William Gaddis (William Thomas Gaddis)

William Gaddis

William Gaddis was born in New York City to William Thomas Gaddis, who worked “on Wall Street and in politics”, and Edith (Charles) Gaddis, an executive for the New York Steam Corporation. When he was 3, his parents separated and Gaddis was subsequently raised by his mother in Massapequa, Long Island. At age 5 he was sent to Merricourt Boarding School in Berlin, Connecticut. He continued in private school until the eighth grade, after which he returned to Long Island to receive his diploma at Farmingdale High School in 1941. He entered Harvard in 1941 and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon (where he eventually served as President), but was asked to leave in 1944 due to an altercation with police. He worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker for little over a year (late February 1945 until late April 1946), then spent five years traveling in Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, England, and North Africa, returning to the United States in 1951. His first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work, it had to wait to find its audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual, overwritten, and perhaps on the principle of omne ignotum per obscaenum (“all that is unknown appears obscene”), filthy. (The book was defended by Jack Green in a series of broadsheets blasting the critics; the series was collected later under the title Fire the Bastards!) Shortly after the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis married his first wife, Patricia Black, who would give birth to two children: Sarah (who has written a novel, Swallow Hard, inspired by her relationship with her father) and Matthew.

William Gaddis then turned to public relations work and the making of documentary films to support himself and his family. In this role he worked for Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, IBM, and the United States Army, among others. He also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, a Rockefeller grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, all of which helped him write his second novel. In 1975 he published J R, told almost entirely in unattributed dialogue. Its eponymous protagonist, an 11-year-old, learns enough about the stock market from a class field trip to build a financial empire of his own. Critical opinion had caught up with him, and the book won the National Book Award for Fiction. His marriage to his second wife, Judith Thompson, dissolved shortly after J R was published. By the late 1970s, Gaddis had entered into a relationship with Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, and they lived together until the mid-1990s. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offered a shorter and more accessible picture of Gaddis’s sardonic worldview. Instead of struggling against misanthropy (as in The Recognitions) or reluctantly giving ground to it (as in J R), Carpenter’s Gothic wallows in it. The continual litigation that was a theme in that book becomes the central theme and plot device in A Frolic of His Own (1994)—which earned him his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction—where it seems that everyone is suing someone. There are even two Japanese cars called the Isuyu and the Sosumi.

William Gaddis died at home in East Hampton, New York, of prostate cancer on December 16, 1998, but not before creating his final work, Agapē Agape (the first word of the title is the Greek agapē, meaning divine, unconditional love), which was published in 2002, a novella in the form of the last words of a character similar but not identical to his creator. The Rush for Second Place, published at the same time, collected most of Gaddis’s previously published nonfiction.

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Born

  • December, 29, 1922
  • USA
  • New York, New York

Died

  • December, 16, 1998
  • USA
  • East Hampton, New York

Cause of Death

  • prostate cancer

Cemetery

  • Oakland Cemetery
  • Sag Harbor, New York
  • USA

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