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“Lunacy and Organization” in the William Gaddis Papers, Part 2

In celebration of the new editions of William Gaddis’s first two novels, The Recognitions and J R, both published by NYRB Classics, we are exploring the origins of the books in the William Gaddis Papers, “where organization and lunacy struggle with one another,” as the author wrote to his agent in 1964. See Part 1 for more on how Gaddis’s creative process, archive, and finished book reflect each other through that struggle.

Camera-ready mockup of J R title page

Just as a writer’s published and unpublished materials reflect each other in the creative process, there is a related reflection between reading and researching a book like J R. What results is the joy of discovery, and a creative process of one’s own. When one goes into a box of papers knowing generally what the contents are but anticipating that surprises potentially await, it is like entering the dialogue-dominated world of J R itself. One has to piece together one’s own connections, based upon clues hiding in the clutter.

Since many will not have that opportunity to explore the William Gaddis Papers in person, especially during the COVID pandemic, I hope the following exercise will provide a fun and enlightening way for any J R reader to make some of those connections for him or herself. It’s not the same as leafing through the folders in person, but since doing that virtually with every folder of the 28 boxes related to J R is not possible at this time, you will have to imagine yourself finding these items randomly in any given folder!

After going through every J R folder and taking selected “scans” along the way with an app for the iPad, I divided the images into five categories and sorted them into respective folders in Box, which are linked in the headings below. Click on each heading to see more images from that category. The numbers at the beginning of the filenames represent the box and folder from which the images came. Keep in mind, none of the images are proper scans, so quality is sometimes less than optimal.


“Penny Stocks-Dollar Bubbles” clipping

Anyone who has read about Gaddis likely knows he gathered much inspiration from his jobs as a corporate writer in the 1950s and ‘60s for his novel J R. He also clipped heavily from newspapers and magazines about happenings with government, business, Wall Street, natural resources, and other topics related to the titular character’s corporate takeovers.

Other clippings in the folder linked above include a story on businessmen Bible luncheons, the 1973 American Indian Movement takeover of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and a notice to purchase shipyards, with notations by Gaddis. All of these were incorporated in some way into the book. In another case, of some classifieds, an image of the clippings themselves provides a visual bridge between reality and fiction for the reader.

Ephemera, Corporate Literature, Advertisements

A library call slip for Miniature Golf Management, a Forest Service Smokey the Bear certificate, two memo notepads for the fictional JR Family of Companies, a number of Indian Affairs newsletters, various stockholder reports, a catalog of sex books, and all sorts of beauty advertisements, are just some of the printed materials one can find scattered among the J R draft pages.

Assorted advertisements from the J R files

These types of materials provide evidence for how Gaddis constructed the fictional world of his book out of the real world. As Joseph Tabbi reveals in Nobody Grew but the Business, much like the J R characters Bast and Gibbs, Gaddis was using an uptown Manhattan studio apartment he shared with a friend to store his manuscripts. He also kept there “what would become over the years a massive quantity of source materials–much of which, when they found their way to the Queens storage bin for eventual transport to the Special Collections at Washington University in St. Louis, would be the same recycled food and liquor boxes that he describes in the novel.”

Tabbi continues: “The growth of the J R Family of Companies, in this sense, is built on the same attention to minutiae within a disordered environment that Gaddis brought from his own Manhattan workplace into the novel itself.” And in the next paragraph: “Precisely from such disorder, however, he would conjure the meteoric rise of the J R Family of Companies, as reflected by the ever-increasing volumes of mail, office equipment, visitors, telephone calls, and overnight guests received at the apartment” (127).


Gaddis also filed letters with his drafts, often with editors and others involved in the evolution from handwritten notes to published book. A bit puzzling (to me, at least) is why a 1953 Harvard Fund letter or a 1954 rejection letter for a TV script Gaddis wrote—both pre-dating work on J R—are located in these files. Also perhaps randomly included, but what would have been received during work on J R, is a letter from the Army Pictorial Center, and a form letter about the Antioch College Interracial Education Program, both from the mid-1960s. Having at this point only read the book once, however, it’s very possible I missed references to any if not all of these things!

March 25, 1975 letter from Gaddis re final revisions

Then there is the correspondence related to the publishing of the book: a cover letter to Harper’s Magazine and a handwritten letter from the Harper’s copy editor to Gaddis about stylistic changes they had to make; a cover letter from Gaddis, on vacation in Key West, concerning the latest changes and inserts and his plans for improvements in the final scenes; and a handwritten letter from the Knopf proofreader expressing how much she loved reading—and rereading—J R, “searching out temporarily lost clues” and sharing favorite passages with friends. A sincere letter such as this expressing the joy of discovery is presumably not something a writer receives from a proofreader very often.

Notes and Drawings

As one might expect from a 726-page novel with 122 characters, and a number of visual effects, the J R folders are full of charts, doodles, and outlines drafted by the author to bring order and imagery to the verbal lunacy.

Cut and taped notes overlaying JR logo doodles that appear in the book

In almost every folder you’ll find at least one example of typed notes cut into strips to be re-ordered according as Gaddis wished. You can also find notes (sometimes cut up, sometimes not) related to J R’s various businesses, his school, and his many cohorts, among other topics. Gaddis outlined the book alphabetically, so there are handwritten outlines with letters, timelines, settings and corresponding page numbers. Characters are often outlined in charts. His funny renderings of the “J R” logo interposed on a “$” symbol exist much as they look in the book.

Sometimes Gaddis’s handwritten notes and letters throughout his papers show an impressive calligraphic style, such as when he is transcribing quotations and phrases, that again the reader can find photos duplicated in the book. Other times, his handwriting is more hurried, scribbled in random places, and likely intended for the author’s understanding only, or to remind him of something later.

Notes on the 96th Street apartment

That cluttered (to put it mildly) uptown apartment shows up on a page with typewritten lists of what is stashed there and a rough, holograph layout of the space itself and where its contents reside. Holograph notes on Wagner’s Das Rheingold, which Bast’s class memorably attempts to stage early in the novel, are also in the Box folder linked above.

When such a thing as chapters still existed in relation to J R, Gaddis wrote out the plot points and action to take place in each. Other early notes, such as questions for the author to consider, are sometimes typed. Broader notes exist on envelopes and the backs of bank deposit cards, including thoughts on the next great American novel, definitions of success and failure, and the history and meaning of comedy.

Drafts and Proofs

First page from an early draft–set in the school during the Wagner rehearsal

Finally, we come to the primary category, and the largest one: all the variant stages of the text itself in the drafts and proofs. While I am categorizing them together, the drafts could represent the “lunacy” and the proofs the “organization” that Gaddis mentioned in his April 26, 1964 letter, in how disordered the former and ordered the latter were kept.

As mentioned earlier in that letter, Gaddis explained to his agent that he could not send his original draft because its “pages are now dispersed among pages and notes of the new draft…” as he expanded its scope and characters. This is reflected in the archive, with both the earlier and later draft pages intermingling in any given folder, with very little extended sequential order to them.

Just as he tried many different openings, settings, and styles for the book, Gaddis conceived of different subtitles, logo designs, and title page layouts. These early versions, all with varying levels of playfulness, are fun to find and put the book into a deeper context.

Proof revision page

Though the proofs are much more intact than the drafts, some significant revision work continued, at times with cut-and-tape methodology but more often with more traditional holograph corrections. As one sees in the correspondence found in these files too, Gaddis made major changes to the ending, replacing pages of text as the typesetters, proofreaders, and others were putting the book into production. Camera-ready pages of the clippings, doodles, and other graphics, including for the cover, were saved by Gaddis as well.

To view other images from the William Gaddis Papers, see the first part of this blog post series which drew on (actual) scans in the Modern Literature Collection: The First Fifty Years digital exhibition. The third part will focus on the materials Gaddis saved while writing his first novel, The Recognitions.