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William Gaddis

A photo of William Gaddis seated in front of a portrait of the author.

William Thomas Gaddis, Jr. (December 29, 1922 – December 16, 1998) was an American novelist.

Born in New York City, Gaddis’s parents separated with he was three and he was subsequently raised in Massapequa (Long Island) by his mother. At age five, Gaddis was sent to Merricourt Boarding School in Berlin, Connecticut. He continued in private school until the eighth grade, after which he returned to Long Island to receive his diploma at Farmingdale High School in 1941. Gaddis entered Harvard in 1941 and famously wrote for the Harvard Lampoon (where he eventually served as President). After leaving Harvard without a degree in 1945, Gaddis worked as a fact-checker for The New Yorker, then spent five years traveling in Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, England, and North Africa, only returning to the United States in 1951.

Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work, it had to wait to find its audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual and overwritten. Gaddis turned to public relations work and the making of documentary films to support himself and his family. In this role, he worked for Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, IBM, and the United States Army, among others. Gaddis also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, a Rockefeller grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, all of which helped him write his second novel.

William Gaddis working on the set of “Battle of St. Vith.” From the William Gaddis Papers.

In 1975, Gaddis published JR, a novel even more difficult than The Recognitions, told almost entirely in dialogue, where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking. Critical opinion had caught up with him, however, and the book won the National Book Award for Fiction. Gaddis’s third novel Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) would be nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, while his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), would earn him a second National Book Award in 1995.

Gaddis died of prostate cancer, but not before creating his final work, Agapē Agape, which was published in 2002. The Rush for Second Place, published at the same time, collected most of Gaddis’s previously published nonfiction.

See the William Gaddis Centenary Conference Beyond the “Very Small Audience”: Centenary, Archive, and Futures (October 20-22, 2022) for information regarding the celebration at Washington University around the 100th anniversary of William Gaddis’s birth in 2022.

Steven Moore Collection of William Gaddis Research

Includes editorial materials and correspondence along with Moore’s Gaddis research files. Several books and periodicals by or on Gaddis have been transferred to Rare Books.
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Modern Literature Collection's 50th Anniversary Digital Exhibit

Digitized materials from the William Gaddis Papers are made available through the Modern Literature Collection.

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William Gaddis Papers

The William Gaddis Papers consist largely of his own manuscript material: manuscripts and source material for his books, drafts of various stories, published and unpublished, as well as essays, reviews, interviews, and a miscellaneous assortment of notes and other materials. Also present is a substantial amount of personal and general correspondence, primarily with family, friends, and fans. In addition, there is a relatively large amount of correspondence with editors, translators, and publishers, as well as correspondence with his colleagues in the literary community.

A pencil sketch of a young William Gaddis in portrait.

Explore Related Papers

  • Charles Monaghan Papers | Materials relating to Monaghan’s relationship with William Gaddis as an early Gaddis promoter. Includes correspondence and other various Gaddis-related material.
  • Donald Oresman Papers | Correspondence between Oresman and William Gaddis, as well as drafts and source material for Gaddis’s book, A Frolic of His Own.
  • Richard Hazelton Papers | Consists of materials relating to William Gaddis, including correspondence, lecture notes, clippings, print material, and an interview with Hazelton.
  • Hunter Low Papers | Correspondence, clippings, and photographs concerning the filming of the Battle of St. Vith and William Gaddis. Gaddis served as the writer and Low served as producer for the Battle of St. Vith.


Special Collections, Special Collections, Preservation, and Digital Strategies
Joel Minor
Job Title
Curator of Modern Lit Collection/Manuscripts
Phone Number
(314) 935-5413

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