Minimalist Retrospective on a Maximalist Writer, William Gaddis

William Gaddis published his first novel, The Recognitions, that he'd begun in the late 1940s, in 1955.  When the novel fell largely on deaf ears, Gaddis, who'd envisioned a similar blockbuster reception for it that would've allowed him to write full time as was awarded Ralph Ellison with the publication of his first novel, Invisible Man, instead worked as a speechwriter and documentary filmmaker for various companies, including Pfizer International, Eastman Kodak, and IBM, to support his family.

After publishing The Recognitions, Gaddis labored for two decades in obscurity in the business world, observing corporate and capitalist shenanigans up close.  What he witnessed, combined with his deep and abiding disappointment over the apathetic response critics gave his first novel (now considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the 20th century), further fueled his artistic ambitions and motivated him to write his scathing, National Book Award winning follow up, JR (1975), that skewered capitalism like few novels ever had before or since with its unrelenting dialogue.  Critics were initially mixed in their reviews of JR; nevertheless, Gaddis finally enjoyed some positive appraisals of his work he arguably should've enjoyed twenty years previously for The Recognitions -- a novel soon rediscovered and given the proper recognition it had long deserved in what was the then lingering afterglow of JRs success.

Gaddis would publish two more novels over the next twenty years, 1985s Carpenter's Gothic, his most accessible novel to date and a PEN/Faulkner Award nominee; and A Frolic of His Own (1994), his second novel to win the National Book Award, a tome in which Gaddis mocked the legal world and the United State's obsessively litigious culture in the same manner -- with pure non stop spot on barrages of dialogue -- that he levied at U.S. capitalism run amok in JR.  He died from cancer in 1998.

Agapē Agape and The Rush for 2nd Place: Essays & Occasional Writings, were published posthumously in 2002.

The Dalkey Archive Press has just reissued The Recognitions and JR.  I've been informed by my favorite local independent bookstore, The Book Frog, that my Dalkey Archive Gaddises are presently en route to my eager hands.  In celebration of The Dalkey Archive's reissues of two 20th century masterpieces that I hope will help spark a William Gaddis renaissance, I've begun a William Gaddis Legacy Library (a work-in-progress) in LibraryThing.  Hope you'll drop by sometime and check it out.  


  1. It's funny that the two authors Kinna is asking me to read had all been mentioned on blogs today. I learnt today is Somerset Maugham's birthday and here I am reading about William Gaddis. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Mardi, if you want my old Penguin Gaddises, they're yours.

    Nana, I guess I'm asking you to read William Gaddis too! Gaddis first; Maugham second!

  3. Great post! I'm a big fan of Dalkey and I'm going to take a look for these books.

  4. Super that you are doing the legacy library for Gaddis. It would be wonderful if we could start a Gaddis renaissance. He was truly a great writer.

  5. Marie, I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts on Gaddis should you decide to tackle him at some point. I love Dalkey too. If there's a reading frontier out there undiscovered from my vantage point in California, it's the Dalkey Archive.

    Thanks, Murr. It's a really fascinating process closely examining what Gaddis' influences were, particularly the books that are obviously thematically related in some way to the content of his novels. It's still rather mystifying to me, considering how great he was, that he's still somewhat of an unknown entity in the book reading universe. Let the renaissance commence!


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