Ten years ago, Dalkey Archive published The Letters of William Gaddis. Edited and introduced by Steven Moore, Letters functions as an ersatz autobiography or a one-sided epistolary autobiographical novel. As a public-facing author, Gaddis was hardly a Pynchon or Salinger, but, in a 1986 Paris Review interview, he did stick by the hero of his first novel The Recognitions, contending,
What’s any artist but the dregs of his work[?]: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid,
Wyatt, and Gaddis, wanted to know “what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work.” The Letters offers some answers—close to 700 pages of them in the new NYRB edition of the book that includes “over two dozen new letters and photographs.”
I first read The Letters of William Gaddis slowly between 2014 and 2019 as an e-book (both legit and samizdat). Moore organized the collection around Gaddis’s five books, and I found myself often distracted, opening up the the volumes to find parallels between life and art (or moments where WG outright stole from reality). I’d never actually held the Dalkey edition, but I wanted to get a comparison, so I asked my librarian to engage in some hot library on library action, and I now have the University of Central Florida’s copy in my possession. The hardback volume is missing the jacket, which featured Julian Schnabel’s 1987 portrait of Gaddis on the cover.
The new NYRB edition, perhaps more appropriately, features Gaddis’s self-portrait as cover art. The black, gold, and red, as well as the extra-large dimensions (by NYRB standards) match the NYRB versions of The Recognitions and J.R. It’s longer and a bit smaller than the hardback Dalkey, but the print is about the same size.
I’ve decided to cover the book at my own pace; I’ve reread the first two sections, “Growing Up,” and “The Recognitions,” which covers 1930-1955. I remembered pretty much all of it, and my judgments remain the same: Gaddis is an unrepentant mama’s boy, his sweet ma Edith is the early hero of the book, quick to send money and books. Angry Young Man Gaddis is more Otto than Wyatt, but he can sling sentences with the best of them—and that’s the joy of The Letters: the writing is really, really good.
Like I said though, I’ll cover the volume at my own pace. I’ve got notes prepped for the first two sections, and I aim to get those blogs out sooner than later. In the meantime, here’s the publisher’s blurb, almost certainly Moore’s writing, updated just a tad from the Dalkey:
Now recognized as one of the giants of postwar American fiction, William Gaddis shunned the spotlight during his life, which makes this collection of his letters a revelation. Beginning in 1930 when Gaddis was at boarding school and ending in September 1998, a few months before his death, these letters function as a kind of autobiography, and also reveal the extent to which he drew upon events in his life for his fiction. Here we see him forging his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), while living in Mexico, fighting in a revolution in Costa Rica, and working in Spain, France, and North Africa. Over the next twenty years he struggles to find time to write the National Book Award–winning J R (1975) amid the complications of work and family; deals with divorce and disillusionment before reviving his career with Carpenter’s Gothic (1985); then teaches himself enough about the law to produce A Frolic of His Own(1994). Resuming his lifelong obsession with mechanization and the arts, he finishes a last novel, Agapē Agape (published in 2002), as he lies dying.
This newly revised edition includes clarifying notes by Gaddis scholar Steven Moore, as well as an afterword by the author’s daughter, Sarah Gaddis.