William Gaddis Remembered

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.

Photograph of William Gaddis, 1982. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

“The Blue Jay,” an early undated piece of writing by William Gaddis. You can read it in its entirety in our online exhibit on Gaddis under “Juvenilia.”

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.

A rough draft of The Recognitions, from the William Gaddis Papers.

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’ National Book Award Medal. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

A “Far Side” cartoon from Agapē Agape (2002), Gaddis’ novel about a player piano. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

A photo of William Gaddis taken by his friend William Gass when they were in the Soviet Union together, 1985. From the International Writers Center Archive.

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.

A flyer for a reading by William Gass at Washington University in St. Louis, 1979. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

A letter from William Gass to William Gaddis, 1981. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

A typescript manuscript of JR, with dialogue cut and pasted together. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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.

The cover of the June 1975 issue of Harper’s Magazine in which a selection from JR appeared. From the William Gaddis Papers.

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”).

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

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. 

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.