Since the brilliant leap of his first novel, The Recognitions, a 956 page masterpiece, William Gaddis has always been a writer with an endangered reputation. About Wyatt (why art?) Gwyon, an unrecognized painter who had turned to art forgery, the length and complexity of Gaddis’s narrative made his appeal more evident to other writers than to any large audience. In his 1986 Paris Review interview, an unlikely event for Gaddis conducted in Budapest, he claimed his novel was a “pilgrimage towards salvation,” but many readers found his proliferation of characters, the dazzle of reverberating motifs, and the thicket of his allusions too dense and demanding to be considered paradisiacal. The Paris Review formulation for Gaddis was that he was the “satiric chronicler of chaotic existence and entropic disintegration,” which seemed closer to post-modernist Hell than to any more ethereal possibility.
The subsequent fictions got even more complicated with unattributed dialogue, “word storms that rage for scores of pages,” and “page long paragraphs in which oxygen was a premium” Jonathan Franzen complained in a long piece on Gaddis in The New Yorker in 2002. The complexity— which Franzen associates with T.S. Eliot but should be traced to Henry James’s late period, from The Awkward Age (1899), The Sacred Fount (1901) and The Golden Bowl (1904)—prevented many hopeful readers from completing Gaddis’s subsequent fictions like JR (1975) or A Frolic of One’s Own (1994).
Gaddis’s numerous detractors may have felt he was frolicking in their claustrophobia. They accused him of prolixity, of logorrhea, rambling and occasionally ranting, “constipated to the point of being unreadable,” as Franzen so harshly put it. In his Paris Review interview, Gaddis confessed that when he wrote, he did not “think of the audience.” His implicit purpose was to recruit the reader, whom he imagined “almost as a collaborator in creating the picture,” a reader who shared the courage to face a relative universe that was purposeless and even senseless. That reader, however idealized, would have to be highly intelligent, perspicaciously disciplined and diligent, with sufficient patience to persevere and glean.
Gaddis’s demands on the reader increased after The Recognitions (1955), and it took him two decades to write his second novel, JR. That evolution is somewhat akin to Ezra Pound’s turn after Imagism after the WWI when he spent forty years fabricating the labyrinthine density of The Cantos. Earlier, this was the direction Henry James had taken after he was booed in 1894 when he took his curtain call at the premiere of his hapless play Guy Domville. James’s humiliation, and his consequent Flaubertian decision to write exclusively for himself, marked a point of demarcation for fiction in English that came with the promise of considerable risk for any writer who believed that the art of fiction trumped the necessity for entertainment. Though there is no reference to Henry James in The Letters of William Gaddis, there are over seventy evocations of Eliot, who with Pound, Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford formed part of a cult of admiring younger writers who revered James as “The Master.”
Always urbane, The Letters of William Gaddis reflect James’s fastidiousness with a meticulous concern for the architectural propriety of every sentence. However, the early pages of letters to his mother, Edith, who had separated from Gaddis’s father when he was four, are more clipped than James, without the flair. Edith worked for an energy company in New York and sent her son to boarding school and to Harvard. These letters to Mom seem written without angst, almost perfunctory—with the tactful deference of a son to a supportive mother— and they mostly seem to skim the surface of Gaddis’s adventures branding cows in Arizona or taking classes at Harvard.
Gaddis must have used his experience contributing to the Harvard Lampoon to help him get a job as a fact checker at The New Yorker after the war. Living on Horatio Street in Greenwich Village, drinking at...