Philadelphia Inquirer // Letters of William Gaddis

My review of The Letters of William Gaddis ran in my hometown Philadelphia Inquirer on 7/28/13.

The Letters of William Gaddis
Edited by Steven Moore
Afterword by Sarah Gaddis
Dalkey Archive Press. 545 pp. $34.50.

Unless you’re a pope, canonization is a slow and ugly process. When William Gaddis published his magisterial debut novel The Recognitions in 1955, it was reviled by the shortsighted literary critics of the time and considered obscene. Of course, the same had been said about Moby-Dick and Ulysses, two novels that are now undisputed classics. You know a book has caught on when the mayor shows up once a year to help read it aloud at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

In hindsight, it’s clear that The Recognitions is among the greatest American novels of all time. That book ends – spoiler alert! – with a terrible tragedy in an old church. Of the organist trapped inside, Gaddis wrote:

“He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played”

Gaddis’ novels have suffered a similar fate. They have earned a small cadre of loyal and rabid devotees, but perhaps because of their perceived difficulty, they have yet to gain a foothold with a broad reading public and are seldom read.

It will happen, though. These things take time. In the meanwhile, we happy few who already love these books have The Letters of William Gaddis, a selection that, according to editor Steven Moore, amounts to “less than a quarter of his extant correspondence.” (It’s worth disclosing that Moore and I have had some personal and professional contact over the years.)

William Gaddis was born in New York City in 1922. By the time he died in 1998, he had written The Recognitions and four other novels: J R (1975), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), A Frolic of His Own (1994), and the posthumously published Agape Agape (2002). Two of those – J R and A Frolic of His Own – won the National Book Award, which attests to the well-deserved critical respect, if not popular success, that Gaddis was afforded later in life. This welcome selection of his personal correspondence gives us a look behind the scenes of a great artist’s life and career.

The earliest letters here date from the early 1930s, and they get particularly interesting when Gaddis enrolls at Harvard University in 1941. It would be a short stay, due to an episode involving public drunkenness, and upon his departure his adventures began in earnest. He was sailing through the Panama Canal on his way to California when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Gaddis’ many jobs throughout his life included wrangling horses, installing a pipeline in the Mississippi River, fact-checking at the New Yorker, and writing for a U.S. State Department publication in Iran. He went to Costa Rica to join a short-lived revolution in 1948, then lived in Europe for a while, and Mexico, and all the while sent letters to his mother, Edith, asking her to send clothes or books.

Some of his most fascinating letters were to the writer Katherine Anne Porter. In one sent from the Canal Zone in 1948, he describes himself as

“one of the thousands of Harvard boys who never learned a trade, and are writing novels furiously with both hands. In order to avoid the mental waste (conversation &c.) that staying in New York imposes, I am here working on a crane on the canal and writing the inevitable novel at night.”

Letters to the novelist David Markson and to his children Matthew and my friend Sarah, also a novelist, are often erudite and touching in equal measure. In 1982, he wrote to a friend:

“Surely in a world like this one, integrity, if only a shred of it, is the only thing left, & there’s even something to be said for obscurity.”

There could be no better summary for what Gaddis accomplished on the page.

In his introduction, Moore acknowledges that some readers might find his own first-person annotations “intrusive and self-serving.” I did not find them terribly so, but it’s true that Charles Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade’s poem Pale Fire in the Nabokov novel did come to mind. Moore also writes that “the chief value of these letters is not their documentation of a colorful life but their revelation of how chaotic the composition of Gaddis’ novels were.” It’s a good lesson for any struggling artist.

The Letters of William Gaddis won’t help The Recognitions or A Frolic of His Own or J R (my personal favorite) gain new admirers, nor is it intended to. It is, however, a welcome book for those of us who want to learn of the financial, legal, and marital challenges Gaddis faced while writing what is without question some of the most profound – if still seldom read – literature of the 20th century.