The Letters of William Gaddis, ed. Steven Moore, NYRB, 2023
Chapter One: “Growing Up, 1930-1946”
To Edith Gaddis (mother), 9 Dec. 1930
To Frances Henderson Diamond (early love interest), 13 March 1946
Synopsis, citations, and observations:
Most of the letters collected by Moore in this first section of Letters are addressed to Edith Gaddis, whom Moore appropriately describes as “the heroine of the first half of this book: his confidante, research assistant, financial benefactor, his everything.”
His everything clearly includes everything, but I would’ve thrown in the words earliest audience. The letters featured in this earliest chapter show only the barest germ of the writer into which Gaddis would evolve—but they do show a tenacious foundation for practice, one facilitated by a loving, motherly reader.
Here is the first letter in the volume:
Dec. 9, 1930
Our vacation is from Sat. Dec. 20. to January 4.
We are making scrapbooks and lots of things. We are learning about the Greek Gods.
I am making an airplane book.
Little Billy is a few weeks shy of eight years old here, attending boarding school in Connecticut. He attended Merricourt from the time he was five—around the same time his mother Edith separated from his father, William T. Gaddis.
It’s clear why Moore would single out this particular letter for inclusion. The mechanical notion of “making” books, in particular books from scrap, recalls Jack Gibbs, hero of J R., who keeps scraps of newspapers and magazines in his pockets). Our boy was always a scissors-and-paste man.
The Letters gets through childhood and adolescence fairly quickly (a few scant pages) before we find 17-year old Bill sailing on the Caribbean on the SS Bacchus. There’s not much to the Caribbean adventure, but it does initiate an early theme of The Letters—young Bill goes on adventures, often getting in over his head, but also expanding his worldview. “A good part of the crew are colored but they’re okay too,” he writes to Mama Gaddis, a cringeworthy line, sure, but also one that underscores that Our Hero is a man of privilege.
A year later he’s at Harvard.
But not at Harvard for long!
This theme of attending and departing Harvard goes on a bit in the first part of Letters. (Gaddis never earned a degree). Young Bill fell ill his first semester (making him part of a famous fraternity of sick writers: Joyce, O’Connor, Kafka, Walser, Keats, Crane, Wharton, etc.),
What to do? Our Hero heads West, eventually landing in Arizona to recuperate.
Eastern Boy Gaddis’s Western Adventure is especially humorous against the backdrop of his literary oeuvre to come, particularly The Recognitions, which sardonically roasted poseurs (while simultaneously lifting up the efforts of counterfeiters who channel True Art). Our Boy decides to be a cowboy. In a letter to Mama Edith dated 17 Jan. 1942, he details his cowboy outfit:
I have gotten a pair of blue jeans ($1.39) and a flannel shirt (98¢) for this riding—expect to get another pair of jeans today—and later perhaps a pair of “frontier pants” and a gabardine shirt. No hat as yet as they do seem sort of “dudey”—but I can see that it too will become almost a necessity before too long.
The letter is part of an early genre that Gaddis hacked away at, if never perfecting: Mom, need money.
As for wanting anything else—well there are things down here that make me froth just to look at them!—belts such as I never dreamed of—rings—beautiful silver and leather work—but I figure I don’t need any of it now and will let it go until I’ve been around a bit more and seen more of these things that I’ve always known must exist somewhere!
We’ve all been twenty, all made questionable fashion choices, all wanted Beautiful Things We Could Not Afford. (Most of us have not had the misfortune to have our private letters published.)
Letters includes a photograph of Cowboy Bill, duded up in boots with horse. He did not give up the affect easily; in a later letter from the fall of 1942, when he’d returned to Harvard, he requested the following of Dear Mother:
Say when you get a chance could you start the following things on their way up here to make our room more habitable[:] the leopard skin on the lodge closet door—the spurs on the floor nearby—both of Smokey’s pictures—the small rug—both machetes and the little Mexican knife & sheath & chain to the right of the east hayloft windows (one machete is over hayloft door—the other on edge of balcony)—also any thing else you think might look intriguing on our wall—oh yes the steers’ horns—
Bill Gaddis spent much of the year bumming around the American West, getting to Los Angeles, Wyoming, and as far as east as St. Louis, where he meets a woman
hard of hearing—and her son Otto, who’s about 23—is sort of—simple. He went thru college—then started in at Harvard (!) and then cracked up it seems.
The first time I read The Recognitions, I found Otto a repugnant poseur of the worst stripe. Reading and rereading The Letters and Gaddis’s first novel, I find myself far more sympathetic.
The version of Young Gaddis we get from these early letters will resonate with anyone who’s held artistic ambitions. He’s callow, largely unread, generally ignorant of just how ignorant he is, charming, brave, and foolish. And while his reliance on his mama’s money transfers can occasionally irk, there’s a deep tenderness in his writing to her—for her. Again, almost every one of these letters are written to and for Edith.
William Thomas Gaddis Junior’s father and namesake hardly pops up in the discourse (at least in Moore’s edit), but a letter to Edith dated 26 Jan. 1942 is unusually detailed on the paternal topic:
And then as you say this slightly ironic setup—about my father. …As you said it has not been a great emotional problem for me, tho it does seem queer; you see I still feel a little like I must have when I said “I have no father; I never had a father!,” and since things have been as they have, I have never really missed one—honestly—and only now does it seem queer to me. All I know of fathers I have seen in other families, and in reading, and somehow thru the deep realization I have gained of their importance; of father-and-son relations; and families: not just petty little groups, but generations—a name and honour and all that goes with it—this feeling that I have gained from other channels without ever having missed its actual presence: somehow these are the only ties I feel I have with him.
Father-son relationships wrinkle queerly throughout Gaddis’s novel, always deferrals and deflections, whether Wyatt-Otto in The Recognitions or Bast-JR in J R or the King Lear tirade of Gaddis’s final letter to the world, Agapē Agape.
Gaddis returned to Harvard in the fall of 1942 (“devil to pay for eight months hence I guess”). He reads Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, or at least tells his mother he reads Nietzsche and Schopenhauer—but I believe him. Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer seems like a thing a young man might do. In a letter of December 1942, “so angry now am about to fly,” he complains of being recommended a history book that “turns out to be history of Communism and Socialism–Marxism–enough to make me actively ill.” A postscript lauds William Saroyan but worries that “G Stein is still a little beyond!” Our Lad has room to grow.
By the spring of 1943, Gaddis is working on the Harvard Lampoon. He would eventually become the President of the Lampoon (or, um, ‘Poon, as he writes his Mama). This project seems to entirely consume him, distracting him from his studies.
Gaddis was eventually kicked out of Harvard after an “incident” with the police (Our Boy was drunk and disorderly). The last few letters in the collection are bitter and a bit sad. Gaddis worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker for not-quite-a-year, with scant letters from this period appearing in Letters. There is a letter from a vacation to Montreal in the summer of 1945 that attests the following disillusionment:
Frankly the more I move along the more I find that every city is quite like the last one.
Not long after, Gaddis would start writing material that would wind up in The Recognitions.
NYRB 2023 updates to the Dalkey Archive’s 2013:
In addition to a smattering of letters to women who are not Edith Gaddis, NYRB’s new edition includes two new pictures–Gaddis’s Harvard 1944 yearbook picture and a professional head shot of Frances Henderson Diamond. There’s also this close-up of a photograph of children included in the Dalkey edition, clarifying which kid is Billy Gaddis.
Love Our Dude’s pipe!