to pretend that bias isn’t present in Gaddis’s work, because it’s definitely there. And well, of course it’s there: Views that we now consider to be malignantly repressive towards select categories of people within America were propagated—and more often than not, normalized—in the public thought and discourse of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, 2010s, and even in some very influential religious, political, and cultural circles, circa now. In other words, it is neither intellectually nor critically productive to claim that accusations of bias in a Gaddis text is political correctness run amok; reading and exposing whatever bias is present in a Gaddis novel is to read the text as one that is both reflective of and reactive to its time.18To cite one example of work-in-progress new scholarship that simultaneously highlights and critiques what Gaddis’s books supposedly highlight and critique, the scholar Yonina Hoffman is doing some really fascinating work reading scenes from J R vis-à-vis colonizing discourse and the colonial impulse.
Thus, Gaddis scholars must find the temerity to address the specter of gender, racial, and social-economic hierarchies in both their interpretations of Gaddis’s works and their explications of why his texts matter. It shouldn’t be that hard to do, for Gaddis wrote great books, yes, but great books nevertheless contain obvious shortcomings and flaws. So, rather than yet another lionizing essay or group festschrift, the field of Gaddis Studies should learn to make way for those critics who are willing to seriously engage with Gaddis’s oeuvre while simultaneously engaging in serious critiques of it. Essentially, more than anything else, the field needs to be more receptive to those scholars who, if I can borrow a line from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, approach Gaddis and his works with an attitude of, “Can’t I love what I criticize?”
Tom LeClair: Mr Difficult
Invited to participate in this forum, I went back to Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Mr. Difficult” which has probably had way too much influence on Gaddis’s status (to use a Franzen word), particularly among non-specialists. I had somehow forgotten that the essay was not an attack just on Gaddis but on me and the “systems novel,” a concept I used to discuss J R, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Public Burning, and other science-influenced novels in The Art of Excess (1989). Now an old man and no longer an academic critic, I wonder if I could have been wrong about the value of those large data-rich novels of the 1970s and 80s that were registering the new paradigm of information theory. If so, I have extended my error by praising the more recent systems-inflected work of David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, Evan Dara, Tom McCarthy, Joshua Ferris, Cormac McCarthy, and Joshua Cohen (my guilt for assembling an all-male and all-white cast will have to wait for another occasion).
I don’t have the space to establish the influence of Gaddis on some of these writers, as well as Don DeLillo, so I’ll offer Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (2015)—which describes in technical detail the invention of an Internet search engine called “Tetraton”—as a prime latter-day exhibit in a defense of J R as a seminal work. (Partial disclosure: Cohen, an admirer of Gaddis, has credited me with inventing the term “systems novel.”) Gaddis knew some basic cybernetics (he told me in our interview) from his reading of Norbert Wiener, and he did work for IBM. Forty years after J R, Cohen had Google and non-fiction works about its history to use as bases for his novel, which is much more explicit than Gaddis was about the sorting of information, its use for surveillance, and the disseminating of misinformation through the kind of dangerous noise that conspiracy theorists like Trump could feed into the social media ecosystem. More than any of those earlier systems novels, J R predicted our current information ecology, which Cohen anatomizes with the kind of research-density we associate with Pynchon. It’s my hope that Cohen, others I’ve mentioned, and writers yet to emerge will continue to read Gaddis and write Gaddis-like novels of information rather than the more saleable books DeLillo (an admirer of Gaddis) called “around the house and in the garden” fiction. I also hope that future Gaddis scholars will investigate his influence on new fiction, perhaps a better way to diminish Franzen’s unfortunate leverage and to bring readers to Gaddis than can be achieved by investigating Gaddis arcana alone.
Franzen says, in a remarkably stupid remark, that his reading of J R was “defeated by his noisy life.” Stupid because the novel is about noise in every area of life, particularly in music. Noise causes difficulty—and creativity according to Michel Serres’s The Parasite. Gaddis knew both, and I’ve always admired his willingness to give up the more distinctly literary pleasures of The Recognitions for the noisy imitative form of J R with its constant talk displacing elegant, allusive writing. Franzen knew very well what Gaddis was up to and what he chose to sacrifice to create an alarming encyclopedia of noise, but Franzen needed a scapegoat that would give him a negative rationale for writing the easy-listening fiction that he has published since his essay in 2002. Franzen’s distinction between novels of “Status” and novels of “Contract” was specious: all novels set the terms of their contract with the reader. Gaddis’s novels never pretend to be other than what they are.19You can see more of my critique of Franzen on Gaddis in my review of Franzen’s novel Purity: https://www.thedailybeast.com/jonathan-franzens-icky-secrets.
In my own final novel, I wanted to tip my hat to Gaddis, so I referred to him in Passing Again and wrote most of it, like J R, in dialogue—some of which exists not on the page but on the publisher’s website, a tree-saving invention of information technology that Gaddis, always buried in paper, might have appreciated. He and I quarrelled over publishing our interview, which he didn’t want to take the time to edit and expand (it was published with the permission of his estate after his death). That was my personal experience of his famous litigiousness, but I have never doubted or forgotten the mastery of Gaddis. I thank the forum for reminding me—and perhaps others—of the whining philistinism of Franzen.
Victoria Harding: “Between the Reader and the Page”
“I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.”
Gaddis accepts the National Book Award in Fiction for J R: New York, April 21, 1976
“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.”
Gaddis accepts the role of New York State Author: Albany, April 4, 1990
Every novel includes everything needed to understand and enjoy it, in my view, and moreover, a reader needn’t even know who wrote a novel, let alone what he or she intended or said about it. So the future Gaddis studies I’d want to read would not refer to the author, or to his comments anywhere about anything, including what’s in the novels he wrote, but focus on “what happens between the reader and the page,” which Gaddis wished to be primary, as he said or implied on several occasions, including at the National Book Award or New York State Author acceptances I quote above. I believe that within these limitations, there are certain engaging and pleasurable aspects of his novels that researchers can valuably explore: here are three ideas that can be discussed purely in relationship to the novels themselves, which I would enjoy reading and thinking about.
- A feeling of excess—exaggeration or detail overload—inhabits all Gaddis’s novels: they are too long, have too many characters, whose emotions are too strongly expressed or not at all, they describe extreme situations, pile on too many known and unknown epigraphs and references, feature excessive personalities set in scenes set with seemingly endless details in which characters speak with extreme mannerisms. As noted on williamgaddis.org, Gaddis discovered Thomas Bernhard late in life, felt he was his “Cicero for all future engagements,” and was writing in his version of Bernhard’s excessive style when he died. What’s the reason for this excess, this exaggeration? How does it function and to what ends?
- That Gaddis is considered “difficult” to read is due at least in part to his novels’ thousands of references to all manner of events and writings and ideas, literary, philosophical, scientific, and more, most visibly evident in the multiple epigraphs that preface not only The Recognitions itself, but every chapter within it. In addition there are a plethora of references to literature, history, philosophy, religion, and current events, down to objects and ideas from everyday life scattered throughout the text in all the books. Why is this so? Do we have to worry what each of these references is and what they might mean in the context of each book if we want to fully experience that book? Or is there something about the overall reference-heavy nature of the novels that we experience regardless of what each individual reference is to? What would be the experience if we were simply given the plots or stories narrated without this density of reference, and what then does it add to our actual experience? What effect does this approach have in each novel, similar or different?
- What happens to our experience and understanding of characters when, due to Gaddis’ techniques, they in effect have to present and define themselves and each other within the story of each novel? Are the same range of characters possible without a narratorial voice setting them up for the reader? For example, can we have a very quiet, even silent, character in a novel consisting almost entirely of speech? After The Recognitions we have no traditional sense of a narrator: the little narration available is broken and allusive. Put another way, are the kinds of characters defined at least in part by the largely conventional narration in The Recognitions possible in a story without narration? What is gained or lost when narration is limited or absent? Finally, as they each actually use their limited narration very differently, is it really accurate to more or less group the three later books (before Agapē Agape) as “dialogue novels”? How exactly do they differ from each other, and how does this affect how we experience them?
Again, these investigations would not be concerned about where things come from, which in any case is largely conjecture based on often questionable evidence – including what Gaddis or any author says about his/her own writing, intentions being not the same as results – but focus on what is in the works themselves, and how the style in which that content is presented operates and what effect it has within each work.
Brigitte Félix: Archive, Composition, and what’s “Out There.”
Joseph Conway, in a discussion of the “formal strategies” at work in The Recognitions, notes that understanding the interconnected intricacies of Gaddis’s narratives and their no less elaborate relations to the “real world” requires “additional eyes, a society of additional readers and, especially, critics” (85). That role for critics, though, can only be limited: Rick Moody noted in introducing a 2003 “Portfolio” of appreciations that “any attempt to arrive at an exhaustive critical analysis of Gaddis’s output seems doomed to little more than provisional usefulness” (374). The failure of any attempt at an exhaustive reading may be programmatically contained in Gaddis’s fundamental conviction that (as Jack Gibbs says in J R) “the very possibility of failure [is] a condition for success precisely in the arts” (604). All these quotations honour Gaddis’s fiction in emphasizing that the work of art cannot but exceed criticism. Yet Moody’s portfolio also came at a time when Gaddis criticism was in a relatively low tide: the opening of the William Gaddis Papers archive at Washington University in St. Louis in March 2002 seems to have contributed to the subsequent renewal of critical interest.
I’ll argue below for some further directions in Gaddis scholarship: more historical work on the archive; more fine-grained analysis of the textual fabric in the novels, of how Gaddis’s practice of composition generated that fabric, and of what this demands of readers; and finally, three less obvious directions about his textual handling of relations between discourse and the world “out there.”
The archive and the texts: an exploration to be continued
Three publications rooted in access to Gaddis’s archive paved the way for a revival of Gaddis scholarship in the 2000s. Joseph Tabbi introduced the 2007 collection of essays Paper Empire by noting that “[n]ow that the body of work is complete” and “the archive available”, the “challenge to Gaddis scholarship and criticism […] is to bring this work and its readers in touch with affiliated threads in the newly emerging […] networks linking narrative, philosophy, literary theory, and the visual and sound arts” (4). This imperative, rooted in the archive, revised previous poststructuralist readings that had overemphasized Gaddis’s deceptively anti-mimetic writing as pure, Derridean textual play. Paper Empire thus ended with two biographical essays, by Crystal Alberts and Steven Moore, which—in surveying the archive and tracing Agapē Agape’s composition history—got at the experiences Gaddis himself located, in a pre-Recognitions letter, “on the spot in Real Life” (Letters 211).
Alberts herself co-edited The Last of Something (2009), opening with her “Mapping William Gaddis” which convincingly argues for the use of biographical material (here, mainly Gaddis’s notes from travel in Spain) in order, not to nourish an autobiographical interpretation of fictional facts, but to explore the significance Gaddis conferred upon the incorporation of “personal observations” in and for his writing. In terms reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller,” Alberts argues that the “communication of actual experience” is “key to the creative act and the success of art” (18-19), which implies that the writer “must live the experience” (19).
The fullest synthesis yet of the archive with Gaddis’s published writings, Tabbi’s 2015 Gaddis biography Nobody Grew but the Business must now be the starting point for any young Gaddis scholar. Fragments from the archive had been presented before (most fully in Tabbi’s edition of some of Gaddis’s Essays and Occasional Writings in The Rush for Second Place (2004)), but Nobody Grew brings such material to bear on the complete arc of the writer’s existence. Tabbi places the genesis and history of Gaddis’s literary works at the heart of this biographical narrative, in chapters revolving around the history and circumstances proper to each of the individual works. Yet in total, the eras of The Recognitions and J R take up almost two thirds of the biographical account. This may be why, in his keynote address at the 2022 Gaddis Centenary conference, Steven Moore deemed that a longer biography might be useful. Ample archival matter remains to be mined, which could supplement Tabbi’s deliberately selective biography. Even from a more fully biographical, less novel-focused account, it is highly probable that other references and sources quoted or alluded to in the novels will be uncovered. And this would complement Tabbi’s media-oriented and cognitive frame of analysis, in which it is essential, for a better understanding of Gaddis’s poetics of fiction writing, that the significance of quotations and cultural references should be studied within the context of their presence on the page.20As Tabbi would have it, not in relation to the author’s idiosyncratic use of “‘allusions’ in the self-regarding mode of literary modernism,” but as a way “of inhabiting an earlier aesthetic from within one’s own, quite different media environment, closer to the post-digital art of remixing […]” (Nobody Grew 131).
The relative brevity of Nobody Grew but the Business is one of its merits, not least in having allowed for a quicker publication to bring the Gaddis papers to early public attention. Nevertheless, it deals comparatively briefly with the last three novels, and the archive might provide additional and valuable contextualizations for them in particular. There’s room for another, longer biography, provided it makes available more sources regarding the creative process at work, especially Gaddis’s references, readings, and notes.
Composition and text, writer and reader
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”
Gaddis accepts the role of New York State Author: Albany, April 4, 1990
Reading William Gaddis is to rediscover the experience of reading as such, a complex and demanding process that his novels render less smoothly habitual. What kind of “collaboration” does Gaddis expect from his readers? Deep attention, certainly, but what about the time it takes? What pragmatics of reading for the Gaddis text? How does one manage to read the novels? There’s an echo of Gaddis’s language here in Tabbi’s assertion that it is crucial “for any appreciation of Gaddis’s accomplishment, [that] while reading we continue (while never completing) the process that went into the compositions of the novel” (Nobody Grew 200). On this model, the “fabled authorial absence” of Gaddis—which the study of the narrative-descriptive passages in the novels invite us to qualify—serves to “reconfigure the relation between the author and his audiences in such a way that both are made to inhabit the systems and networks that define our present economy and culture” (Nobody Grew 131).
This kind of connection between the concerns of Gaddis’s novels and the distinctive experience of reading them is something that further study could elucidate. Scholars might benefit from the digital humanities’ concern with the writing/reading operation as “not only a semiotic encoding/decoding but a material practice as well” (Hayles 211), might pursue Umberto Eco’s idea in The Role of the Reader that a story is being told about you as a reader of the text you are now reading (consider how many acts of reading are narrated in Gaddis’s novels), or might develop William Gass’s claim that J R is an exemplar for how “the contemporary text is not made for a reading,” not picked up “in order to read it, but to ready oneself to read it” (156). Then, as Gregory Comnes suggests, we might extend the “understanding of a poetics of William Gaddis” to “a more generalized poetics for reading contemporary texts” (“Aporetics” 59). Stephen Burn’s work on Gaddis in the context of the data novel examines potential heirs (Powers, Wallace, Franzen) to the approach Gaddis’s texts take to their readers. As Comnes and Gass both note, Gaddis’s texts require that “[r]eaders must situate themselves inside the text, listening as much as reading,” which challenges “the inference patterns of vision-centered epistemologies” (Comnes “Aporetics” 59).
A greater focus on readerly experience does not have to be entirely distinct from the archival work I’ve also suggested above. Recent scholarship drawing on the archive – first drafts, notes, and other writings – shows how close textual reading can be enhanced by external sources. Both Alberts (using Gaddis’s travel notes to reassess the function of descriptions of Spain in The Recognitions) and Ali Chetwynd (who in “Stylistic Origins” uses Gaddis’s corporate writings and archival timelines to establish how the distinctive style of J R evolved) have used the archival material in pursuit of more precise formal analysis. Between the reader and the page comes the sentence that makes the text. Joseph Conway has examined Gaddis’s writing at the sentence level, showing how his language does not represent any problem but “unfolds as the problem itself.” After these studies, one wishes that more stylistic scholarship might follow. How are sentences composed in the descriptive passages whose very shape determines the narrative? And how does the reader “navigate” the sentence in reading the novels?
From the sentence to the word: close attention to the words themselves is what Gaddis’s characters constantly require of one another and what Gaddis himself expects from his readers. An example can be drawn from a narrative passage of a single long sentence on page 29 of A Frolic of His Own, which contains a rare authorial “we.” The sentence begins like parody of conventional omniscient narration—“And so we may as well begin this sad story with the document that has set things off”—but unfurls to incorporate further voices – characters’ free-indirect thoughts, quotation of their earlier saying, legal language, and finally a statement identified as a quotation by its inverted commas, but where the source is not identified: “reality may not exist at all except in the words in which it presents itself” (Frolic 30).21Originally in Larzer Ziff’s Literary Democracy (1981). The source (so a reader who does their extra-textual research can discover) is a critic’s comment on Melville’s Confidence-Man.22A novel whose last word, “masquerade,” appears in The Recognitions’s opening sentence, while the school scenes in J R contain TV-teaching propaganda for “confidence.” The line can be read metatextually as highlighting a dominant theme in the novel. The Melville allusion, meanwhile, highlights that author’s importance to Gaddis: Moby Dick’s catastrophic reception is cited in the first legal document in the novel (the first of Judge Crease’s in-text opinions) to establish Melville as a paradigm for how the “serious artist” will necessarily risk “attracting defamatory attentions from his colleagues and even raucous demonstrations by an outraged public” (39). The words Crease uses to encapsulate the condemnation of Moby Dick—“a huge dose of hyperbolic slang, maudlin sentimentalism and tragic-comic bubble and squeak”—read like a proleptic description of A Frolic of His Own with its surfeit of legal jargon, love affairs, tragedy-comedy oscillations, and leitmotifs.23Like Lily’s recurrent “it’s spooky.” Whether in citation, dialogic tic, leitmotif, narration, or in the relations between the inserted play Once at Antietam and the novel’s present action, words and their repetitive, evolving circulation create the kinds of alternative structuring that has been studied in J R and The Recognitions, but not enough (yet) in the later novels.
Future Gaddis critical readings should repair the comparative neglect of A Frolic of His Own, not least because it has its own complex ways of establishing “collaboration” with readers through complex patterns of language. As Oscar reads aloud from his play, “bracing himself as though facing an audience intent for the facts not the words, not the sound of the language but its straightforward artless function” (423), the narrative voice reiterates the claims about the role of art made by Judge Crease (a character who wants to “rescue the language” 285). The narration here contains a sort of implicit reader’s guide: pay attention to the words and the sounds of language, the art of it all: doing so can let us make sense of the contrast between Oscar’s “artless” audience and the sonorous (perhaps even parodic) sibilance of the poetic image of the “serenity of swans [that] skirted the skin of ice” outside his window as he pessimistically declaims.
Other directions, “out there”
As that scene outside the window conveys, Gaddis’s fictions contain a dual world: discursive control and power, on the one hand, and on the other the linguistic indications of a natural world “out there.” This is no simple dichotomy between fiction and reality, but an ongoing mutual constitution. In J R, for example, we see Gibbs figuratively drowning in his messy attempts to order his text : “he fell back on the low bed, flung out there still as a man cast up by the sea when light caught the window and gave it definition, finally filled it leaving the overhead a yellowed pall and the buildings wide across the way in the sunlight undulant through the cheap glass pane like a part of a submarine landscape” (414, my emphases). The frontier between the discursive world and natural elements “out there” is porous; the passage’s marine metaphor contaminates Gibbs’s linguistic experience while nevertheless acting as a countervoice outside the system, where independent things—like this light—live a life of their own. The voice is both close and distant, paradoxically under the threat of annihilation but bringing the promise of some form (some “definition”) emerging from the phenomenal world to counter the entropic chaos inside the Manhattan apartment where the scene is set. This relation of the language-system and the things beyond it animates my three final suggestions for further study on Gaddis.
First, there is the case for more direct study of how language and world interact at the formal and stylistic level. Marc Chénetier’s “Centaur Meditating on a Saddle” undermined the myth that J R is all dialogue, both statistically (showing that the novel is almost 1/6 narration), and in arguing that the narration of the external world is where “authorial control is at its most powerful, where the poetic surge and life of the text become palpable” (12). Tabbi too finds these passages to be where “the book’s themes are stated, repeated” and where the author “is present […] not as a narrator but as an actively shaping imagination” (Nobody Grew 169). Emblematized by the recurrent adverbial phrase “out there,” that other world of natural landscapes where the nonhuman world, animals, and plants may appear figures prominently in Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of His Own. Could the transitional paragraph evoking the natural world in Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of His Own be analyzed in ecocritical terms? Gaddis’s fictions, especially from J R onward, all bear witness to the destruction of the “environment,” but what of less thematically loaded elements like notations about the weather, the quality of the light, the motions of a squirrel across a lawn: something is happening “out there” in Gaddis’s dialogue-heavy novels, and exactly what is happening needs more study.
My second suggestion is an uptake of Moody’s remark that “What gets lost in the debate about Gaddis is how much delight there is in him, both on the surface of his novels and in their subcutaneous pulsations. When we lost the voice of William Gaddis, we lost one of very few American writers who could produce genuine comedy without sacrificing literary values” (374).24Moody was writing at a time when public understanding of Gaddis was conditioned by Jonathan Franzen’s then-recent “Mr. Difficult,” which targeted Gaddis’s work for unwelcoming “difficulty.” The few critical discussions of Gaddis’s comic aspects date back to the 1980s and 1990s, with Bakhtinian readings tending to emphasize the subversive, not the comedy. There’s much to be said, for example, about the use of Rabelais in J R, and even the crepuscular mood of Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of His Own does not remove the comedy of language from its central role in making Gaddis’s worlds and characters.
Finally, the third subject I find under-discussed is the visual aspect of the books: their use of typographical devices and page layout. Because Gaddis wrote before the “pictorial turn,” before the advent of the digital age heightened preoccupations with the materiality of the book, his visual devices are limited in scope and number. But they are significant in ways not yet studied. Variations in font size, capitals, bold type or italics, can be found in all the books. In J R variations in font sizes are used to create visual equivalents for variations in the loudness of the radio and other media voices. In A Frolic of His Own, the texts that are “imported” into the novel as “documents” (the legal opinions, the deposition, the excerpts from the play Once at Antietam) are typographically distinguished from the “main” narrative.25A debatable distinction, of course. We know that Gaddis himself chose his daughter’s childhood drawing as the cover art for that novel’s first edition. He collected newspaper clippings, one of which is reproduced on page 126 of J R, which also contains other visual collages,26See for example, the mock-handwriting fonts of JR’s essay on “Alsaka” and Gibbs’s page of epigraphs for his books (438/486), the eight tentative logos for the “JR Family of companies” (536, drawn by Gaddis himself), and so on. not least a page from Gaddis’s own notes from his manuscript on mechanization and the work of art (586): not an imitation this time but, it seems, the “real thing” itself (or at least its photographic reproduction). How can we make sense of this treatment of the page and the printed text within the larger context of the novel and of Gaddis’s aesthetic choices? For Carpenter’s Gothic, by contrast, we know that he gave up on the idea of introducing the facsimile of a newspaper page to announce Liz’s death, and limited the visual to imitations of newspaper headlines with bold capitals. These visual decisions, with greater or lesser emphasis on an illusion of “presence,” form a semiotic system whose import and impact on the texts and the reading of the text needs to be studied for what it is, as another way Gaddis’s texts problematize their relation to the real world “out there” beyond language alone.
Still, the future of Gaddis studies must remain open: to slightly alter a comment on the work of Charles Reznikoff by Paul Auster, I hope to see future “reading” “not as a telling, but as a taking hold. The text comes into being only in the act of moving towards it.”27The original quotation reads: “The poem, then, not as a telling, but as a taking hold. [The world] comes into being only in the act of moving towards it” (Auster 35).
Tim Conley: Genetics!
In a famous scene in The Graduate (1967), Dustin Hoffman’s character is given a single word of advice about the future: “Plastics.” MAD magazine’s parody of the film, I remember, tartly changed this word to “handguns.” When it comes to the future of Gaddis studies, however leery I am of such avuncular gestures, my thoughts likewise turn to a single word: genetics.
The complexity of Gaddis’s novels is at once their most remarked upon feature and the least understood. Discussed and theorized and mythologized almost to the extent of eclipsing such other extraordinary qualities as their humour, this complexity deserves to be understood as a process. The archive of Gaddis’s notes and manuscripts provides ample opportunity for genetic inquiries, by which means we can develop a better understanding of his working methods as a writer and the evolution of his texts, well beyond the basic chronologies.28For those new to this form of research, see the following items in the bibliography for an introduction: Van Hulle; Ferrer; and Deppman, Ferrer, Groden (eds).
This proposed direction does not, however, imply further or greater deference to authorial intention. On the contrary, genetic research can disclose the fluidity and changeability of an author’s intentions and, at the same time, can usefully make a reader that much more aware of her own. Any burgeoning critical community focussed on a particular writer runs the risk of treating the author’s own statements as dogma and narrowing the critical discussion, however inadvertently. (It’s all too easy to assume, again and again, a defensive posture at the characterization of “Mr. Difficult” or in response to perceived neglect: “William who?”) Such a danger is, I think, best faced directly, by examining those authorial statements with a richer sense of his methods, to recover a sense of the writing as a process, often a very involved process, rather than genuflect before a reified object, the Great Novel.
From my perspective as someone who works on both authors, the salient comparison is with James Joyce studies. There, genetic inquiry has found a motherlode of material and interest, though it might be pointed out that this has been a very gradual development, in part because of back-and-forth uncertainties among critics and professors as to the value not just of such unglamourous-seeming labour but of studying Joyce at all (especially Finnegans Wake). So far genetic work on Gaddis has been limited—it is obviously a necessary first step to index as much of the publication and archival record as can be determined—but there are very promising beginnings.
Genetic inquiry does not, thank goodness, yield all the answers. Instead, it helps us sharpen our questions even as it provokes and inspires whole new ones. I look forward to seeing what findings and what questions future scholars will share.
Gregory Comnes: Love and Attention: Signal versus Noise in Future Gaddis Studies
Initially, I had set out to write something more substantial for the William Gaddis Centenary events, under the title of “Fail Better: Being William Gaddis” (imagine Samuel Beckett meets Charlie Kaufman). But the more I wrote the more I found that most of my “insights” were simply recasting my ideas from “Unswerving Punctualities of Chance: The Aporetics of Dialogue in William Gaddis,” which I presented at the 2000 colloquium on Gaddis in Orléans.29The text is available on the Gaddis Annotations website: https://www.williamgaddis.org/critinterpessays/comnesaporetics.shtml
What I didn’t fully cover in that presentation, and what I wanted to write about for the centenary, was a vision of how love works in Gaddis’s worlds. My 1994 book on Gaddis was, per its title, about his Ethics of Indeterminacy, but it’s substantially about the ethical vagaries of love—Agapē—and what I’d hoped to write this year was a more dedicated approach to Gaddis from the starting point of love.
My previous reading of Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics had provided with me a starting point for fleshing out Gaddis’s take on Dilige (Latin for Agapē), while Judith Chambers' extended discussion of the presence of love in Thomas Pynchon’s work via John Caputo’s take on Dilige and his “caritas with some teeth in it” variants provided further insight. Another valuable take on the Dilige idea I ran across was David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present.” He opens the essay quoting from Augustine as he extends the idea of the primacy of love in writing fiction. Like Gaddis,30According to Steven Moore, Wallace was reading The Recognitions in the '80s. Wallace knew that human life is about pain and suffering, that we run fruitlessly from pain via the escape of material excess, and that the true solution is to embrace spiritual connection by getting outside the limits of self-absorption.
As I wrote, though, I realized I was becoming bogged down and frustrated with all these extra sources: I could not find my way through to any new insights. Think Pound on the Cantos (“I cannot make it cohere” Cantos CXVI). Like him, I knew Gaddis agreed that “If love be not in the house there is nothing,” but teasing new insights on love out of Gaddis’s fiction came to seem next to impossible: my study became the room made of toppling papers in Agapē Agape, or perhaps like Thomas Eigen I had simply run out of Agapē: increasingly I was plagiarizing myself!
In sum, the addition of some photographs of me and my wife31Judith Chambers, who some Gaddis readers will know from her studies of Thomas Pynchon. to Steven Moore’s new edition of the Letters will have to be my final official contribution to Gaddis Studies. Still, as I leave off on it, this concept of love is one avenue for future Gaddis Studies that I hope scholars will pick up. There is not yet much else that pursues an extended investigation of love in Gaddis' work, even as almost all the novels (except, ironically, the one with the word Agapē in its title) depict multiple romantic relationships that function to model and contrast more or less valuable or dysfunctional visions of love. There’s merit yet in exploring how love (Agapē, Dilige, et.al.) is of a central concern to Gaddis’ work.
"Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow."
My second recurring concern for the future of Gaddis Studies is a less hopeful one, though it starts from the same spring. What place is there not just for Gaddis’s novels, but his vision of Agapē, in the digital age? In the broadest sense all Gaddis’s works are variations on a melody played on a different group of instruments, or differently harmonized, or syncopated, or elaborated in variations, which cannot disguise that it is the same refrain. On my reading of Gaddis—the reading I was plagiarizing from my earlier self as I sat down to write in the centenary year—Gaddis analogizes music and love, telling us to work hard to listen for the recurring melody of love. The problem, he tells us, is that the conditions of love—especially his notion of Agapē—are increasingly challenged by the venal, mean-spirited, “bugger thy neighbor” world of contemporaneity, at which one can only stare in wonder with mouth open at a world of noise, selfishness, and greed: in short, a world agape. In such a world, the question becomes, how—if at all—can that refrain of the call to Agapē be heard, understood and acted upon?
But Gaddis was writing about that in the 1950s, the 1970s. I myself was concerned with it in the 1990s as I wrote my book about him. What about the increasing challenge of enacting this ethic of love in the 21st century amidst the increasing din of digital cacophony? Is it still possible to separate the signal from the noise?
To understand this message, or at least to derive it from Gaddis’s novels, one must have the capacity to read carefully and critically, skills largely absent in a world where screens have made easy entertainment the natural format for the representation of all experience. Various studies in neuroscience reinforce linguistic studies that the nature of the new epistemology generates a shift from a rhetoric of exposition to a rhetoric of arousal and intensity, such that today our brains are increasingly structured by patterns of language that are antithetical to the those required to grasp the complexities of an Agapeic ethic. J R’s question in the last line needs revision: not are you listening, but can you listen?
There’s no doubt that reading Gaddis today proves increasingly difficult. Gaddis assumes his reader could have the time and discipline—what Josef Pieper means by leisure as the basis of culture—to engage in deep reading of language, which as Heidegger says “is the house of being.” Today’s screen culture, however, gives us a kind of “crack-house of being." The high’s short, but who cares—it’s cheap and there’s always another house off the next virtual block.
And in the crack-house-of-being world it’s no longer the case that, as Gaddis quotes Flaubert in Agapē Agape, there will always be “a small group of minds, ever the same which pass on the torch.” With screens as the preferred source of text, even the best readers today increasingly employ what Nicholas Carr describes in The Shallows as “power scanning,” lacking the cognitive patience to reread, to comprehend deeper levels of meaning.
A more telling example of why writers like Gaddis are increasingly difficult to read is revealed in Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World. Wolf herself says that her own ever-increasing immersion in all things digital meant that when she picked up her favorite Hesse novel Magister Ludi, she found she couldn’t pay sufficient attention to read more than a few pages at a time, and doing so gave her no enjoyment. Is Gaddis any easier than Hesse for even a scholar of attention to devote unbroken attention to?
The fullest concern of Gaddis Studies in the near future, then, might be how the current and coming generations will engage a text like The Recognitions: on Kindle? How stirring will J R’s evocation of the opening E-flat of Das Rheingold be, when the original is now heard on earbuds playing algorithmically compressed files with no dynamic range? In this climate can today’s readers become the kind of collaborators that Gaddis’s interviews specifically tell us he envisioned? Or, as his lifelong favorite T.S. Eliot predicted (again before the current age), have readers embraced a world of “tumid apathy,” “distracted from distraction by distraction” while emitting “eructations of unhealthy souls” in “this twittering world”?
Well, stay tuned… I’m not optimistic myself: the more I explored how the epistemological shift to screens has made it more difficult than ever to read, never mind to grasp, complex texts, the less worthwhile it seemed to argue or lament in writing that Gaddis’s readers in the screen age would necessarily miss his point about living with attentive loving. But other Gaddis readers and scholars may be more optimistic than I, and exploring how the changing experience of reading him will change the way we encounter his vision—as it comes to us from another era of literacy and daily experience—will be essential if Gaddis, let alone Gaddis Studies, is to have a future. More attention to the psychology and philosophy of attention, and how Gaddis himself writes about them, might be what we need to help us see how he and his valuable Agapeic message might still be read, and keep being read, as the world gets ever noisier and more digitized.
Finally, a tidbit: it seems to be well known now that Gaddis pursued a J R film adaptation in the late 1970s. When my wife and I visited him in Key West in 1998, we had a long discussion over how his work could find a wider audience. After several bottles of Pinot Grigio, he let on that he still wanted J R to be made into a Hollywood movie, with—very specifically—Macaulay Culkin playing JR. Unfortunately his agent couldn’t find a producer willing to take on the project. Gaddis thought it would make a great screen comedy. Perhaps the phone-screen age, with its proliferation of entertainments, might at last be the time for that adaptation.
Crystal Alberts: “Pay attention here bring something to it take something away”: The Future of Gaddis Studies
Gaddis fans and scholars are most often found in virtual forums having insider conversations that the uninitiated don’t get, or out somewhere in the real world generally feeling like isolatoes quoting lines from texts that most have never read and therefore also don’t understand. However, the Gaddis Centenary Conference at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) created a rare opportunity for Gaddis’s readers from across decades and backgrounds to gather together in the same physical space to celebrate Gaddis’s work and the man behind it. Those of us who were in attendance—in person or online—were able to pose various questions and discuss all things Gaddis with a couple of large questions hovering over the entire proceedings: What comes next? Where does Gaddis Studies go from here? What do we need to do? Where do we start? Some possibilities were suggested while we were at WashU, but I want to offer a few of my own.
1. Read, teach, share.
As has been noted before, from the beginning of his career, William Gaddis seemed to anticipate that his innovative fiction would be a challenge for some readers. In the oft quoted words of a character with Gaddis’s own nickname circa the 1940s-50s: “Good lord, Willie, you are drunk. Either that or you’re writing for a very small audience” (Recognitions 478).
The blunt reality of the situation is that the only way that there is a future of Gaddis Studies is if more, new, people read his work. As Michael Dirda recently confessed in a Washington Post article reflecting back on his 1997 predictions of which US authors would have staying power, “[a]s for Gaddis, he was a coterie author then and he still is, but his devotees — of which I am one — are growing old” (Dirda). While the 2020 New York Review Books Classics editions of The Recognitions and J R may have generated some buzz, even those reviewers doing their best to sell the books became instant apologists. “Make William Gaddis your quarantine buddy” suggested Los Angeles Times book reviewer, Scott Bradfield, in his title. He then spends the opening three paragraphs explaining the appropriate attitude to have when approaching these works:
First of all, this isn’t going to be a fly-by-night quickie, some passing summer fling you’re going to leave behind, dog-eared and water-stained, in a cabin or resort. This has to be a long-term relationship or it won’t mean anything to either of you.
Their surfaces will seem daunting but look beyond these novels’ haughty, hefty façades. Once you get to know them inside, they’re much more fun than they look. (Bradfield)
Bradfield encourages prospective readers not to dismiss Gaddis as “Serious Literature” reserved for graduate students, scholars, and critics, but to be open to the possibility that they are, in fact, funny and fun. Of course, this is exactly what those of us who have been in a “long-term relationship” with Gaddis’s work think and feel, but not every reader is looking for that type of commitment. Yes, there is always the chance that someone might stumble across one of his “damned, thick, square” books from time to time, pick it up, and discover that it is brilliant. But most of the time, one person has to share their Gaddis experience with someone else and encourage them to give it a chance. As such, we must increase the size of his reading audience. Those of us in education need to assign it in our high school or college classrooms. However, before we can do that, we have to figure out how to advocate for the inclusion of difficult works by a lesser-known, mid-to-late 20th century male author from a demographic that is generally overrepresented in classroom reading lists as it is. But we also—and perhaps more importantly—need to learn how to teach long, innovative works effectively, and this issue isn’t exclusive to Gaddis Studies.
To address the first issue, anthologizing Gaddis would be one place to start. Originally published in The New Yorker, “Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al.” is an obvious choice that has been reprinted from time to time. Ali Chetwynd suggested in a personal email that the section of The Recognitions where “Wyatt and Mr. Sinisterra, both under fake names, are trying to steal the corpse” (this section is “The Last Turn of the Screw”: part III, ch. 3), would make for a good relatively self-contained shorter excerpt of the almost 1000-page novel. I personally think multiple scenes of various lengths from J R could be excerpted. For example, early on in the novel, where Jack Gibbs turns off the “studio lesson” playing on a TV in his in-person classroom, starts a live lecture on entropy, and then begs the test-focused students to “just once, if you could, if someone in this class could stop fighting off the idea of trying to think” (21-22) would make for a fantastic piece of “microfiction.” It may have been published in the 1970s, but it remains a very relevant send up of canned televised/online content for a test-based, “data-driven” education system. Another option appears not long after the chalk-breaking E-N-D of Gibbs’s lesson: Mister Bast’s lecture—recorded in front of a live student audience—on the “fairy tale life of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” offers the darkly humorous realities of their situations as artists (41-46). But, for my money, J R wouldn’t be accurately represented without an excerpt from Jack Gibbs, in his role as the completely uncensored “god damn” man who seems to channel Gaddis’s voice. One of my top selections takes place in the 96th Street apartment immediately following Schramm’s death, when Gibbs reads from “Mr. Grynszpan’s” manuscript, repeatedly asking if Bast is listening and asserting “nothing so God damned hard about this” only to declare “problem most God damned readers rather be at the movies” and “most God damned writing’s written” for those same readers (302-308).
In the classroom, the future of Gaddis Studies must include learning how to teach others to read innovative fiction in a way that exhibits the educators’ enthusiasm for the work, engages students, and, of course, meets the course objectives laid out by administration. It also involves demonstrating that Gaddis doesn’t have to be a “coterie author” reserved for graduate students and/or theory-happy scholars, but that his work is exceptionally useful for teaching high school students and undergraduates the basic fundamentals of deep reading.
Anthologizing Gaddis’s long, encyclopedic works would break them down into smaller more accessible pieces that allow an educator to explain the various craft elements used in his fiction and model how they can be read in a way that—compared to the whole novels—is less overwhelming, does not immediately involve a “long term commitment,” and may even be fun. Another way to describe this approach is “scaffolding,” a standard pedagogical practice used by writing teachers: start with small essential skill or elements needed to complete a longer task (or essay), practice those pieces in shorter assignments and situations, gain confidence, and then build up from that foundation. Consequently, if I’m asked how I teach someone how to read innovative fiction, I respond: slowly and step-by-step. For example, the Gibbs entropy lecture opens as follows:
–Scientists believe that the total amount of energy in the world today is the same as it was at the beginning of time…
–Turn that off…
–But wait Mister Gibbs it’s not over, that’s our studio lesson we’ll be tested on…
–All right let’s have order here, order…! he’d reached the set himself and snapped it into darkness. –Put on the lights there, now. Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos… (J R 21-22)
Nearly every literature student that I have ever taught has likely heard me declare: “form informs content”: how the words appear on the page and in what order shapes everything. I wish that the idea originated with me, but the source is Gaddis’s friend William H. Gass. So, if I were to teach the Gaddis passage above, because there are essentially no dialog tags in this work, I would explain that every formal and verbal distinction matters because it provides a clue about who is speaking, as well as their tone and pace. As such, the opening sentence—broadcast via television—is in a different font, and the dash at the beginning that indicates a shift in speaker is longer than that used for human characters. The ellipses in the sentences, particularly those spoken by the students and Mister Gibbs (no abbreviation of Mr.), imply that they are speaking over each other, quickly, which is implied by the lack commas where one would expect them, creating a potential cacophony of sound. However, while I note these aspects of language and form, I am also trying to make meaning out of them. But “meaning” in literary studies isn’t singular or settled: it changes over time with new readings in different contexts. Consequently, as I’m reading, I’m also considering the various contexts, which I would also outline to my class: first, there is what is literally happening in the classroom—a disagreement between teacher and students. Next, there is the socio-historical time of the piece, published in the 1970s, which I then complicate by contemplating how Gaddis’s 1960s work with the Ford Foundation has potentially influenced this scene. But I also cannot ignore my current 2023 context, a time when asynchronous, online teaching is ubiquitous. Simultaneously, I am aware that the name Gibbs is an allusion that refers to 19th century theoretical physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs, who made great scientific contributions on the subject of entropy. As such, I’m now layering what I know about entropy onto this scene (either based on what Mister Gibbs is saying to his class or from my own external knowledge, which permits me to introduce the Oxford English Dictionary and other reference sources to my own students). Once I do that, I feel compelled to double back to the text and form of the passage and can ask my students to do the same. Gibbs exerts energy to decrease entropy and attempts to impose order on the scene: he turns off the noise from the TV; he tries to get the students to stop mindlessly consuming and think, hopefully staving off what can best be described as a type of intellectual heat death in front of a screen, and then he literally calls for “order…!” with the ellipsis indicating a delay—a slippage, the loss of energy available for work in the system—before the exclamation point signals a shift in scene and form, as it moves into some exposition of the setting. The ellipsis can also be read as introducing the noise of communication theory and the play present in all language, because while I might try to say what I mean, you may not understand what I meant when I said it (and here we’re in well-trod theoretical territory for Gaddis Studies). But, Gibbs, too, experiences this inability to communicate with his students when they fail to define entropy, and subsequently tries to go back to the basics, the fundamental concepts:
– [….] Does anyone dare try to spell it then…? He turned reaching high enough on the board to pull up his jacket for a glimpse of blue drawers through a hole in the trouser seat, wrote e and waited.
–Yes e, obviously. What comes next.
Gibbs repeated –n, and wrote it.
–D? as the bell rang.
–Correct, t, r, o, p, y, he finished the word and broke the chalk in emphatic underline [….] (J R 22)
Entropy is a heady concept, and so Gaddis throws in a little humor to lighten things up. Gibbs, presumably an underpaid high school teacher who can’t afford to replace (or doesn’t notice that he has) a hole in his pants, stands in front of an unsympathetic class who would likely find it funny that they can see their teacher’s underwear (of course, being a good reader, I can’t overlook the fact that he’s wearing “blue drawers.” Does blue mean something?! Is he depressed?! Probably not, and one must beware of overreading: as the old meme goes, which is also frequently quoted in my classes, sometimes the curtains—or in this case boxers—are just fucking blue). All the while, Gibbs tries to get his students to learn something about entropy, a concept that is a little too complicated and abstract for his middle school students to grasp. As such, he finds that he has to resort to organizing the knowledge into something that might be manageable, imposing some sort of order by simply spelling the word. However, the students get him in the end, so to speak, as the bell signals that his class period is up, and the chaos continues to increase. Gibbs closes the scene noting that the E-N-D is “correct,” which read one way it is, in fact: correct in relation to the end of the class and his definitions of entropy, most of which seem to be present, and it is punctuated with the breaking of the piece of chalk.
Of course, this is a vastly reductive example of how reading one passage in Gaddis might go, and I have not stepped through in detail how I would invite my students to work through each of these basic close reading skills. However, as someone who has taught J R, A Frolic of His Own, and Agapē Agape multiple times at the undergraduate and graduate level, primarily at my current regional public institution, but also at WashU, I know that it is possible and in many contexts. And “each one teach one,” even if it is in multiple short sessions, is an effective way to learn how to get comfortable with reading innovative fiction, including works by Gaddis.
2. “Hypothesize any damn way I want to listen….”
Over the course of the Conference, I heard at least one person express strong opinions about what future Gaddis scholars should and should not write about in the coming years. They noted “directions to avoided” and aspects that were a “waste” of their “time,” complete with specific examples of that scholarship. As much as some of us may love archival work, source studies, close reading, or an adherence to Gaddis’s own connection to New Criticism, I respectfully disagree with those who want to limit criticism to a narrow range of topics. In my view, we have to let go and let the younger generations or those new to Gaddis Studies take their ideas in whatever direction they want, including places those who are “more established” may not like. Those of us who have been publishing for decades in Gaddis Studies should not get to dictate and gatekeep where contemporary Gaddis criticism goes based on our own personal theoretical or methodological preferences. As professionals, we of course will want to mentor our students, maintain blind peer review, and continue to expect rigorous scholarly discourse; however, that doesn’t entitle anyone to quash an article or refuse to even consider the analysis because we disagree with their approach or the challenges they may pose to the interpretations that came before. Let the future scholars of Gaddis read his work in light of feminism, ecocriticism, postcolonialism, settler colonialism, or whatever the latest theoretical approach happens to be, including those that haven’t been articulated yet.
In this spirit, I am deliberately choosing not to state a specific theoretical approach that I would take or provide examples of what I would do if I had more time. If I do have time, I will write them up and send them out for review; if I don’t, then hopefully someone will find them on their own and not feel the need to acknowledge that the idea originated with me because I published it here and staked my claim on that thought first. In my opinion, this is the very gatekeeping and stifling of independent, new scholarship from emerging or new-to-Gaddis scholars that I’m talking about. In fact, these debates amongst ourselves and a larger intellectual community are the very thing that will keep Gaddis Studies vibrant and alive rather than allowing the field to become stagnant; if all Gaddis critics are required to come to the same pre-approved interpretations, the field is already almost dead. The fix is the same as it has always been with any literary or cultural movement: someone from the next generation presents new ideas, solid evidence, and the willingness to challenge the “authority” of the older generations’ interpretations, which will rejuvenate Gaddis Studies, allow it to continue to grow in new and unanticipated ways, and restart the life cycle of scholarship.
3. It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.
Those of us who read, study, teach, and publish on contemporary literature face a potentially serious issue that may not be unique, but has been exacerbated by social media and the publicity machines. The problem is that many of us think that we actually know who authors (and artists and celebrities) are as individuals based on the briefest exchanges, interviews, and/or social media threads. We become attached to them, think of them as friends—or at least acquaintances—and are ready to defend them, even if we’ve never encountered them beyond a page or screen. Chaucerians, Shakespeareans, and Dickensians, thanks to the intervening centuries, generally do not share this quirk. Consequently, contemporary critics in this position can become a dangerous combination of territorial and possessive, which does nothing for their fields, as their work can be based on emotional appeals or self-censored to protect their image of the author.
In the case of Gaddis, as Dirda stated, he has been a “coterie author.” Many people involved with Gaddis Studies actually did know Gaddis in some capacity when he was alive. Some were personal friends of various degrees and/or considered him a respected, beloved mentor (whether directly or indirectly). Others have been devoted fans for decades when no one else even knew his name—let alone his work—and felt Jack Green’s title for his takedown of nearly all The Recognitions’s reviewers (who usually couldn’t be bothered to even read the novel before offering their opinion) was spot on: Fire the Bastards! The fact is that it often is personal for many of us, because we’re protective of his work, his archive, and his memory. I’m no exception. I know that I’m always ready to defend Gaddis based on my constructed idea of who he was as an individual (not necessarily an “author”), formed during my time processing his literary papers when they first arrived at WashU in 2003 and 2004. But I also know full well that my construction is an extension of Gaddis’s own carefully constructed public persona crafted after his debut novel’s less than enthusiastic reception (once again, Fire the Bastards!). However, as critics, we must remember that only Gaddis’s children and closest friends really have the right to be that type of protective.
That said, the future of Gaddis Studies has to include a complete, no-holds barred analysis of Gaddis’s writing and the view of the world that he presents over the course of his literary career. This is the business of critics in the academic discipline of English literature. As such, Gaddis Studies cannot avoid discussing that he was a cishet, middle class, white man who attended Harvard in the 1940s and was a part of the dominant US culture of the 1950s, no matter how much he hovered on the periphery of the Beat crowd. It is inevitable that, he being “a man of his time” (and I hate that phrase), close study of his work is going to reveal multiple instances of outdated, potentially offensive depictions of any number of groups of people – that is if you can find any truly developed characters outside of the dominant US majority to begin with. Although just the briefest glimpse at Gaddis’s biography will show that Edith Gaddis was working extremely hard as a single mother to make sure that her son lacked for nothing, thereby complicating any conclusions that might be drawn from the texts, these critiques may feel like personal attacks on Gaddis as a person, but this is when we must separate the man from his art, because as Gaddis himself suggested, “what is any man but the dregs of his work?” It’s a potentially controversial take in contemporary literary studies to separate the author from what they write. However, as one Dickensian I know has said repeatedly in some variation: “Dickens was an asshole” but “that doesn’t change what makes his writing interesting, in fact, it makes it more interesting.” Regardless, looking at Gaddis’s body of work—including potential flaws because his worldview doesn’t match what some critics think it should be—isn’t about trying to “cancel Gaddis.” It’s just the opposite because his work isn’t that simple. A thorough analysis is also going to reveal how and when his writing at times pushes against dominant paradigms, particularly in relation to politics, religion, and capitalism. In other words, Gaddis’s work is complicated and multifaceted; it has to be considered from all angles, especially in terms of how various aspects might not neatly fit together, since Gaddis is often both/and rather than either/or.
And this is one reason why it is important to remember that, for the sake of the future of Gaddis Studies, it isn’t personal—not in relation to the critic or the author as an individual—it’s strictly business. Criticism, debate, and professional disagreements are how the work of an author lives on… or perhaps, without these, doesn’t except in the company of very small audiences.
- Simply because our Z and A provide respectively the fullest survey of prior scholarship among our contributions, and the most direct culminating imperatives.
- In this and subsequent bibliographical footnotes, I direct readers to the fuller citations in the online Gaddis bibliography at http://www.williamgaddis.org/bibliography.shtml. For formal analyses of J R see for example LeClair (Art of Excess, 1982), Félix (Conversation, dialogue, voix, J R and CG, 1988), Tabbi (Compositional Self, 1989, Technology of Quotation, 1995), Levine (Screenwriting 1998), Conley (Telephonic Satire, 2003), Chenetier (Fabric and Function of Narrative Voice, 2006), Chetwynd (Stylistic Origins, 2020). For form in The Recognitions see Safer (Allusive Mode, 1982; Ironic Allusiveness, 1988), Lathrop (Comic-Ironic Parallels, 1982), Johnston (Carnival of Repetition, 1990).
- For influences and intertexts, see Fuchs or Knight on Eliot (in Miglior Fabbro, 1984, or Apophaticism, 2010), Klebes (Gaddis before Bernhard before Gaddis, 2020); Moore (Peer Gynt, 1984); Mosch (Faust Myth, 2012); Tyree (Henry Thoreau, 2004).
- See Knight (Flemish Art, 1984) Morrissey (Recognizing a Masterpiece, 2004), Siraganian (Disciplined Nostalgia, 2009), Fahd (Centrelessness and Cubism, 2018). Mosch on Faustus (2012) includes an extended analysis of the significance of Bosch's Seven Sins Tabletop for The Recognitions.
- See Irvine and Kohn (Musicology in CG, 2009), Shockley (Gaddis' Player Piano, 2009), Zeidler (Mark the Music, 2007). Wagner is addressed in chapter 5 of Moore (William Gaddis, 1989). Musical biographical background is addressed in chapter 1 of Tabbi (Nobody Grew, 2015). Gregory Comnes emphasizes the musical in Gaddis in all his critical texts.
- Cf. the one-act opera by Rimski-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri, based on a play by Alexander Pushkin of the same title, which is also said to have been an influence for the Milos Forman's film Amadeus. Both Pushkin and Shaffer "brought this story of envy and murder to life in distinctly different dramas." See Sabbag, Kerry, "Cain and Herostratus: Pushkin's and Shaffer's Reappropriation of the Mozart Myth." Pushkin Review 6-7: 2003-04, p25. Also compare the beginning of Pushkin's "little tragedy" to the beginning of Frolic.
- One by-product of my own work on music in J R is a music compilation with the respective music mp3 files which has a place on the Gaddis Annotations site: http://www.williamgaddis.org/jr/jrmusic/index.shtml
- He states that "the dimension of Stimmung discloses a new perspective – and possibility for – the "ontology of literature." An ontology of literature that relies on concepts derived from the sphere of Stimmung does not place the paradigm of representation front-and-center. Reading for Stimmung" always means paying attention to the textual dimension of the forms that envelop us and our bodies as a physical reality - something that can catalyze inner feelings without matters of representation necessarily being involved" (5).
- On the enactment of the Socratic quest, the aporetic situation and the fertile moment of aporia see: Waldenfels, Bernhard. Das Sokratische Fragen. Aporie, Elenchos, Anamnesis. Meisenheim am Glan: Verlag Anton Hain KG, 1961. (The Socratic Questioning. Aporia, Elenchos, Anamnesis). The Platonic Dialog Menon in particular presents the necessary moment of aporia (impasse), the point where the knowledge of not-knowing turns into the movement of seeking, of longing for knowledge, and in the end “remembering” that knowledge. Aporia in Agape Agape is used with several definitions (AA 2.20: “the academics took the word from the Greeks for this swamp of ambiguity, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, anarchy,” and AA 6.10: “a game they played, the Greeks,[...] a parlour game proposing questions there was no clear answer to.”)
- At one point in Agapē Agape the novel's anonymous first-person voice even assumes the role of Nietzsche's "Socrates the maker of music,” a complex concept in the argument of The Birth of Tragedy: see Nietzche 96.
- In assembling these four I follow Michael Gallope in Deep Refrains. There he focuses on the writings of these four European philosophers, "all of whom address the ineffability of music with an unprecedented level of precision. [...] From the broadest perspective, they ask: What is this nonconceptual, intoxicating, often highly technical art form that bears the force of sonic impact? And what is its philosophical significance? What does it help us think that no other medium does in quite the same way? And finally, if music can allow us to think something—if it has philosophical significance—how might it embody an ethics that resists and even disrupts the norms and strictures of modern life?" (6)
- And as editor Ali Chetwynd mentioned in a personal email “Crito, which is a direct reference in the last two Gaddis novels and was the template for the ending of Once at Antietam as early as 1960, ends with Socrates basically giving up on reason as he hears the voices of the laws in his head ‘like the mystic hears music.’”
- LeClair also cites Cynthia Ozick, reviewing Carpenter’s Gothic on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, and identifying Gaddis “briefly as the writer who is famous for not being famous enough.” “Mister Difficult,” in the words of novelist Jonathan Franzen.
- Of course, in Agapē Agape Gaddis’s narrator-figure explicitly cites Melville’s struggles after the failure of Moby Dick, as does Judge Crease in A Frolic of His Own. The relevance of the two careers is often taken for granted but has yet to be systematically studied. As editor Ali Chetwynd noted in a personal email: “though the ‘failures’ of Moby Dick and Recognitions are sort of analogous […] it’s an especially interesting example/comparison in the context of your argument here about literary engagement with commerce and the mass media, because they had almost oppositely structured careers of fame and failure. Melville had his success and then lost his literary centrality, then regained it after he died for the very things he either lost it with (Moby Dick) or wrote while lamenting its loss (“Bartleby,” “Cereno,” etc). Gaddis never had early-Melville levels of success to lose, but his concern with that early failure set him on a path where, by the end of his life he was better regarded and more re/awarded than Melville at the end of his.” What these distinctions in his acknowledged relationship to Melville tell us about Gaddis’s work is for future study to parse. These are the kinds of explorations and distinctions I hoped my biography might provoke. Chetwynd’s email also identified parallels and distinctions in the way the two authors’ early travels gave them the “global” perspectives I discuss. I hope there will be more study of Gaddis’s literary and institutional biography in light of the authors he explicitly identified as transnational or transhistorical peers.
- To be clear, I am not calling for scholars and critics to stop writing studies that are fundamentally pro-Gaddis or argue for Gaddis’s importance to American Arts and Letters. I am stating that Gaddis studies needs to be more receptive to works that include critiques—as well as celebrations—of Gaddis’s texts based on contemporary theoretical trends and ideas, because in order for Gaddis studies to survive, the field must move away from its current point of producing and promoting work that amounts to soft hagiography. The notion of the critical must be re-introduced to Gaddis criticism.
- Moreover, such interventions would address the dearth of serious critical analyses of Gaddis’s later works. Space prevents me from making too much of it, but an unintended consequence of so much attention being given to Gaddis’s first two novels is that Gaddis scholars have inadvertently relegated Gaddis’s other, later, much shorter fictions to a realm of “minor literature,” wherein they are spoken of, when noted, with high regard, though seldom examined. However, the shorter length alone of the later works make them easier to include in syllabi, and perhaps if more critical attention were given to them, there wouldn’t be such perennial hand-wringing over how to teach Gaddis or introduce his material in undergraduate academic settings.
- Of course, I refer to “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around” (Recognitions 97).
- To cite one example of work-in-progress new scholarship that simultaneously highlights and critiques what Gaddis’s books supposedly highlight and critique, the scholar Yonina Hoffman is doing some really fascinating work reading scenes from J R vis-à-vis colonizing discourse and the colonial impulse.
- You can see more of my critique of Franzen on Gaddis in my review of Franzen’s novel Purity: https://www.thedailybeast.com/jonathan-franzens-icky-secrets.
- That keynote is reproduced in the present special journal issue. See https://doi.org/10.7273/ebr-gadcent2-1
- As Tabbi would have it, not in relation to the author’s idiosyncratic use of “‘allusions’ in the self-regarding mode of literary modernism,” but as a way “of inhabiting an earlier aesthetic from within one’s own, quite different media environment, closer to the post-digital art of remixing […]” (Nobody Grew 131).
- Originally in Larzer Ziff’s Literary Democracy (1981).
- A novel whose last word, “masquerade,” appears in The Recognitions’s opening sentence, while the school scenes in J R contain TV-teaching propaganda for “confidence.”
- Like Lily’s recurrent “it’s spooky.”
- Moody was writing at a time when public understanding of Gaddis was conditioned by Jonathan Franzen’s then-recent “Mr. Difficult,” which targeted Gaddis’s work for unwelcoming “difficulty.”
- A debatable distinction, of course.
- See for example, the mock-handwriting fonts of JR’s essay on “Alsaka” and Gibbs’s page of epigraphs for his books (438/486), the eight tentative logos for the “JR Family of companies” (536, drawn by Gaddis himself), and so on.
- The original quotation reads: “The poem, then, not as a telling, but as a taking hold. [The world] comes into being only in the act of moving towards it” (Auster 35).
- For those new to this form of research, see the following items in the bibliography for an introduction: Van Hulle; Ferrer; and Deppman, Ferrer, Groden (eds).
- The text is available on the Gaddis Annotations website: https://www.williamgaddis.org/critinterpessays/comnesaporetics.shtml
- According to Steven Moore, Wallace was reading The Recognitions in the '80s.
- Judith Chambers, who some Gaddis readers will know from her studies of Thomas Pynchon.
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Allan, Angela S. “William Gaddis’s Aesthetic Economy.” Studies in American Fiction 42.2 (2015): 219-241
Auster, Paul. “The Decisive Moment,” in The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews, and The Red Notebook. Penguin, 1993
Benesch, Klaus. “In the Diaspora of Words: Gaddis, Kierkegaard, and the Art of Recognition(s),” in Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, eds. Tabbi and Shavers. Alabama University Press, 2007: 28-45
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—. “Inaugural Speech as New York State Author” Albany, April 4, 1990
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Knight, Christopher J. Hints & Guesses. William Gaddis’s Fiction of Longing. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997
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