- The Compositional Self in William Gaddis' JR
It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save for the printed books.—William Faulkner
William Gaddis has long been counted among the most reticent of authors. Although not nearly as inaccessible as Pynchon, and still less actively pursued, he too is a writer of clear stature whose absence from public and institutional life has itself created publicity. Thomas LeClair perceived this in 1981, when he grouped Gaddis, in company with Pynchon, Salinger, and DeLillo, in a Horizon roundup of "Missing Writers," and Cynthia Ozick, reviewing Carpenter's Gothic on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, identified Gaddis briefly as the writer who is famous for not being famous enough. These are descriptions that come close to the many paradoxes, disappointments, and unfortunate ironies [End Page 655] of Gaddis' career, because for more than twenty years after the publication of The Recognitions (1955), Gaddis lived and wrote in silence, making a living (mostly freelancing) as a corporate speech writer, and occasionally hearing his novel spoken of—much as its last sentence had predicted it would be—with high regard, although it was seldom read (The Recognitions 956).
The invisibility of those years, however, although it may have been reinforced by the fate of The Recognitions, cannot be wholly attributed to critical neglect. Gaddis' firm opposition to the cult of personality, his guarded public statements, and a glowering disdain for biographical criticism, have enabled him more recently to sustain a great deal of critical attention with his privacy intact. From what he has said in the interviews promoting Carpenter's Gothic, and from the novels themselves, it is clear that he takes a strong New Critical stand on the subject of the writer's personality. For Gaddis, the work of art has to be the only center for interest—the man behind the work, the "human shambles that follows it around," as Wyatt Gwyon calls him (The Recognitions 96), is of no importance whatsoever or is important only in so far as he serves his art.
For this reason, all that Gaddis feels ought to be said about himself—and this, one is surprised to discover, can be a great deal—gets said in his books. There he is free to create his own fictions, rather than have the details of his biography appropriated for the fictions of the popular media and culture industry. These seldom take the air time or column space to consider, with Gaddis in JR, "how less like anyone we can be than unlike ourselves," but look instead for a person's most salient trait at a given moment of celebrity (486).1 John Kuehl and Steven Moore have sketched out some of the more verifiable transmutations of Gaddis' biography into fiction, noting, for example, the way that he "split himself into the playwright Otto and the novelist Willie in The Recognitions," as he would do again "in the persons of Jack Gibbs and Thomas Eigen in the second novel" (12). And Gaddis himself, in response to an editor at Harcourt, Brace, and World who wanted to identify him with Wyatt Gwyon, confirms that his self-characterization in The Recognitions was not of a piece: "I am Wyatt, and Anselm, and Otto, and Stanley: and I have my Basil Valentine moments" (cited in Moore 68). Rather than identify himself fully with any single character, Gaddis pursues the more difficult coherence of the novel, through which contradictory levels in the author's life can be distributed among several characters and so made to cohere in the tensions and interrelations that exist among them.
On those rare occasions when he has felt obliged to speak outside of his work, Gaddis usually evades questions about his personal life by [End Page 656] reiterating his reasons for wanting to keep quiet, as he did when accepting the National Book Award for JR in 1975:
I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often...