Literary forces remembering William Gaddis:

Bruce Jay Friedman
Playwright and author of Stern and A Mother’s Kisses

One of the most decent and charming and witty and civilized people I ever met. He was approaching 70...I remember him saying to me that it was time to take this aging business a bit more seriously.

Robert Emmett Ginna, Jr.
Former editor in chief of Little, Brown and Company

I read The Recognitions when it was published in 1955 and was stunned by the novel—by its scope, its erudition, its theme of forgery, falsity and the meretriciousness of modern society. As a sometime art historian and curator, I was perhaps particularly interested in Gaddis’ fascination with knowledge of art, which is revealed as he depicts the corruption of the gifted painter who is his protagonist. I confess I found the book’s divagations and prolixity somewhat daunting, but I knew that we had heard from a provocative and original voice.

With the publication of JR in 1975, another massive novel, it was clear that Gaddis was a confirmed ironist and moralist, and in this work his wit—honed when he was president of Harvard’s Lampoon—was evident in abundance as he satirizes the world of Wall Street and avaricious speculators through the machinations of the 11-year-old J.R.

By this time, I had come to know Willie, as he was known to mutual friends, and when he told me that he was parting from Knopf, publisher of JR, I made an offer to publish his next book at Little, Brown, where I was editor in chief. The offer was turned down by Gaddis’ agent, and the novel, Carpenter’s Gothic—at 262 pages a mere sprint for Gaddis—was published by Elizabeth Sifton at Viking. When that deal was arranged, Willie, a gentleman and punctilious, wrote to thank me for the effort he knew I’d made, suggesting that all may have worked out for the best, saying that “having been through some author-publisher embroilments...knowing how possible they are even with no one really at fault, and their terrible corrosive effect on friendships, that chance at least has been avoided and would certainly not have been worth it.”

As it turned out, I found Carpenter’s Gothic the least satisfying of Gaddis’s novels. Nevertheless, all of Gaddis’s hallmarks are stamped on this phantasmagoric work, from an irony at once witty and savage about an irresponsible and unraveling society to an aversion to conventional narrative and an avoidance of quotation marks, a choice he shared with Joyce.

Gaddis was a prodigious, almost obsessive researcher. Whether studying the works of a Renaissance painter for The Recognitions, scrutinizing the shenanigans of Wall Street barbarians for JR, or ransacking case histories for A Frolic of His Own—an often hilarious and unremitting attack on the fashion for litigiousness today and the lawyers who feed on it—Gaddis amassed archives in which he burrowed for the years and years he took to realize his designs. And he was a literary miner who hated to discard a nugget found.

At his death Gaddis left an unfinished novel titled Agapë Agape, which grew from a seed planted in JR, and is based on the history of the player piano. Gaddis had been fascinated with the subject for decades, perhaps because while the instrument produces real music, there is something illusory or unreal about the result, as it were, as Gaddis found in much of mankind’s works.

Gaddis’ final novel will be awaited with great expectation, for his highly innovative works won him various honors and fervent apostles who preach his gospels in universities across the land. While he may have followers, I am not sure that he has influenced American literature other than to demonstrate that the dedicated artist, uncompromising and impervious to commercial blandishments, can produce true works of literature. Gaddis eschewed conventional narrative, the well-made plot, and he was willing—though regretful—to forego the wide readership he knew that would cost him, to pursue his themes through other literary explorations; in that he may be considered a postmodernist. Yet in his love of learning and language and, above all, in his satirical view of human vices and foibles, Gaddis harks back to earlier masters, like Cervantes and Swift. While Gaddis’ indignation may not be as savage as Swift’s, his wit and his irony are as mordant.

William Gaddis was never content to be a player in the minor leagues: For him the only game was in the big leagues, and each time he picked up his pen, he meant to knock the book out of the park.

Verlyn Klinkenborg
Critic, The New York Times

What will last about William Gaddis is his pungency, his acrid humor, his undiluted vision of American life, and the language in which he cast those things. The curious thing about Gaddis’ career is that his death marks an end to his reluctance, so to speak. There will be renewed interest in Gaddis because his work is now complete, not because he has died. As for his influence on contemporary literature, let the novelists talk about his style, his narrative ideas. In the short term, he may, for those who felt his literary presence, be most important for the rigor of his commitment to making only the books that mattered to him.

James Salter
Author of A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years

Gaddis liked movies and privately regretted that he had not been asked to stoop to write one. It would have been, at worst, a memorable folly and probably very (and darkly) funny.

George Stade
Professor of English, Columbia University
and author of Confessions of a Lady Killer

The three writers that came to prominence after World War II in America that have the greatest staying power are William Gaddis, Nabokov and Ralph Ellison. Nabokov is an American only by co-option. Gaddis’ influence is sporadic. Ellison’s influence is pervasive among black writers, but not just black writers. Nabokov’s is pervasive.

John Sherry’s William Gaddis memoir
William Gaddis website