A talk given on October 20th 2022 at the William Gaddis Centenary Conference at Washington University St Louis. The version presented here is the talk as delivered, with minor edits only for clarity on the page and standardized grammar. Steven Moore prefers to leave the talk as a document of its original presentation, rather than changed into an academic article with the attendant scholarly apparatus of footnotes, works cited, and so on.
We are gathered here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of William Gaddis. As it happens, 2022 could be regarded as the 40th anniversary of the birth of Gaddis Studies, as it's now called. Unlike some modern authors—like Salinger and Pynchon—Gaddis was slow to attract critical attention. As most of you know, The Recognitions was panned upon its appearance in 1955, and for the next 20 years hardly anyone wrote about it. It's true that in 1962, the pseudonymous Jack Green attacked Gaddis's reviewers in Fire the Bastards!, but that was just a mimeographed publication with very limited distribution. The first academic essay didn't appear until 1965, but it was one in which—as Gaddis later quipped—"The Recognitions' debt to Ulysses was established in such minute detail I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses." The author was Joyce scholar Bernard Benstock; he was a friend of novelist David Markson, who later told me that the original essay was mostly on Gaddis, but that the journal's editor told him that since Gaddis was unknown, he would publish it only if Benstock emphasized the Joyce angle.
The first dissertation on Gaddis appeared in 1971, and that same year David Madden and Tony Tanner included chapters on Gaddis in their well-regarded books. After the publication of J R in 1975 a few more dissertations and articles followed, leading up to two key publications 40 years ago: the Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted a special issue to Gaddis, consisting of a half-dozen essays and an interview with him, and that same summer of 1982 my Reader's Guide to "The Recognitions" appeared.
After that, the earlier trickle of Gaddis criticism became a river: in 1983 there was the first MLA session devoted to his work, followed by a second book on him in 1984, and the 1985 publication of his third novel received major review coverage. Two more books on Gaddis were published in the late 1980s, three more in the 1990s, as well as a steady stream of journal articles, chapters in books, and dissertations, which has continued to this day. Gaddis also has a strong online presence: in the year 2000, Victoria Harding launched the Gaddis Annotations website, and in recent years digital discussions of Gaddis across a number of platforms have exceeded print publications.
However, I feel there are a number of aspects of Gaddis's work that have been neglected, which I would like to see younger Gaddis scholars tackle someday. My writing days are over, so I'll leave it to others to pursue these topics. I'll admit upfront that these suggestions reek of traditional scholarship. They have little to do with the concerns of literary theory as practiced over the last 40 years, and are almost diametrically opposed to some more recent critical activity, which I'll address at the end. What follows are simply the kinds of things I personally would like to read.
So: This wish-list falls into three categories: influences, Gaddis's relation to traditional fiction, and potential uses of the Gaddis archives here at Olin Library.
For years, the question of influence—"perilous word," Gaddis called it—has been answered rather carelessly, both regarding nonexistent influences on him (like Joyce) and his questionable influence on others (like Pynchon). Meanwhile, many of the real, demonstrable influences on Gaddis have yet to be addressed.
1. First and foremost is the influence of 19th-century Russian novelists. So many of Gaddis's attitudes and techniques were shaped by those novelists that they are vital to an understanding of his view of the role of fiction, and of his goals as a writer. Evidence of their influence can be found in actual quotations and references to Russian lit in Gaddis's texts, as well as in his letters and interviews. Of special use would be William Gass's account of his and Gaddis's trip to Russia in 1985 in his essay entitled "Gaddis Gets Read To" (pages 191-200 in A Temple of Texts), where he writes "for him, Dostoyevsky was as near to God as nature got," and adds "Gaddis's love for the Russian novel—and for the predictable Russians at that—had surprised me," and then goes on to name some of the similarities between their work and Gaddis's. Topics to be explored include stylistic influences, Gogol's ideal of "saving Russia," the role of money in Dostoevsky (especially counterfeiting in The Double), Gaddis's love of Goncharov's Oblomov—which he often said was his favorite novel—the black humor in Gogol and Dostoevsky (which of course anticipates by a century the "black humor" writers of the 1960s), and other topics.
For example, Gaddis quotes Dostoevsky's The Idiot in The Recognitions, and the following quotation from a recent book by Olga Solovieva suggests one reason why: "Prince Myshkin spends his conscious life copying a manuscript transmitted from the Russian elders. In his examination for employment as a copyist, he reproduces the signature of the sixteenth-century Russian saint Pafnuty Borovsky so exactly that in the course of copying he comes to completely identify with the saint and his words." This obviously parallels Wyatt's identification with Flemish painters, especially the crucial moment of adding a signature, which Wyatt broods on.
Fun fact: Gaddis disliked the idea of readings and refused to give them, with one exception—asked to give a reading for a special event in 1991, he read a comic chapter from Dostoevsky's Demons. I feel an entire book, or dissertation, could be devoted to Gaddis and Russian literature. Granted, that's a lot of reading, but it would be worth it.
2. Influence of earlier writers who, unlike Joyce, actually did influence Gaddis: Mark Twain among Americans, Gustave Flaubert among the French, and British authors such as E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Conrad—especially Conrad—Ronald Firbank, and Frederick Rolfe. As with the Russians, he quotes all of them in his work, refers to them in letters and interviews, and noted in one letter that Waugh's Handful of Dust inspired Carpenter's Gothic.
3. Influence of under-noticed nonfiction books, like Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History. The latter had an especially profound effect on Gaddis in his twenties, and he later said that reading Spengler when young permanently altered his outlook on life. If you're a Gaddis specialist, you'd certainly want to know what he meant by that. (I'll confess I've only browsed through both books, deciding to leave the heavy lifting to someone else.)
4. Plato—rhymes with "tomato," as Thomas Eigen notes. Gaddis's writings and letters are filled with references to Plato's dialogues, but an essay examining all this still needs to be written. He disliked Plato's contempt for the creative artist in the Republic, but wrestled with his ideas of justice, and of how a good person should conduct him/herself in a corrupt society. Virtually all of his references are noted on the Gaddis Annotations website, but someone needs to piece them together to answer why Gaddis was obsessed with the Greek philosopher all his life. And in fact, such an essay may be underway, as I'll explain at the end.
5. Faust: We still need an essay tracing the importance of Faust to Gaddis. Some critics have mentioned it, of course, but they've only skimmed the surface. Faust obviously plays a role in The Recognitions, which started off as a parody of it, but there's a need to explore the Faust references in J R via Schramm's Western (i.e. Gaddis's screenplay Dirty Tricks). A Frolic of His Own too: In a 1988 letter, Gaddis compares Judge Crease's law clerk to Faust's assistant Wagner. Gaddis repeatedly cites both Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust; Dostoevsky cites the latter, so those two could be tied together. Gaddis even owned a signed copy of George Haimsohn's The Bedside Faust, which is apparently a graphic novel version. Faust was also paramount in the nonfiction Gaddis was reading when he was composing The Recognitions: he is especially prominent in Spengler's book, and to a lesser extent in Toynbee. The Faust figure was big in postwar fiction: Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus came out in 1947 (and was treated in one early dissertation on Gaddis), and Faustian man (via Spengler) was a recurring topic among the Beats: the subtitle to Jack Kerouac's novel Dr. Sax, written in the early '50s, is Faust Part Three, all of which could be brought in to widen the scope of a paper. Gaddis had a perhaps unique take on the subject: in a 1973 letter, he confessed to a "preoccupation with the Faust legend as pivotal posing the question: what is worth doing?" That question might even be the unifying theme of all of Gaddis's work; all his novels can be regarded as dramatized responses to that question. So you can see the potential there.
6. And regarding Gaddis's influence on others: how much in common does he actually have with the postwar novelists he is often grouped with (Barth, Coover, Gass, McElroy, Pynchon)? I would say less than imagined, but it's worth detailing. Useful here would be the "Gaddis in Fiction" page on the Gaddis Annotations website: I find it extraordinary that Gaddis has been depicted or mentioned in so many works of fiction—of how many other postwar novelists can that be said?—which strikes me as a worthy topic for an essay in itself.
7. We need a closer look at Gaddis's library. Some of its contents are just books sent to him over the years, but a careful sifting is needed for influences, inspiration, parallels, sources, etc. I've been dipping into it for years, but I sense there are a lot of potential discoveries waiting there. For example: his library included five books on witchcraft, which is five more than most people own. As you know, witchcraft is one of many occult topics mentioned in The Recognitions, but Gaddis acquired three of the these five after that novel came out, which indicates a continued interest in the topic. You may also recall there are several references to witches in J R—all by way of Gibbs and Stella—which is otherwise free from occult elements. So what's up with that? why the enduring interest in witchcraft, of all things? That's just one example of many topics suggested by his library.
B. Traditional Themes
For all their modernistic features, Gaddis's novels have much more in common with traditional fiction, and in fact he regarded himself as a traditional novelist. While working on A Frolic of His Own, Gaddis wrote to the critic Gregory Comnes to say: "while I frequently enough see my work cited in a postmodern context I cower in the notion of a traditional novelist to such a degree that, sitting back & looking at this work in hand, I am often enough depressed at the notion that it will be dismissed as behind the times." So:
8. Regarding J R: Set aside for a moment systems theory, entropy, capitalism, information theory, etc., and examine it as an old-fashioned realistic novel dealing with troubled individuals: witness the marital discord between Eigen and his wife and the emotional confrontations between Gibbs & Marion, child visitation rights, Rhoda's conflict near the end with Eigen, Bast's backstory with Stella (and references to "that summer in Tannersville"), workplace interactions, dysfunctional families, etc., etc., all rendered with kitchen-sink realism. Note how in J R Gaddis withholds many secrets in the Bast family, gradually revealing them as in a conventional suspense novel. Like good mainstream fiction, the novel pulsates with raw emotions brought to a boil by various conflicts, and the same goes for Carpenter's Gothic and A Frolic of His Own. These are character-driven novels as much as they are idea-driven. How people interact with each other, how they conduct themselves during times of stress, and the moral standards they live by are just as important to Gaddis as the intellectual matters, if not more so. One of Gaddis's sources for information theory and cybernetics in J R was Norbert Wiener's The Human Use of Human Beings, and that's where Gaddis's focus is on: the effect of such concepts on actual human beings. J R is not simply about the abuses of capitalism, but how people react differently to such abuses; whether they tolerate them, fight against them, contribute to them—that is, their personal choices, which comes down to character, which won't be apparent unless you pay as much attention to Gaddis's methods of characterization as to his intellectual concerns.
For instance, there's an episode in J R (scene 29 [pages 190-91]) where Jack Gibbs is in a phone booth in Penn Station, talking to Thomas Eigen, when he spots his heart-throb Amy Joubert joyously coming in his direction with outstretched arms, and for a moment he thinks it's for him, then watches as she rushes by to embrace her son Francis, who has just arrived. Gibbs says to Eigen, "Imagine having her, having anybody that glad to see you?" In that single line—which may be the saddest in the entire novel—Gaddis reveals Gibbs's lifetime of loneliness, lovelessness, and alienation. The novel is filled with these lightning-flashes of characterization, which bring all of his characters to life in a manner more often seen in fine conventional fiction, rather than in the ultraliterary sort that he's associated with.
Same with his other novels: they are all more "traditional" than they are given credit for, which is one reason why Gaddis always felt uneasy with being identified with postmodernists like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gass, Pynchon, and the rest. Many characters in their fiction tend to be flat, even cartoonish, whereas Gaddis always tried to create "round" characters, as E. M. Forster called them—and Gaddis was a close student of his Aspects of the Novel. And what's more amazing is that he does all this, from J R onward, solely by way of dialogue: as you know, there's no narrator stopping the action to describe what a character looks like, or is wearing, or feeling, or background information. Instead it's all done by way of conversational interactions and second-hand remarks, all occurring in "real time," so to speak, without interrupting the narrative flow.
What it comes down to is basic literary craftsmanship, which may interest me more than other folk, but that's partly because that's what most authors slave over—not the overarching big ideas or theme of a novel, or intellectual subtexts, but the nuts and bolts of creative writing. Here's an anecdote: Gaddis had just finished writing Carpenter's Gothic when he invited me out to his place in the Hamptons for a three-day recuperation visit in August 1984 (after I had moved from Denver to the east coast). At breakfast on the second day, he handed me the manuscript, and I spent the entire day holed up in my guestroom racing through it. When I finished in time for dinner, he grilled me about it, and every question he asked had to do with character motivation, and plot coherency. He didn't want to discuss the novel's themes or Buddhist implications or even the symbolism, but rather whether he had sufficiently motivated Billy's decision near the end to fly to Africa, for example, things of that sort. Since Gaddis spent so much time on such traditional staples as characterization, style, rhythm, and plotting, I think critics should too.
9. I'd like to see a good essay on Gaddis's women in J R, which is otherwise dominated by men and patriarchal systems. The novel includes a wide range, from noble to ignoble, and ends with three women in control of the previously patriarchal regime: Amy Joubert, Stella Angel, and Boody Selk. Does Gaddis provide evidence that they will they be any better than their male predecessors—meaning more humane? Amy Joubert, yes; the other two, I doubt it. Is Gaddis suggesting that the flaw of capitalism is not a question of gender but of lust for power and control? This could be expanded into a book on women in all four novels: in The Recognitions women are mostly archetypes (virgin, whore, mother, Jungian anima), but are more realistic in J R, and then play larger roles in the later novels: Elizabeth Booth is the leading lady of Carpenter's Gothic, and it could be argued that Oscar's stepsister Christina is the true star of A Frolic of His Own.
10. Speaking of women, mother-son relationships in The Recognitions have been overlooked in favor of the more obvious father-son relationships, beginning with Rev. Gwyon and Wyatt, Mr. Pivner and Otto, Frank Sinisterra and Chaby, and how these mutate into father-substitutes: after losing touch with Otto, Mr. Pivner becomes a father-figure to Eddie Zefnic, as does Sinisterra to Wyatt in Spain. Hovering above them is the relationship between the Heavenly Father and his son, who feels forsaken by him on the Cross. These fathers are sympathetic if bumbling characters, but the mothers in The Recognitions are portrayed almost uniformly in a bad light. Anselm complains about his rich mother, and rails against his friend Charles's Christian Science mother. Maude Monk wants a baby so bad she steals one at Esther's party, the same party where a little girl from downstairs keeps showing up to get more pills for her own junkie mother. Stanley feels oppressed by his mother, and the Mass he writes for her is literally the death of him. The only positive mother in The Recognitions is Camilla, who is a ghost, and maybe the Virgin Mary depicted in some of the paintings Gaddis cites (call-back to Goethe: there is an important scene in Part 2 where Faust meets with a group called "the Mothers," which could be tied in with this). I don't think it's coincidental that when Gaddis was writing The Recognitions, there was a very popular book out called Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie (1943), which has a notorious chapter called "Momism" attacking the destructive role mothers play in American life. If Gaddis didn't read that book, he surely knew of it. And complicating all this is the fact that Gaddis grew up without a father, but had a wonderfully loving and supportive mother, so it would be interesting to look closer at the role of mothers in Gaddis's novels.
11. This could be expanded to include the concept of "family" in his novels (again, these are more like themes in traditional novels than avant-garde ones). Near the end of The Recognitions, when Frank Sinisterra, Wyatt, and the corpse of the cross-eyed virgin are riding the train from San Zwingli to Madrid, Gaddis writes: "and they rode on, seated backwards, facing the place they'd come from, and looking in what light there was through the smoke like a weary and not quite respectable family." In J R every family is dysfunctional, and then of course there's the "J R Family of Companies," making up for young J R's own lack of a family (just a mother he rarely sees) and harking back to Gaddis's own lack of family (just a mother, whom he sometimes went for long periods without seeing). Family connections and conflicts are at the heart of Carpenter's Gothic as well, between Liz and her brother, their distant, off-stage father, and so forth. You'll recall that at one point McCandless corrects von Clausewitz's famous formulation: "it's not that war is politics carried on by other means it's the family carried on by other means." Same in A Frolic of His Own: the complicated relations between Judge Crease and Oscar, between him and stepsister, and so forth, are as important as the legal shenanigans going on around them. In his letters from Spain Gaddis often comments on the importance of families in Mediterranean culture: everything is family-oriented, unlike in the U.S., which is more individual-oriented, with tragic results as he shows. In his own later letters, Gaddis seems determined not to make the same mistakes as the fathers in his novels, and we see him showering his two kids with affection, encouragement, and support.
C. Archival Matters
Gaddis scholars are fortunate in having a rich archive of materials available to us here in Olin Library, and lucky that Gaddis was such a packrat. Ali Chetwynd has already demonstrated what can be done with the materials on Gaddis's corporate writings, and there is much more waiting that can be turned to profitable uses.
12. For example: In 1983 I told Gaddis I wanted to follow-up my Reader's Guide with a manuscript study of The Recognitions, which he dissuaded me from doing, and rightly so. Now that I know how much material is available, I see that I was in no position to deal with all that back then. But given the availability of that material here in St. Louis, manuscript studies of all of his novels would be invaluable, especially since every one of them underwent radical changes between conception and completion.
Having said that, I want to acknowledge that Gaddis didn't approve of such studies. He felt the final published versions of his books are the only ones that matter, and in a 1993 letter he praises Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes for "ordering all his papers burnt & letting his Opinions stand for themselves nobody's business how he got there." But the results of such studies should be a greater appreciation of the craftsmanship that went into the novels.
There are two manuscript studies that would be particularly interesting. The earliest version of what later became The Recognitions was called Blague, a French word for a joke, or a farce: the surviving outlines and manuscript pages indicate this was a very strange, bizarre novel. Some of it was carried over into the published novel, but it is so radically different that I'd love to read an analysis of it, and perhaps even see it published if enough of the original manuscript survives.
The other manuscript study needed is on Carpenter's Gothic. As you know, there are numerous references in the novel to Jane Eyre, both the novel and the 1943 film version. However, all those references were a last-minute substitution for Lost Horizon, both the James Hilton novel and the 1937 film. As the book was being typeset, Gaddis's publisher contacted the Hilton Estate to request permission to quote from the novel, which was denied because of the erotic context in which a few of the lines appear. Gaddis had to scramble and find a public domain work he could use instead, and after deciding on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, he had to replace all the Lost Horizon references with lines from the book and film versions of Jane Eyre. It worked pretty well, and certainly heightened the Gothic element in the novel, but Gaddis later said he thought the Lost Horizon material worked better. He did retain one quotation from the Hilton novel and several references to Buddhism (which was the subject of an essay Robert Cohn of this fair city wrote years ago). But since Lost Horizon was on Gaddis's mind all through the time he was working on the novel, someone should read the original manuscript to see how it compares with the published version (the original is the version I read when visiting Gaddis in 1984, but I read it so quickly that I don't recall the Lost Horizon aspect). Also, I think an argument could be made for publishing Gaddis's original version, for I assume the current Hilton Estate is run by people more worldly and sophisticated than the fuddy-duddies in charge back in 1985. And if that comes to pass, the publisher should certainly use the cover art Gaddis originally intended—a kitschy religious painting by Charles Anderson entitled The Rapture—for which permission was likewise denied.
13. My edition of Gaddis's Letters, even the new expanded version, includes only a percentage of those available here at Olin, many of which I left out for lack of room rather than their insignificance, and there are many more letters in other libraries, not to mention ones in private hands that occasionally come on the market. Perhaps a second volume could be published someday. And speaking of the book of Letters, I'm surprised I haven't seen more engagement with them. A random example: in a 1955 letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer about a talk the scientist had given, Gaddis writes: "I was so stricken by the succinctness, and the use of the language, with which you stated the problems which it has taken me seven years to assemble and almost a thousand pages to present." Well, someone should read Oppenheimer's article to see what Gaddis may have meant by those "problems" he was dealing with in his first novel (I'll confess I haven't).
14. And finally, the archives could lead to a fuller, more detailed biography. Joseph Tabbi wanted to keep his short, but there's enough material here for one of those 700-page doorstoppers. Perhaps it would only appeal "to a very small audience," as Gaddis metafictionally wrote about the potential readership for his first novel, but it would still be worth doing.
New Directions to Be Avoided
I get emails from time to time by people, especially students, who want to explore aspects of Gaddis's work that I regard as a waste of time, barking up the wrong tree. For example, a little over a year ago I received an email from someone who wanted to explore the alignment of the 22 chapters of The Recognitions with the 22 cards in a tarot deck, once suggested by a critic named Grace Eckley in one of the earliest critical essays on Gaddis. I responded that this was a meaningless coincidence, and not worth pursuing. I explained that The Recognitions had a few more chapters when submitted for publication, and that the present 22 came about after two chapters had been combined into one and a few more structural changes had been made. Plus, I've come across zero references to the tarot in any of Gaddis's writings and letters, so the parallel is just one of many coincidences that Gaddis enjoyed hearing about. Of course some authors have indeed used the tarot deck as a structuring device—most famously Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow, less famously Gilbert Sorrentino in Crystal Vision and Milorad Pavić in Last Love in Constantinople—but Gaddis isn't one of them. I gave this person some suggestions about other occult topics in the novel that would be worth exploring, but was not honored with a response.
In contrast, last December I received an email from a student in the Czech Republic who was contemplating a thesis on Gaddis and Plato, and wanted some advice. I was happy to make suggestions, noting the numerous references to the Greek philosopher in his works and letters. This student had the manners to thank me. I mention these two contrasting approaches to underline my preference for criticism that is suggested by the texts themselves, rather than critiques that impose notions from outside the texts, or that belabor coincidental parallels that are ultimately nothing more than that. Take care not to chase down any old rabbit hole.
Now, as I admitted earlier, my suggestions are somewhat old-fashioned, at odds with theory-driven criticism, and especially with critics hell-bent on exposing an author's shortcomings, unconscious biases, privileged position, and/or deviations from increasingly stringent political correctness. For example, I don't agree with those critics who insist a work of art should be (as Jessica Swoboda phrases it, without herself endorsing the approach) a "political project that is responsible for the advancement of feminism, anticapitalism, posthumanism, postcolonialism and critical race studies." No. Literature is an art project, not a political project, and should be judged solely on its artistic merit, not for its usefulness in pursuing social justice. Last year a Jane Austen specialist wondered about teaching older novels that fail "to speak to pressing societal issues. Perhaps a world in grave crisis truly doesn't have time for texts from the past which can't be instrumentalized by the future." No concern for artistry, craftsmanship, style, tone, wit, only whether a novel qualifies as a tool for social activism. (A side note: Gaddis's novels could indeed be used for that purpose, just as they could be used to prop up a wobbly table, but it's not the best use for them, or the only valid one.) Vladimir Nabokov once told an interviewer, "What makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art." And I certainly wouldn't want to see the blinkered results of some inquisitorial critic examining Gaddis's work for signs of racism, homophobia, misogyny, elitism, White privilege, and so on, with the inevitable call for his cancellation, and perhaps that of his admirers as well. If you want to pursue those sorts of critiques, you're on your own. I don't want to hear about them.
I'd advise a different, more empathetic approach: in 1867, Charles Dickens told a sympathetic American visitor, "I see you understand me! And that is more precious to the author than fame or gold." In many of his letters Gaddis complains about being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and often quotes that line from Eliot's "Prufrock" that goes "That is not what I meant at all." I've always felt that before you begin to interpret an author by your own lights, you should first make sure you understand what the author felt he or she was doing. Now you don't want to stop there—that would be to succumb to what used to be called the intentional fallacy—but it should be your first step. To fully, thoroughly understand William Gaddis and his multitudinous work remains a challenge, and the scholarship that brings us closer to that goal is the kind I hope future critics will pursue.