The Letters of William Gaddis,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda


As in his lifetime, William Gaddis (1922-98) remains a shadowy figure in 20th-century American fiction. When his first book, “The Recognitions,” appeared in 1955, the critics ignored, dismissed or misunderstood it. Two decades then passed before Gaddis produced a second novel, “J R” (1975), which won the National Book Award. In those years between, “The Recognitions” gradually came to be valued by many serious readers as the secret masterpiece of our time. In its vision of universal forgery, fakery and inauthenticity, in nearly 1,000 pages packed with arcane learning out of J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess,” Gaddis, it was argued, had produced the American counterpart to “Ulysses” or “The Magic Mountain.”
Some readers regard “J R” — told largely in dialogue — as an even greater book. Gaddis himself thought so. It focuses on a mysterious mogul, a real wheeler-dealer, who is in fact an 11-year-old boy with a flair for playing the market. After this dizzying accounting of money and business in American life, Gaddis brought out a somewhat perfunctory short novel (“Carpenter’s Gothic,” 1985), then returned to form in “A Frolic of His Own” (1994), a satirical look at the law, in which everyone ends up suing everyone else. It collected another National Book Award. In 2002, four years after his death, there appeared the novella-length “Agape Agape” — about, as he writes in one of these letters, “measurement & quantification as indexing thence dictating order & performance” — and a collection of occasional pieces, named after its great essay on failure, “The Rush for Second Place.”
This potted summary of William Gaddis’s career is offered mainly out of a suspicion, a fear, really, that his work is — to paraphrase the closing lines of “The Recognitions” — still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom read. His three masterpieces are each too long to be part of an ordinary college English course. They are reputed to be off-puttingly dense and demanding (though they are also enormously funny). And, most shocking, they seem to go in and out of print. At this moment “The Recognitions” is available only as an e-book, while used copies of its most recent paperback edition are priced at oddly extravagant sums.
Nonetheless, Gaddis has always been lucky in his readers and supporters. These range from the innovative novelists David Markson and William Gass to the editor of this collection of his letters, Steven Moore, who annotates them in meticulous and invariably illuminating detail. A frequent reviewer for The Washington Post, Moore is our leading authority on Gaddis, having published a short critical biography, a reader’s guide to “The Recognitions” and several important essays on the writer’s friends and contemporaries.
For the most part, Gaddis’s letters aren’t what you might call literary. They are written mainly to his mother, a few lifelong buddies, his agents and students of his work asking for information. (Those answering inquiries from the young Moore are by far the best.) A few are addressed to youthful girlfriends, many to his second wife, Judith, and to his children Sarah and Matthew. Gaddis hardly ever alludes to his current reading or writing. We learn little more than that he makes outlines, scribbles lots of notes, engages in intense but somewhat haphazard research and needs years to finish a work to his satisfaction.