Twenty years ago, on December 16, 1998, American lost one of its greatest postmodern novelists when William Gaddis passed away at the age of 75. Today, we celebrate Gaddis’ life with an overview of the Modern Literature Collection‘s William Gaddis Papers at the Washington University Libraries.
The Life of William Gaddis
William Gaddis was born December 29th, 1922 in New York City and raised by his mother in Long Island. In 1941, he entered Harvard University, where he wrote for, and then served as president of, the Harvard Lampoon. The William Gaddis Papers include some of his schoolwork and juvenilia from elementary school through college.
After leaving Harvard in 1945 without a degree, Gaddis worked as a fact checker for the The New Yorker and traveled for several years, during which time he socialized with the emerging Beat Generation. He published his first novel, The Recognitions in 1955. Although it is now considered a landmark in postmodern fiction, initial reviews found it overly intellectual and overwritten, and Gaddis took up jobs in public relations and documentary film making.
It took Gaddis twenty years to publish a second novel, but when he did the critical response was much more positive. JR (1975), which is written almost entirely in dialogue form, was in fact so well received that it won the National Book Award for Fiction. Gaddis’ third novel Carpenter’s Gothic(1985) was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, and his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), won Gaddis a second National Book Award. The 1994 program for the National Book Award offers high praise for A Frolic of His Own, stating,
“Not since Nabokov have we seen such magisterial disdain, reasoned alarm and hard pity for human foolishness, disorder, and misfortune.”
Gaddis passed away from cancer in 1998 when he was 75 years old. His fifth and final work, Agapē Agape was published posthumously in 2002.
Acquiring a Monumental Collection
William Gaddis was good friends with fellow writer William Gass, who was director of the International Writers Center at Washington University in St. Louis (since transformed into the Center for the Humanities). Gass was an early champion of Gaddis’ work and was on the panel that gave the National Book Award to JR in 1976. The two men struck up a friendship in the early 1980s that would continue until Gaddis’ death.
Gaddis was notoriously reclusive when it came to speaking to the press or giving readings, but he made exceptions for Gass and participated in a number of symposiums and events he hosted at Washington University in St. Louis. William Gaddis was also a visiting Hurst Professor at Washington University in 1979 and gave a number of lectures while he was here. You can hear audio recordings of some of his lectures in our online exhibit on Gass and our online exhibit of Gaddis.
Gass was a strong proponent of the Modern Literature Collection at Washington University, and it was largely through his influence that Special Collections was able to acquire the Gaddis’ literary archive and personal library.
Contents of the Collection
The William Gaddis Papers consist largely of manuscripts and source material toward Gaddis’ books, essays, reviews, interviews, published and unpublished stories, and a miscellaneous assortment of notes and other materials. The collection also includes a substantial amount of personal and general correspondence, primarily with family, friends, fans, editors, translators, publishers, and his colleagues in the literary community.
Special Collections is also privileged to have William Gaddis’ entire personal library. Gaddis was an avid reader who borrowed quotes from a number of sources in writing his books. To see how researchers have used his annotated books to map allusions in Gaddis’ notoriously complex novels, please see our interview with Princeton University student David Ting.
Supplemental Collections Related to Gaddis
The presence of the Gaddis Papers at Washington University has led to the acquisition of a number of other supplemental collections of people connected with Gaddis, including people who worked with him (Hunter Low, producer of a film titled “Battle of St. Vith” Gaddis worked on as a writer and Donald Oresman, a corporate lawyer), scholars who have written and lectured on his work (Richard Hazelton and Steven Moore), and other promoters of his work (Charles Monaghan, editor of “Book World”).
The William Gaddis Papers and related collections consistently bring in researchers from all over the world. For more on William Gaddis, please see our online exhibit, which has many more digitized selections from his archive available.