Ali Chetwynd's introduction to the Gaddis centenary gathering on ebr.
In memory of Patsy Yaeger and Dolma Chen.1Patsy was my PhD thesis advisor. In late 2012 I told her, from the Gaddis archives at Washington University, St Louis, that “I’ll just write up a one-page note for publication on this source document I found, then I’ll get the chapter to you by the weekend.” Archival discoveries kept pushing chapter-work back, and by the time I returned to Ann Arbor, Patsy had fallen ill. After that, I only met her back on campus once, in a brief recovery period, before she died. The one-page note I’d planned to write in an evening turned into a 50,000-word triptych of Gaddis-archive articles that took me eight years to finish, always sensing Patsy tapping her watch waiting to read. In 2013 my faraway friend Dolma came up from Tenafly to Boston to hang out around the American Literature Association conference where I was presenting on Gaddis. She got food poisoning the night she arrived, and curled up, suffering, and groaning deep in her blankets all night while I, barred from sleep on the other bed, revised my paper to include more and more of those archival discoveries in between runs out to the 24-hour-shop to fetch her electrolyte-replenishing drinks. She finally fell asleep with the dawn, just in time to miss the early-morning Gaddis-panel. I never got her to like Gaddis, though I managed with Henry James. Long after I left America, she remained my most reliable recommender of interesting fiction on ghosts and animal minds. She died in summer 2022. The email that brought that news arrived between two about organizing the Gaddis Centenary conference. Casting my mind out to 2012 and 2013 for this introduction brought both these lost friends and interlocutors back to me. This special issue would not exist without either of them.
December 2022 was William Gaddis’s centenary year, marked that October by an archival exhibition and academic conference at Washington University St Louis, whose Olin Library special collections hold his archive. December 2023 then marked 25 years since Gaddis’s death. He lived within the 20th century, but marking his centenary some way into the 21st the present special issue finds him no relic. Rather, over the past decade, he has been published, reprinted, translated, namechecked, served by globally public discussion forums, at a greater rate than ever during his lifetime. Somehow, at the passing of his centenary, Gaddis has achieved the background cultural presence where basic knowledge about him can be presumed in most literary fora. Why now?
What the 2010s Changed
In 2013, I organized a panel on “Why Gaddis, Why Now?” at the American Literature Association conference, featuring Crystal Alberts, myself, Sonia Johnson, Lee Konstantinou, and Lisa Siraganian. Lee’s organization of the online reading group “Occupy Gaddis” in 2012, to which Sonia had also contributed, was the obvious catalyst, bringing Gaddis to new readers by relating him to ongoing historical and political events. Unknown to me as I assembled the panel in late 2012, Steven Moore’s edition of Gaddis’s Letters was coming to print, and Joseph Tabbi was well into his work on the biography that would emerge in 2015. Graduate students like me and Sonia were exploring Gaddis’s archive thanks to the Olin Library’s special collections scholarship, with Sonia making great public use of its materials in her “Occupy” contributions.2See for example her piece on Gaddis’s “Style Notes” for J R, which showed me the kinds of things to be alert for on my own visit to the archives not long afterward. We could build on what were then three recent collections of academic essays on Gaddis: 2007’s Paper Empire and Reading William Gaddis, and 2009’s The Last of Something. The release of the Letters just before our panel saw Gaddis reviewed as widely and visibly as he had ever been during his lifetime. The biography achieved a similar reach. The 2010s—call them Gaddis’s unlived 90s—seemed to change his role in the culture, especially through the internet.
As an online forum for Gaddis discussion, “Occupy Gaddis” was only preceded by the (opt-in, publicly unsearchable) “Gaddis-L” email list that Ron Dulin and others had established around the millennium. Since “Occupy Gaddis,” though, barely a year has gone by without some public online reading group discussing Gaddis’s work, and they keep attracting new participants. “Occupy Gaddis” had coincided with Dalkey Archive Press’s re-publication of Gaddis’s fiction at the start of the 2010s; at the start of the 2020s the first two novels were reissued under New York Review Books’s prominent “Classics” imprint, reaching new audiences. Reviews and career-assessments in widely read venues followed.
In the late 1980s, Gaddis wrote optimistically about a rare feature in the New York Times’s “wish (demand!) that [his work] reach a wider audience, rescue it from the academic critics & deliver it to the Middle Class which the NYT Magazine reaches. By the 100 Thousands” (Letters 436). Even the NYRB reissues haven’t quite made that happen, while the later three novels still await classic-ification and the attendant readership boost. But the signification of the name “William Gaddis” has changed. Once shorthand (where it meant anything) for a Recognitions-centric amalgam of high-modernist allusive aestheticism, and wilfully alienating small-audience scale and “difficulty,” the wake of “Occupy Gaddis” and Tabbi’s J R-centring biography finds Gaddis closer to the heart of US culture, as a figure of prophetic social diagnosis in the realms of economy, politics, media.
Around the millennium Jonathan Franzen’s lamentably conspicuous “Mr Difficult” had faulted Gaddis for mandarin hostility to that “Middle Class” audience, but public reception in the 2010s increasingly came to emphasise the dimensions of Gaddis’s work that cover the very “state of the nation” relevance to which Franzen’s own writing has long aspired. In the early 2000s it seemed hard for discussions of Gaddis to avoid reckoning with Franzen’s polemic, but come the 2022 centenary conference, I noted a growing absence with each new presentation: no mention of Franzen, until—the one imperfect stitch that authenticates the garment—a single nod on the final panel. Gaddis’s work has survived, even as “classic,”3J R ambivalently anticipates this fate in an advert for new technology to redeem “longer works frequently dismissed as classics and remaining largely unread due to the effort involved in reading” (674). into a second century, and criticism on him no longer needs to define itself against real or imputed enemies of his entire, frequently mischaracterised, approach to literature.
Cultural and political changes of the last ten years, particularly in America, have also set Gaddis in new light. While interviews late in his life (and significant narrative points in A Frolic of His Own and Agapē Agape in particular) saw Gaddis acknowledge an academic movement to surpass “dead white guys” (Agapē 48), this identitarian orientation toward the arts has moved mainstream over the course of the very decade that he—demographically a pure incarnation of the previous dispensation—has expanded his audience. How those two tendencies relate (perhaps even constitute each other) is an intriguing prospect for sociological study. Some consequences of this discourse’s mainstreaming have been… overenthusiastic,4For example, in surveying social media’s Gaddis-mentions for this introduction, I’ve repeatedly heard that the hypothetical law-themed Japanese car-company names in Frolic—Sosume, Isuyu, etc—constitute bigotry. Certainly they’re Gaddis glibly conjuring Japan for thematic purposes without making any effort to inhabit a Japanese subjectivity. But thematically-salient punning on recognisable linguistic or nomenclatural patterns is not intrinsically callous. By this logic, a French novel about maternal incest in the Paris hip-hop scene, in which characters contemplate a holiday brochure for the fictional English Lake District village of Nictamere (somewhere between Grasmere and Windermere, presumably) would be censurable for anti-English xenophobia… but—as numerous contributions to this special issue note—it opens a fuller range of contextual lenses and enables readings of Gaddis that are valuably unconstrained by any need to align with the novels’ own subjectivity or advocate for their author as an underdog.
It’s also less common than ever for Gaddis’s name to appear as mere ballast in a bundled list of “postmodernists” or “experimentalists.” Conglomerate talk of the genre of “Pynchon, Barthelme, Gaddis, Doctorow, Barth, Gass, DeLillo”—as if these shared one project—certainly brought readers of the others to Gaddis.5The default Pynchon-association was how I discovered him, and numerous people at the centenary conference told me the same. But such conflations set up unfulfilled expectations, while giving prospective readers the sense that reading one gives the flavour of all: many must be the reader scanted of prospective enjoyment by the suggestion that, done with The Crying of Lot 49, they’ve had all Gaddis could give. His growing public profile has loosened him from this subordinating genre-packet, allowing more readers to encounter him on his own terms. The 2010s’ framing of Gaddis as prophetic nemesis of late capitalism’s pathologies introduces distortions of its own, of course, but it does at least bring readers to Gaddis primed to encounter Gaddis, rather than a genre’s minor emissary.
Paper Empire, Reading Gaddis, and The Last of Something emerged into a world where Gaddis was a consistent but niche figure for academic study, his future relevance unsure beyond the heyday of “postmodernism.” Oddly, perhaps the only arena in which Gaddis’s background presence didn’t expand during the 2010s was academia. Notwithstanding the biography and letters, there was no further conference, critical monograph, or collection of essays on Gaddis between The Last of Something and the centenary events: not even another conference panel after “Why Now.” The reason may be generational: many of the 20th century’s Gaddis scholars—the generation(s) whose foundational 1970s or 1980s articles, or 1990s monographs, were compiled in Harold Bloom’s 2004 Modern Critical Views —had retired by the early 2000s. Between 2015 and 2022 a third of Bloom’s Gaddisians died. The bibliography of Gaddis scholarship reveals that only a small proportion of Gaddis’s scholars have published more than one piece on him. Being the frequent subject of single-example chapters in broader monographs, or an other-specialtied scholar’s one-off passion-project side-article, has allowed for Gaddis to be examined in a wide range of contexts and theoretical framings. But it does also mean that Gaddis scholarship has often needed to relitigate the basics at each appearance, and has lacked ongoing argumentative throughlines within itself. The collections that do bring Gaddis scholars together directly, from 1984’s In Recognition of William Gaddis to the present special issue, thus play a distinct, crucial role in consolidating a consistently tenuous Field.
Ours is the first such dedicated collection that is able to reckon with the 2010s’s expansion both of the range of biographical and primary material available, and of the range of public spaces in which Gaddis’s work is discussed. It is a chance to examine Gaddis in a different position in the culture than he had inhabited before. It can help establish where exactly we find him, at his centenary.
In fact, this is the first of two immediately post-centenary collections of work on Gaddis. The other in-progress collection of academic papers aims to propose and establish new understandings; the present special issue focuses, through a wider variety of genres, on expanding our knowledge. The focus here is on new information about Gaddis and about how his works have worked in the world: archival discoveries, recontextualizations, new biographical material, discussions of practical Gaddis-work, testimonies from those who interacted with the man or his writing. This, hopefully, can expand the foundations on which future studies of a more specifically interpretive or theoretical approach can build.
Fortunately, the response to our call for submissions was enthusiastic and prolific, and we have more than 275,000 words of new Gaddis-his-works-and-his-world knowledge coming your way.
The Special Issue: Contents, and Thanks
With so much material for our readers to get to, I won’t overegg with too much anticipatory summary of individual contributions. Below is a short summary of the categories of our contents, after which readers can feel free to skip to reading them, as the rest of this introduction pursues two admittedly quaint exercises on A) how Gaddis’s name now circulates online at its furthest remove from his actual novels, and B) some interpretive consequences for stress-testing our knowledge-of-Gaddis’s-knowledge.
I do want to note the importance of being able to publish this special issue’s new knowledge in an open-access, unpaywalled, globally-accessible journal, thus making it available to as unrestricted an audience as possible. electronic book review was one of literary study’s first open-access online journals, and with its tradition of publishing on the innovative authors of Gaddis’s generation (check out the Joseph McElroy festschrift), plus its founding editor Joseph Tabbi’s central role in Gaddis scholarship, it was an ideal venue for this project. I hope our special issue contributions will remain immediately accessible supplements for every future Gaddis reader who the novels prompt to further research.
Such is the scale of our material that it’ll be released in batches. The full special issue will, eventually, consist of five overall sections beyond this introduction:
- First, a pair of documents projecting ideas for the academic study of Gaddis into his second century. Steven Moore’s keynote on this topic from the Centenary conference is the first: the second compiles shorter prospectuses from nine other significant Gaddis-Studies figures.
- The second section brings together peer-reviewed academic articles on the shared topic of “Gaddis in Context,” each bringing his work into new contexts, genealogies, or associations.
- The third section offers five roundtable discussions that bring practitioners in particular fields together to discuss their experiences with Gaddis’s work and his significance in their arenas today.
- The fourth section offers a cumulative guide to the full known archive of Gaddis’s yet-unpublished creative works. With one document addressing his unpublished work in prose fiction, and another his unpublished work in other literary genres, the guides let readers know what else might be excavatable into an expanded future Gaddis canon.6 Further study of this material might also help shift “unpublished Gaddis” into the published file. If we’re still waiting for the last three novels to become “classic,” why not a Library of America-style “Complete Gaddis” in three thousand-page volumes incorporating some of the most illuminating yet-unpublished works? Volume one (to 1955): selected early poems and stories; excerpts from Blague and Ducdame; The Recognitions. Volume two (1955-1980): the TV proposals; selected corporate writings; film proposals; J R; and the complete screenplay Dirty Tricks. Volume three (1980 onward): Carpenter’s Gothic; A Frolic of His Own; the public Occasional Writings; Agapē Agape with selected early versions and drafts; and “J R up to date.” With a shared scholarly apparatus and a framing essay in each volume that drew on the most salient biographical knowledge, letters, speeches, nonfiction, and interviews, this would be an accessible, coherent, Gaddis canon. For a very small audience? Not as small as it used to be.
- Our final section compiles various shorter memoirs, documentations, and anecdotes that expand Gaddis’s known biography, as well as shorter manifesto-pieces making a case for Gaddis’s potential relevance to particular readerships.
For a list of the contributions with links, updated as each goes online over the first half of 2024, see this page.
Thanks are due to my co-editor Marie Fahd (whose eyes gave out from all the Gaddis, whose pre-injury work on this project was absolutely essential, and who is thankfully on the mend); to electronic book review editors Joseph Tabbi and Will Luers, and journal staff Daniel Johannes Rosnes and Tegan Pyke; to Joel Minor, who co-organized the centenary conference with me, co-wrote one of our archive-guides, and has been an excellent pilot through the archive since my first day there in October 2012; to the other staff at the special collections library who have helped with conference-organizing, archive-digging, and remote document-checking – particular special-issue debts on the latter to Kate Michelson Goldkamp; to Steven Moore and Crystal Alberts for other biography-and-document guidance; to the peer-reviewers of our peer-reviewed articles; and to all our contributors for helping assemble a large valuable thing.
Now, on to the parts of my introduction that might themselves be for a smaller audience.
The Name William Gaddis Circulating Online
Online discussions of Gaddis’s work, organized or informal, have led to a valuable expansion of understanding for that work, but the internet has also dispersed Gaddis’s name widely as a shorthand: not always in ways that he would have anticipated, or hoped for. On social media, we find his name used to buttress commentary on political events in India, Uganda, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Chile: countries mentioned in his novels, and countries beyond their compass. In the internet age, “authors” survive and circulate substantially through the attachment of their names (and what those names convey) to disembodied quotations that they might not actually have written, and the attachment of these quotations to reposted material as gloss, illumination, or dismissal. One lens upon Gaddis’s furthest circulation in current culture is the way his name gets posted and reposted on that culture’s channels of social media. Who is he, and what is his instrumental function, for those who appeal to his name today beyond the context of discussing his books?
Searches for the text-string “William Gaddis” reveal it predominantly functioning as authenticator for four quotations extracted from his novels, which I’ll discuss individually below.7My compiled examples all come from Twitter (or X), the paradigm of social media as reductive-shorthand-circulator, but the same quotations dominate on other channels. Gaddis’s fiction itself renders judgment on decontextualisers of quotations. In Carpenter’s Gothic both Liz and his ex-wife fault McCandless for this niche vice, while in The Recognitions, Mr Pivner’s philistine vacuity is exemplified in his choice of reading material: no full work, but “the book of selective quotations out on the table, next to the photograph album. True, one must select; impossible to quote all that Shakespeare ever wrote, to prove a point he never embraced” (503). Would Gaddis’s wish to reach the “hundred Thousands” of “Middle Class” readers have reconciled him to furnishing a few disembodied lines by his name in such a book? We can at least examine the internet era’s “selected quotations” from Gaddis’s work, and ask how well they reflect what he actually “embraced.” Four predominate.
The most widely circulated quotation under the label “William Gaddis” is a line that he himself acknowledged was an “old saw” in legal circles (see Letters 589). Figure 1 compiles samples of Gaddis’s most frequent intervention into current public life.
Though these reposts wobble on punctuation, “Justice? –You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law” is an accurate quotation of the opening of A Frolic of His Own (3). The image shows just how widely this pithy boiling-down of thousands of years of moral and legal philosophy has been found relevant, often through translation into local languages in which Gaddis’s novels are not yet available. Sometimes it’s posted alone, sometimes with a hashtag establishing what it comments on, and often, as in the Ugandan example above, as self-sufficient comment on a reposted news story.8At the time of writing, it seems to have taken on a particular relevance for posters in Pakistan, whose supreme court has been increasingly interventionist about which politicians can be tried for which kinds of crime, with what consequences for future political office. Cropping up there on an almost weekly basis, whether in English or Urdu, Gaddis’s old saw gets widely retweeted, leading to total “impressions” (twitter’s reading instances) that in Pakistan alone must outnumber the total historical readings of any Gaddis novel many times over. Then there are the more idiosyncratic uses, like the legal firm who, frankly promising clients nothing so abstract as “justice,” have taken it up as an advertising slogan, complete with bespoke artwork.9For all that Frolic satirizes a hyper-legalized society, Gaddis by all indications had great respect for lawyers’ linguistically precise work, while he himself was increasingly involved in drawing up legal contracts for his work that would preserve his right to profit by secondary use like merchandising. It’s hard to imagine him disapproving of this advert, but he would have wanted to be paid. Gaddis claims in an interview to have taken the phrase specifically from his divorce lawyer,10“I said to him: Listen, just skin her alive and get the kids, which is simply not just. And he would say: In the next life you will perhaps fight for justice, in this life you have the law. And that’s how I then began that novel” (Ingendaay). and within the novel it’s dialogue, not narration (though the first “Justice” before the dash is ambiguous), spoken by Harry: the lawyer who takes the law too seriously, not cynically enough. Why, then, not accurately attribute it to “fictional lawyer Harry, via a real divorce lawyer?” What do these posters gain by adding Gaddis’s name to language that’s not unambiguously his?
It’s a straightforwardly “legal realist” claim, and there’s always social capital in conspicuous disenchantment. The posters’ other postings usually present them as more optimistic activists than the tone of resignation here might imply, a balancing on the cusp between pessimistic indignation and limited optimism that seems consistent with the novel itself. Gaddis’s choice to open the novel with the phrase shows how he recognised its ability to hold the novel’s tensions together, a function distinct enough that it’s not unreasonable to call its use within the novel his. Extraction for social media circulation, though, removes its dramatic function of organizing the way that characters and language and institutions, their hopes and their disenchantments, interact with each other: of coordinating rather than stating. For its reposters to identify the extracted version as a mere “old saw” rooted, anonymously, in the legal profession’s own sense of humour, would be to forfeit the aegis of Gaddis’s public persona, which is crucial to the reposts’ mainly oppositional function: better to come from an austere, wilfully and uncompromisingly marginal author than from within the very institution you’re protesting. Gaddis’s name sanctions the posters’ role as external condemners, rather than locating them on the same moral and intellectual turf as their adversaries, which might be more in line with the novel’s actual tangles.
Gaddis is the source for Figure 2’s quotation—“power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power”—but it’s a significantly distorted version of what he originally wrote, where it is rooted in the perspective of the unusual character who says it.
Equally global in its circulation (though less often seen translated), this is most frequently used to label a situation (in an accompanying news link) as corrupt. It’s not often obvious how the situation would be better explained by corruption in human nature rather than by systemic influence on the human.11This suggests that people may have browsed for “corruption quotes,” like Mr Pivner paging through the category-headings of his selective book in search of something apt. The looseness of application is unsurprising given that the language originates in an extended rant by The Recognitions’s complicated Jesuit aesthete Basil Valentine. He is lamenting that people cannot handle the reality of his religious metaphysics: “Tell them the truth, then, that Christ was thrown into a pit for common malefactors, tell them the truth, then, not that power corrupts men, but men corrupt power” (Recognitions 384). At some point in its career outside the novel, the phrase has acquired a more standalone syntax (and gender neutrality). The original language could have been preserved by “IT IS not that power corrupts men, but men corrupt power.” The new version’s crucial distortion is to make “people” and their corrupting work—rather than “the truth” and our inability to handle it—the grammatical subject of the claim.
This is a significant shift: Valentine’s original itself comes from a chapter whose epigraph (from the Clementine Recognitions) is all about the fearsome consequences of presumptive certainty: “as if a drunk man should think himself to be sober […] Thus, therefore, are those also who do not know what is true, yet hold some appearance of knowledge, and do many evil things as if they were good, and hasten to destruction as if it were salvation” (Recognitions 343). The gloss this gives to Valentine’s discussion of truth and knowledge is that, whether he’s right or not,12Valentine is given a surprising number of lines that Gaddis himself is on record saying outside the novel. This about corruption is not one of them. his vituperative certainty about other people’s truth-attitudes risks a self-delusion of its own. To recirculate this as Gaddis’s own pronouncement thus cuts it off from its character-specific and recursively provisionalised role in the novel’s ideas about the unstable foundations of truth-attitudes. Indeed, these isolated online reposts of the (simplified) phrase themselves embody the kind of certainty its use in the novel puts in question: the reposts extend Gaddis’s implication precisely by distorting him. His stringent reputation likely helps those who repost this under his name to convey their own sense of rectitude, “appearance of knowledge,” and distance from corruption, all of which would be lost if the quotation were rightly labelled “Basil Valentine.” A better appreciation of how such language works within Gaddis’s novels might make the posters less willing to appeal to him for certitude. But to accurately cite to the fictional character would also generate less interesting ironies, less continuous with the novel, than the misattribution to Gaddis himself.
The third most commonly seen quotation comes from McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic, who even more than Valentine voices many of Gaddis’s real-world beliefs. The source here, though, may reach back past Gaddis to his mother. That “stupidity’s the deliberate cultivation of ignorance” is one of a variety of claims the self-righteously unstupid McCandless makes about the nature of stupidity in the novel, among which is “there’s more stupidity than malice in the world.” The latter Gaddis attributes directly to his mother in a late short essay, saying she offered it as “an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard” (“Mothers” 136). This is another of Gaddis’s speeches-that-undermine-the-speaker, as McCandless eventually shows himself to be as culpably ignorant of other people’s needs and wishes as he is consistently right about factual matters. Figure 3 shows how broadly and loosely this language is taken up:
Unlike the quotations on corruption or law, which tend to be used by frustrated citizens against resented institutions, the stupidity-line’s application seems politically promiscuous. Its loose application as an unelaborated reply can lead to amusing ambiguity: as in numerous examples above, which might equally convey “what your post rightly identifies is best explained by this particular theory of stupidity” or “you embody this particular version of stupidity, as your post shows.” The practical function is rarely to discriminate among explanations for observable stupidity as McCandless attempts, but rather to label something stupid then pile the accusation of ignorance, the blame of deliberateness, and the condescension of pithy explanation on top. What does Gaddis’s name (and in one notable case above, his conspicuously patrician portrait) add that McCandless’s or “William Gaddis’S MOTHER” would not? Certainly the implication seems to be that Gaddis, neither stupid nor ignorant, is the presiding spirit of the user’s own verdict-passing: by copy-pasting Gaddis, I inhabit his subject-position in relation to you. Passing cynically diagnostic judgment on other people’s cognitive failings is as male-coded a role on today’s internet as it was in McCandless’s 1980s, and the aspiring McCandless might bridle at the mother-debt implication as much as Gaddis himself did—“hardly worth dignifying”—when Steven Moore reported to him that Sheri Martinelli had once described him as a “mama’s boy” (Letters 653). The quotation does express something clearly Gaddisian, since from J R onward I’d contend that his work is a manifesto, from its sentence-level style on upward, against (deliberate) thoughtlessness.13As indeed I have elsewhere: see the late sections on JR as Educator and Intertexts and Innocence in my “William Gaddis's Ford Foundation Fiasco and J R's Elision of the Teacher's Eye View.” But as with our other examples, the language here is—within its origin-novel—a potential self-indictment, and today’s recirculators would do well to be wary of it redounding upon themselves, however they may cut it off from its source.
If these three most common ways to recirculate Gaddis online today each invoke his name to pass (often imprecise) moral and intellectual judgment on others, while scanting the original’s fuller implications of possible self-indictment, then our fourth and final commonly recirculated Gaddis is something different: an expression of aesthetic affinity more than a tool of attack. As Figure 4’s reposters ask, “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?” (Recognitions 97).
Originally spoken by dreg-averse artist Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions, this language does seem to be entirely original to Gaddis, a piece of direct expression rather than recontextualised appropriation. It tends more often to be posted as standalone thinkpiece rather than derogatory gloss on a retweet. Its posters tend to be aesthetically focused, of inconspicuous politics, affiliating themselves with an artistic ethos. In this respect, the repost that includes the source’s date is representative, downplaying the implication of universal insight so important to the more frequently quoted Gaddis-chunks, in favour of aligning the poster with another time and place: a different way to use Gaddis for oppositional purposes. To claim affiliation with a gone past is nicely coherent with Wyatt’s philosophy. The problem, of course, is that in attaching Gaddis’s name to the quotation, they make the artist who generated the language more than a dreg. In giving his name the authority to establish an alignment and an affinity, they defy the quotation’s own suggestion.
In 2024, then, the name William Gaddis is something to conjure with, globally: it’s for Pakistani dissidents and partisans of Korean boybands, as much as for “meganovel” readers, afficianados of dialogue, or the enemies of John Gardner. What it conjures in those wider contexts may not be especially well-informed: he’s often getting credit for something that he picked up and recontextualised. His aesthetics puts what might be taken as bald statements into networks of association (within and outside the immediate novel) that provisionalise and resignify. To then extract this language for isolated posting is often to revert it to its pre-Gaddis origin-state: to make it not the attributed “William Gaddis”’s version. Trading away recursive connections for efficiency of paraphrase and circulation (embedded implication for structureless free-association) is the way of the internet, and Mr Pivner’s reading habits show that Gaddis registered the tendency’s onset in advance. Still, as they make their way into new associations through posts and reposts increasingly disconnected from their setting in the novels, these phrases probably create a more interesting and complex public Gaddis-figure than the two words that (somewhat against his own self-conception) so long defined him: “postmodern” and “difficult.”
Given their commitments against corruption, wilful ignorance, the scanting of justice, and the demand for charismatic relics, almost all these reposters of dismembered Gaddis-chunks would find something to align with in the unchopped novels. One goal for easily accessible public writing about Gaddis (like our entirely open-access special issue) ought to be to give the uninitiated a sense of the experience that awaits behind the shorthand name and the isolated quotations. Those who then find pleasure and insight in the deepening irony of McCandless’s ignorant lambasting of ignorance, or Valentine’s fervour-drunken surety of his own superior sobriety, will hopefully find an author they’d like to stick with. As Gaddis and his work reach ever-wider audiences in shorthand versions, the need for reliable and accessible (ideally open-access) stores of Gaddis-knowledge becomes ever greater. This special issue can hopefully perform some of that role, at this very distinctive time in Gaddis’s reception.
Knowledge of Gaddis’s Knowledge
For all the new information in this special issue, many aspects of Gaddis’s life and works remain mysterious. The exact composition-history of most of the published novels is murky, let alone the background to unpublished projects like the frontier Faust screenplay Dirty Tricks or the aborted film adaptation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. And while the Gaddis papers at Washington University are increasingly well-explored, we still lack a synthetic review of all Gaddis’s material held in other archives. Potential avenues for further cultural and literary contextualization of the novels are almost infinite.14Two examples prompted by one day’s email traffic… 1) a (seemingly now-deleted) twitter thread on The Recognitions by the intellectual historian Andrew Seal reminded me that that novel’s ever-present gang of homosexuals cry out for analysis of where Gaddis fits alongside the mid-century New York subculture writing of James Purdy or Hubert Selby Jr. 2) I received a scan of a postcard Gaddis sent to friends, of Charles Anderson’s compelling, almost folk-art painting The Rapture, which he had wanted to use for the cover of Carpenter’s Gothic. Gaddis would have had to get the postcard from a shop or mail-order affiliated with the institutions of such belief, which raises the question of how the novel relates not only to its widely-noted Reaganite religious-revival era in politics, but aesthetically to the genres and canonical works of evangelical kitsch.
I hope, beyond spurring pursuit of particular further information, that this special issue’s focus on Gaddis-knowledge can prompt study of how the category of knowledge conditions both Gaddis’s fiction, and its reception. Much like Thomas Pynchon or Joseph McElroy, claims about Gaddis’s value often hinge on the idea that his works embody “mastery” (as Tom LeClair’s influential formulation would have it) of domains of extra-literary knowledge (Flemish art, bond trading, the law, and so on): that they should be experienced as cognitive as much as aesthetic achievements. Gaddis like Pynchon insisted that much of his knowledge was shallower than he got credit for, but important elements of novels so rooted in wider-world specifics often hinge on checkable accuracy, which becomes especially crucial when they contain unindicated but deliberate errors. The Recognitions, for example, balances authentic copy-paste of some of Gaddis’s recondite reading with dialogue (throughout the party scenes in particular) of uninformed pretension on the same topics, without much guide to which is which, beyond a couple of mocking corrections from Anselm that put us on notice that harsh judgments await the deluded. It’s a precipitous reading experience: we might recognise some facts, some distortions, but for much else we have to grant that we may be as susceptible to specious “learning” as the partygoers. Gaddis’s presumed mastery tests us, like a hostile God.
What, though, of the possibility of unintended errors? The further we read around Gaddis and his contexts, the clearer the delineation between our-worldly facts and his inventions becomes, the better for us to understand how the novels alchemise them. But how distinguish the bounds of mastered knowledge from the intentional mistake? This gives us another author-relation to juggle as we try to make sense of the novels and their rhetoric. Knowing just how much or how little Gaddis knew can be decisive for interpretation. Take, for one recondite example, freshwater tropical fish husbandry.
In A Frolic of his Own, Oscar’s inertia as he waits for his various legal cases to resolve sees him watching endless nature TV, inspiring him eventually to set up a hermetic aquarium world himself. Research done, he settles on discus (a peaceful South American cichlid species with colourful patterning across its high broad sides, and famously finicky about water conditions) for the tank’s first inhabitant. “Banished” time then ripples over a single long sentence from a vision of the newly set-up aquarium, back to Oscar’s profuse equipping of it, forward to his next splurge: we are in
the domain of the discus by the daylight halide lamp, silent pump and power filter, temperature and pH balance and the system of aeration, fed on silverside and flake food, vitamins and krill and beef heart in a patent spinach mixture to restore their pep and lustre spitting black worms from the feeder when a crew of new arrivals (live delivery guaranteed, air freight collect at thirty dollars) brought a Chinese algae eater, khuli loach and male beta, two black mollies and four neons and a pair of black skirt tetra cruising through the new laid fronds of the Madagascar lace plant. (Frolic 496)
The teeming passage conveys the extent of the distraction Oscar pours into the tank while the legal world holds him suspended. Of course, when his life kicks back in, the tank soon goes neglected and we sporadically hear of it overgrown with algae, inhabitants floating or vanished, black skirts protruding from the mouths of discus whose automated “feeder” has run empty in the same paragraph the humans have “flounder for supper” (Frolic 499). This mini-narrative is one of over-investment unsustained: Oscar’s one-fixation-at-a-time ability to care and work seriously for something, and the harm caused to those who depended on his too-contingent care once his attention shifts.
But that interpretation rests only on the profuse listing-syntax of Oscar’s investments, not on any of their fishkeeping specifics. A competent aquarist, though, must read the sentence with growing foreboding:
- The list of the “domain”’s environmental provisions doesn’t mention any aquarium’s most vital concern: the nitrogen cycle. Put simply, new aquaria need to gradually build up a saturation of bacteria that break down the lethal ammonia in fish-waste into harmful nitrites, and these into merely unpleasant nitrates, then these into nitrogen which can leave the water. Failure to properly “cycle” a tank to bacterial sufficiency before fully populating it with fish is the main reason those fish are the pets that most often die prematurely.
- Pumping waves of meat-based food into an underpopulated new tank will fill the water with ammonia before bacteria levels can catch up to a level safe for fish.
- Oscar sensibly starts with a small number of fish who might gradually build up the bacteria while living uncomfortably through low-concentration nitrite and nitrate. However, discus are notoriously vulnerable to any kind of water-pollution, and hence one of the worst choices of “starter fish.”
- Adding a big batch of other fish before the nitrite count approaches zero will cause a further ammonia spike. Particularly when the selection of fish has its own compounding problems:
– A male betta (two ts, also known as the Siamese Fighting Fish) is calm enough, except when housing it with something whose colourful flowing fins rival its own turns it unrelentingly vicious: Discus are finny and colourful enough to suffer.
– The Chinese algae eater will only eat algae for a year or two, and then becomes a large aggressive biter of other fishes’ scales, finding it particularly easy to chomp on slow wide-sided fish… like discus.
– Mollies do best in brackish water; the other fish Oscar puts them in with are strictly freshwater.
– Kuhli loaches are hyper-gregarious, liable to pine away and die if kept in groups of less than six. Oscar buys one. Being scaleless, they’re especially vulnerable to ammonia burns, and so shouldn’t be put into uncycled tanks.
Armed with this knowledge, the passage frames Oscar not as too hastily abandoning a once-cherished competent project, but rather as investing significantly into a new arena without having a grasp on its basics: as making a big show of commitment before working out what the object of his attention actually needs. Whether his aquarium is a viable commitment that collapses by culpable neglect, or a folly doomed by its creator’s basic unseriousness, is a question that determines Oscar’s overall characterization, on which the novel’s overall rhetoric hinges in turn. The conundrum here can only be resolved by asking what Gaddis knew. The “viable then neglected” moveable-monomania reading would follow if we ignore the fishkeeping specifics (assuming them unintended or unapprehended by Gaddis); by contrast, if Gaddis knew his water chemistry and fish compatibility, deliberately indicating Oscar’s failures of knowledge to (the very small audience of) informed readers, then the unserious-overcommitment reading follows. Deriving the novel’s internal logic requires an external judgment about whether Gaddis mastered the symbolic material of basic fishkeeping to the same extent that he did the novel’s legal sources.
Leaving the final verdict to the reader, I think there’s support for either case. The fishtank’s fate doesn’t seem to have much to do with ammonia: the demises reported are from neglect and predation, not the sad paradox of burning underwater. It would be unusual for the dainty discus to outlast the hardy blackskirt in an ammonia-soused tank for long enough to eat it, and a discus’s small wide mouth is especially badly designed for eating blackskirts, which are rhomboid-tall like the discus, albeit no more than a third its size. On the other hand, the writerly choice to insert “live delivery guaranteed” plays as a bleakly direct—and hence plausibly deliberate—joke on any competent aquarist’s recognition that these “live” fish are being “delivered” to their dooms, life little “guaranteed” beyond the moment of arrival.
Both ways of characterizing Oscar through his aquarium comport with his role in the rest of the novel: he’s changeably monomaniacal and hastier than real care requires. That the fishtank passage can only be taken to ratify one or the other trait, depending on what Gaddis really knew about its underpinning domain of knowledge, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to choose one interpretation of it or the other. As William Empson knew, a good ambiguity can lend simultaneous extra credence to two conflicting interpretations, generating a third reading in which the two heightened incompatibilities synthesize a single meaning about the nature of their specific tension. Just how Oscar’s obsessiveness and his flakiness constitute each other is a key question of his characterization; highlighting without resolving the crux of aquarium knowledge lets us preserve a reading in which they oscillate rather than having to ratify one in perpetuity, as digging into Gaddis’s personal history might let us. To get to the bottom of Oscar’s fishtank I could have contacted all Gaddis’s surviving circle and discovered what fish he met, which if any of these were those he kept himself, which species in what proportions, and how long each survived. But such knowledge might simplify the novel rather than deepening it. I held off.
I pursue this at somewhat facetious length to clarify our special issue’s project: biographical and contextual knowledge might never fully resolve certain lacunae, might even destroy some generative tensions, but always helps get us closer to identifying exactly where the epistemological hinges are, and hence where in the novels the interpretive or rhetorical cruxes appear. Continuing to expand our knowledge of Gaddis and his work, as well as our knowledge of what he knew, will help us understand what he got right and—often with denser interpretive implications—what he might have got wrong. With an increased understanding of what he was trying to do, we can understand more fully what he actually achieved.
What kinds of new interpretations or activities this new knowledge lets our readers build, the future will tell. Our special issue elaborates on the Gaddis of the first hundred years, to provide a firmer knowledge-foundation for the next. Hopefully a first rung on the second century’s ladder, rather than a bow tied with finality around the first century’s box.
Alberts, Crystal, Christopher Leise, and Birger Vanwesenbeeck (eds.). William Gaddis: The Last of Something." McFarland, 2009
Bloom, Harold (ed.). William Gaddis. Chelsea House, 2004
Chetwynd, Ali. "William Gaddis’ ‘Ford Foundation Fiasco' and J R's Elision of the Teacher’s-Eye View." Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 8.1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.16995/orbit.gaddis.3
Franzen, Jonathan. “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.” The New Yorker 30 (2002): 100-11
Ingendaay, Paul. “Agent of Change: A Conversation with William Gaddis,” trans. John Soutter. 1995 WilliamGaddis.org. http://williamgaddis.org/nonfiction/intingendaay1995.doc
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. University of Illinois Press, 1989
Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity, revised 3rd edition. Chatto & Windus, 1953
Félix, Brigitte (ed.). Reading William Gaddis: A Collective Volume of Essays on William Gaddis’s Novels, from J R to Agapē Agape.” Presses Universitaires d‘Orleans, 2007
Gaddis, William. A Frolic of His Own. Poseidon Press, 1994
—. Carpenter’s Gothic. Viking, 1985
—. J R . New York Review Books, 2020
—. The Recognitions . Penguin, 1993
—. “Mothers,” in The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings, ed. Joseph Tabbi. Viking, 2004
—. The Letters of William Gaddis, 2nd ed., ed. Steven Moore. New York Review Books, 2023
Moore, Steven, and John Kuehl (eds.). In Recognition of William Gaddis. Syracuse University Press, 1984
Tabbi, Joseph, and Rone Shavers (eds.). Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. Alabama University Press, 2007
Cite this Essay:
- 1Patsy was my PhD thesis advisor. In late 2012 I told her, from the Gaddis archives at Washington University, St Louis, that “I’ll just write up a one-page note for publication on this source document I found, then I’ll get the chapter to you by the weekend.” Archival discoveries kept pushing chapter-work back, and by the time I returned to Ann Arbor, Patsy had fallen ill. After that, I only met her back on campus once, in a brief recovery period, before she died. The one-page note I’d planned to write in an evening turned into a 50,000-word triptych of Gaddis-archive articles that took me eight years to finish, always sensing Patsy tapping her watch waiting to read. In 2013 my faraway friend Dolma came up from Tenafly to Boston to hang out around the American Literature Association conference where I was presenting on Gaddis. She got food poisoning the night she arrived, and curled up, suffering, and groaning deep in her blankets all night while I, barred from sleep on the other bed, revised my paper to include more and more of those archival discoveries in between runs out to the 24-hour-shop to fetch her electrolyte-replenishing drinks. She finally fell asleep with the dawn, just in time to miss the early-morning Gaddis-panel. I never got her to like Gaddis, though I managed with Henry James. Long after I left America, she remained my most reliable recommender of interesting fiction on ghosts and animal minds. She died in summer 2022. The email that brought that news arrived between two about organizing the Gaddis Centenary conference. Casting my mind out to 2012 and 2013 for this introduction brought both these lost friends and interlocutors back to me. This special issue would not exist without either of them.
- 2See for example her piece on Gaddis’s “Style Notes” for J R, which showed me the kinds of things to be alert for on my own visit to the archives not long afterward.
- 3J R ambivalently anticipates this fate in an advert for new technology to redeem “longer works frequently dismissed as classics and remaining largely unread due to the effort involved in reading” (674).
- 4For example, in surveying social media’s Gaddis-mentions for this introduction, I’ve repeatedly heard that the hypothetical law-themed Japanese car-company names in Frolic—Sosume, Isuyu, etc—constitute bigotry. Certainly they’re Gaddis glibly conjuring Japan for thematic purposes without making any effort to inhabit a Japanese subjectivity. But thematically-salient punning on recognisable linguistic or nomenclatural patterns is not intrinsically callous. By this logic, a French novel about maternal incest in the Paris hip-hop scene, in which characters contemplate a holiday brochure for the fictional English Lake District village of Nictamere (somewhere between Grasmere and Windermere, presumably) would be censurable for anti-English xenophobia…
- 5The default Pynchon-association was how I discovered him, and numerous people at the centenary conference told me the same.
- 6Further study of this material might also help shift “unpublished Gaddis” into the published file. If we’re still waiting for the last three novels to become “classic,” why not a Library of America-style “Complete Gaddis” in three thousand-page volumes incorporating some of the most illuminating yet-unpublished works? Volume one (to 1955): selected early poems and stories; excerpts from Blague and Ducdame; The Recognitions. Volume two (1955-1980): the TV proposals; selected corporate writings; film proposals; J R; and the complete screenplay Dirty Tricks. Volume three (1980 onward): Carpenter’s Gothic; A Frolic of His Own; the public Occasional Writings; Agapē Agape with selected early versions and drafts; and “J R up to date.” With a shared scholarly apparatus and a framing essay in each volume that drew on the most salient biographical knowledge, letters, speeches, nonfiction, and interviews, this would be an accessible, coherent, Gaddis canon. For a very small audience? Not as small as it used to be.
- 7My compiled examples all come from Twitter (or X), the paradigm of social media as reductive-shorthand-circulator, but the same quotations dominate on other channels.
- 8At the time of writing, it seems to have taken on a particular relevance for posters in Pakistan, whose supreme court has been increasingly interventionist about which politicians can be tried for which kinds of crime, with what consequences for future political office. Cropping up there on an almost weekly basis, whether in English or Urdu, Gaddis’s old saw gets widely retweeted, leading to total “impressions” (twitter’s reading instances) that in Pakistan alone must outnumber the total historical readings of any Gaddis novel many times over.
- 9For all that Frolic satirizes a hyper-legalized society, Gaddis by all indications had great respect for lawyers’ linguistically precise work, while he himself was increasingly involved in drawing up legal contracts for his work that would preserve his right to profit by secondary use like merchandising. It’s hard to imagine him disapproving of this advert, but he would have wanted to be paid.
- 10“I said to him: Listen, just skin her alive and get the kids, which is simply not just. And he would say: In the next life you will perhaps fight for justice, in this life you have the law. And that’s how I then began that novel” (Ingendaay).
- 11This suggests that people may have browsed for “corruption quotes,” like Mr Pivner paging through the category-headings of his selective book in search of something apt.
- 12Valentine is given a surprising number of lines that Gaddis himself is on record saying outside the novel. This about corruption is not one of them.
- 13As indeed I have elsewhere: see the late sections on JR as Educator and Intertexts and Innocence in my “William Gaddis's Ford Foundation Fiasco and J R's Elision of the Teacher's Eye View.”
- 14Two examples prompted by one day’s email traffic… 1) a (seemingly now-deleted) twitter thread on The Recognitions by the intellectual historian Andrew Seal reminded me that that novel’s ever-present gang of homosexuals cry out for analysis of where Gaddis fits alongside the mid-century New York subculture writing of James Purdy or Hubert Selby Jr. 2) I received a scan of a postcard Gaddis sent to friends, of Charles Anderson’s compelling, almost folk-art painting The Rapture, which he had wanted to use for the cover of Carpenter’s Gothic. Gaddis would have had to get the postcard from a shop or mail-order affiliated with the institutions of such belief, which raises the question of how the novel relates not only to its widely-noted Reaganite religious-revival era in politics, but aesthetically to the genres and canonical works of evangelical kitsch.