I’ve been reading through the Letters of William Gaddis, which will be published by the Dalkey Archive Press in March. Painstakingly edited by longtime Gaddis scholar Steve Moore, the letters offer a fascinating look into the private life of possibly the most accomplished literary recluse of the 20th century. Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.
Gaddis first started work on the manuscript that would become The Recognitions in 1947 while living a bohemian life in Mexico. He was to work on and off on the book for a number of years while traveling through Central America, France, Spain, and Africa, but he only really settled down to finish the book in 1952, when he arrived at a farmhouse in Montgomery, New York. He worked night and day for the next two years to organize the book’s half-a-million words. Here, in this 1954 letter to his lifelong friend John Napper he expresses just how burned out he is on the work:
By now you may well think that if our correspondence continues I’ll still be writing you in five more decades, that I’m still working hard on the same thing, same damned book, same parade of megalomania, for I still am scrabbling along on the thing you read ch. I of so many years ago at Chantry Mill. Last winter in an empty farmhouse was to be the end: I emerged in May with the woodchucks and a 15-pound manuscript, which dampened Harcourt- Brace’s spirits more than somewhat, but they’ve given money, money, all of it gone now and nothing to show for it but a bowler hat and a fourteen-&-three- quarter pound MS. They think I’m cutting it, but what I seem to be doing is to take out something I thought was amusing 4 years ago, and put in something equally idiotic which I find amusing now. At the moment it’s spread all over the floor, and is quite impressive if only in square feet. But honestly, it’s about over, the whole extravaganza. Another 6 or 8 weeks, they want the thing and I wish they’d take it, I am so tired of it, have entirely lost interest in every bit of it, and being quite assured that I’m never going to make any more money from it, would so happily forget the entire evidence of wasted youth.
Upon the release of The Recognition in 1955, to mostly derision and confusion, Gaddis began to realize that his life as an author would be a difficult one. Here he complains that a magazine is more interested in him than his book, a theme that Gaddis would take up with indignation time and again, often repeating his enduring question: “What do they want of the man that they didn’t find in the work?”
One (women’s of course) magasine which considered publishing one chapter finally demurred (in frightened awe) but wanted my “picture” and what of my life I cd spare: if you are a writer, they don’t want to buy and print yr writing, but rather a picture and what you eat for breakfast, &c. But then good God! that’s what the book’s about—It’s difficult not to strike a pose, for being “eccentric” enough to try to get across that: What do they want of the man that they didn’t find in the work?
For decades after the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis would be periodically frustrated by scholars who insisted that his book draws heavily from Ulysses, even though he had not read Ulysses and in fact had read very little of Joyce. Gaddis attributed a large part of the problem to a rave from Stuart Gilbert on the original hardcover edition of The Recognitions, Gilbert of course being commonly associated with Joyce. In this 1975 letter he reaches the end of his patience on this subject:
I appreciate your interest in The Recognitions & have to tell you I’ve about reached the end of the line on questions about what I did or didn’t read of Joyce’s 30 years ago. All I read of Ulysses was Molly Bloom at the end which was being circulated for salacious rather than literary merits; No I did not read Finnegans Wake though I think a phrase about ‘psychoanaloosing’ one’s self from it is in The Recognitions; Yes I read some of Dubliners but don’t recall how many & remember only a story called ‘Counterparts’; Yes I read a play called Exiles which at the time I found highly unsuccessful; Yes I believe I read Portrait of an Artist but also think I may not have finished it; No I did not read commentary on Joyce’s work & absorb details without reading the original. I also read, & believe with a good deal more absorbtion, Eliot, Dostoevski, Forster, Rolfe, Waugh, why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespear, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.
Upon the publication of The Recognitions, one of the novel’s earliest and most fervent fans was the author David Markson. Markson began a lifelong friendship with Gaddis when he wrote to both inform Gaddis of his praise for the book and Malcolm Lowry’s regard for it. (This must have given Gaddis much solace while the critical establishment was busy tearing it apart.) Here, in 1970, a tongue-tied Gaddis, who was always uncomfortable with any kind of self-promotion, tries to explain to his friend why he doesn’t want to blurb his book:
My feeling essentially is that a book really goes out on its own, for the human remains that wrote it to run along after it is suicidal since there’s clearly no separating them until the mortal partner drops. I don’t think ‘one decent blurb or two’ is going to alter Asher’s promotion at all, I don’t think lack of them is going to deter it; and the whole God damned area is to me like trying to make magic that will shape a course already implicit and then, if the course takes the feared-for direction, blaming the ex post facto magic, or the lack of it. I’ve never had my name on anybody else’s book jack or ad that I know of, I honestly do not think it would help sell a copy, it reeks a bit of self-advertisement though perhaps, out of a deep mistrust for human motives or rather of them and the abyss between them and their expression this is merely an extreme inverted vanity on my part. Because on the other hand I do admire the generosity of people of stature like, say, Robert Graves, Norman Mailer, TS Eliot writing jacket blurbs for Faber, all of these people quite open-handed. I don’t know. I think of a boy I had at Univ of Connecticut working on a novel which I greatly encouraged, think publishable & have tried to help him place, he’s someone who’s never published and I hope to see have a chance, when/if his book is published, what. I don’t know.
Gaddis was a loving father to his two children, despite having to weather two divorces in his life. In this 1973 letter he gives his son, Matthew, advice any teenage son would be lucky to receive from a father:
Of course the problem is setting the goals in the first place; many enough ‘successful’ men end up drunks for having fulfilled goals the world set for them and then finding they’ve fulfilled nothing in themselves; many enough kids end up junkies for having decided the world’s goals aren’t worth trying for and being unable to set any of their own. A few fortunate combine the two (I don’t mean drink and drugs, but meaning your own and wordly goals), and your education and growing up now are vitally important because learning the world’s goals (even marks in school) gives you the material to form your own—and don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that by your 16th birthday you should know whether you want to be a poet or an astronaut, but only have a hungry curiosity in all directions for anything that brings you and your mind to life.
As with The Recognitions, Gaddis’ second novel, J R, was finished in a mammoth frenzy of work. In this 1974 letter, a year before the book would be published, Gaddis vents some of his frustrations:
it’s unfair to sit down to write you this God damned weary of everything, problem I get up in the morning and think any positive energy has simply got to go to this God damned book & by this time of day haven’t a kind word left for anybody including the attachment hereto which should confirm your worst hopes for Winning: at this moment I suppose because of the feeling that I’m doing the same God damned thing all over again with this book & will be 70 for the same idiotic reward, get your God damned picture in the Times and $5500. royalty on it while just your God damned teeth are threatening $8000. . . .
Try to start again. I ‘finished’ this book 1004 (legal size) pages am now on page 180 cutting ruthlessly nothing to make you wearier of yourself than artfulness when you were 10 years younger whole God damned proposition like living with an invalid real God damned terminal case you keep hoping will pick up his God damned bed and walk like the good book says, tobacco stained and full of whisky and an old dog heaving quietly on the floor behind me.
Upon the failure of J R to find a sizable readership, despite positive reviews and winning the National Book Award for 1976, Gaddis had to accept that the book was a loss for its publisher, Knopf. In this sad letter, the author complains to his agent that he has finally realized that his publisher just doesn’t care very much about his work if it won’t make money:
The point is, I don’t want to publish again with him any more, I think, than he wants to publish me. Sometimes I’m pretty slow thinking, Candida, especially when I have the idea that I’m held with confidence and respect. For a good many months there I thought the people at Knopf held me and my work in high regard, and it has taken a few real snubs to finally let me know that I’m considered simply somewhat of a nuisance. The NBA should certainly have made it clear, Bob too busy to take us to lunch, too important to take us to dinner and too chintzy to pay for it, he seemed simply embarrassed by the book’s showing a new breath of life when he’d already written it off. A few months ago the mails brought a steady stream of reviews, mentions &c from Goerner. Since the NBA, all I’ve had of that was the PW writeup that you sent me and a long piece from the LA Times from a friend in California, so I gather the word has gone down to stop bothering with those mailings too.
Although he had now won a major book award for J R and had the favor of writers of the caliber of Stanley Elkin, David Markson, and William Gass, in his 50s Gaddis was still struggling to pay his bills. In this 1977 letter, the publicity-adverse Gaddis contemplates accepting an invitation to appear at a writers’ conference with William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and others in order to get some much needed money. He’s oddly impressed that Godfather author Mario Puzo seems to envy him.
Meanwhile I am shying from readings and panels and finally have a good & encouraging talk with William Gass coming with his wife, Hills meanwhile reshaping it into a no-lecture no-panel informal thing at least that’s how it stands now, but if Gass abruptly disappears I may be tempted to do the same. (Which of course is nonsense because for me it’s little or nothing to [do] with anything but the fee is it: Barthelme drops out because he’s already overbooked with just this sort of thing; Calisher is a star, Vance has got nothing else to do, Gass admires me because I’ve been able to stay out (till now), I admire him because he separates it all clearly & relaxedly in his head (‘my public & private selves haven’t even shaked hands for many years’); & from admire to envy, (Candida says) Puzo envies my status of which he feels he has none, I his money of which we know God damned well we’ve got none . . .
In this 1985 letter, Gaddis, who by that time had accumulated a cult following in the U.S. and was known as reclusive, responds to a claim made by Dutch critic Graa Boomsma that fellow cult author Thomas Pynchon had once dropped by his house to say hello. The normally irascible Gaddis seems to be more bemused than anything by the story.
Thanks for your letter of the 30th September with its news—news to me—that Graa Boomsma not only visited us on Long Isld but that he met Thomas Pynchon here! He had written me of his trip to the US hoping we might meet, but there was some confusion & it never came about, surely not out here, most surely not Pynchon (whom I’ve never met, despite the many critical claims to similarity in our work: I see us both classed paranoid & conspiratorial but who, aside from James Michner, is not?). And so I would very much appreciate it when you’ve got the time if you might send me a copy of his piece with a translation. Most curious.
After the demise of Gaddis’s second marriage in the 1970s, when his much younger wife left him in order to “find herself,” the middle-aged Gaddis reignited a romance with Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, whom he had briefly been in love with as a young man. In this 1995 letter to Murphy, with whom he would exchange a number of letters as their relationship deteriorated, a 73-year-old Gaddis draws on the style of Thomas Bernhard to recount the end of his relationship with her.
“Words ruin one’s thoughts, paper makes them ridiculous, and even while one is still glad to get something ruined and something ridiculous down on paper, one’s memory manages to lose hold of even this ruined and ridiculous something. Paper can turn an enormity into a triviality, an absurdity. If you look at it this way, then whatever appears in the world, by way of the spiritual world so to speak, is always a ruined thing, a ridiculous thing, which means that everything in this world is ridiculous and ruined. Words were made to demean thought, he would even go so far as to state that words exist in order to abolish thought . . . In any case, words were bringing everything down, Konrad said. Depression derives from words, nothing else . . . It was comforting, one of those rare times when one feels that everything is possible again, Konrad is supposed to have said to Fro. Suddenly everything . . .
—Thomas Bernhard, The Lime Works
. . . is sad, Konrad said to Fro, that was not my word, Konrad said, it was not my word but it was the perfect word, it was the word that took in everything, the whole past present even perhaps the future while looking for the words to forestall that future because none of this was new, it had been going on for months, even years, even all the years since the dreadful third party came into the picture to help, I want you to help me with her the dreadful third party said gradually shifting the burden over months and finally years having to explain, having to account, being called to account Konrad told Fro, but every explanation or rather every attempt at explanation only demanded further explanation which was disregarded, every appeal was disregarded, shrugged off by the dreadful third party, the last thing I ever want to do is hurt her I told Fro, hurting her is absolutely the last thing I want to do so that finally it seems (I am told) all I do whatever I do or say hurts her until I hardly know what I am saying (or doing) which is the last thing I want to do (or say) because the next to the last thing I want to do is to enrage her but as the years go by and turn into months and finally the months turn into weeks everything I do or say seems to eventually enrage her I tell Fro, I’m going to run down and get the newspaper I’ll be back in a minute in my coat, standing there in my coat she is suddenly enraged because I thought there would be an interview with me in the newspaper (of course there wasn’t I tell Fro), none of my small triumphs seem to please her when I had thought they would please her when what I thought would please her is usually met with silence or even derision or even what seems like contempt because it means that I have put other obligations first, that is what hurts her and angers her, wouldn’t any woman feel that way I ask Fro? Is there anything surprising about that? . . .