The Gaddis literary estate
William Gaddis’s literary work
17 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3JA
Papers of Prize-Winning
Novelist William Gaddis
Gaddis wrote and published four novels during his life: The Recognitions (1955), J R (1975), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), and A Frolic of His Own (1994). The Gaddis papers span 70 years, beginning with letters and drawings created by Gaddis as a youth in boarding school. Gaddis’s archive is extensive, including manuscripts and source materials for Gaddis’s novels as well as related correspondence and clippings; unpublished stories, film scripts, and plays; non-fiction work for IBM, Kodak, Pfizer, and the United States Army; and Gaddis’s working library, including his 84-volume set of American Jurisprudence, which he used while researching his National Book Award-winning novel, A Frolic of His Own (1995).
The archive also includes source material for Agapeē Agape, Gaddis’s final novel, published posthumously in October 2002 by Viking; a volume of collected essays entitled A Rush for Second Place was published by Penguin, also in October 2002. Both books were edited by Joseph Tabbi, associate professor of American literature at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Commenting on Gaddis’s place in the literary landscape, Tabbi says, “What Balzac was to post-revolutionary France, Dickens to Victorian England, and Musil to Habsburg Austria, Gaddis will be to America in the second half of the 20th century – the novelist whose work sets out what it was like, in the homes, the offices, the shop floors, and the art enclaves, empirically to live that history.”
William Gaddis was born in New York City in 1922 and remained a New Yorker until his death on Long Island in December 1998. He attended college at Harvard University, where he was president of the Harvard Lampoon. After leaving Harvard, Gaddis returned to New York City where he worked as a fact checker at The New Yorker magazine. He became part of the post-war, 1950s Greenwich Village “scene,” associating, among others, with William S. Burroughs, Anatole Broyard, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Ansen, John Cage, Norman Mailer, David Markson, Franz Kline, and Sheri Martinelli. His years in the Village and his extensive travels provided source material for his first novel, The Recognitions (1955).
Though Gaddis published only four novels during his lifetime, these works attracted lasting attention. Gaddis’s fiction is renowned for being innovative, brilliant, and challenging. His novels have been translated into many languages and today are taught at colleges and universities around the world.
Gaddis won many top honors for his fiction, including two National Book Awards for best fiction (first for J R and later for A Frolic of His Own). In 1982, Gaddis was honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius award.” In 1989, he was elected to the 50-member American Academy of Arts and Letters and was specially honored by being assigned the Mary McCarthy chair. In 1993, he received the Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was New York State’s choice for the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit as State Author from 1993-95. Both the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation gave grants to Gaddis, and he expressed his gratitude in his introduction to J R.. Gaddis also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant. He traveled to Japan for the State Department in the 1970s and to Bulgaria along with Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and other authors in the 1990s.
Gaddis had several connections to Washington University where he served as a Hurst Professor in 1979 and formed lasting friendships with the esteemed writers and professors William H. Gass and the late Stanley Elkin. The Gaddis papers now become part of Washington University Libraries’ Modern Literature Collection, joining the literary estates of Gass and Elkin as well as some 125 other prominent 20th century writers, including James Merrill, Howard Nemerov, Samuel Beckett, and Mona Van Duyn.
“When Bill Gass approached us and said that Washington University Libraries would be interested in acquiring our father’s archive, that was that. We were confident that this would have been our father’s choice,” said Gaddis’s daughter Sarah Gaddis. “We had not spoken with any other university, and there was no need to look further.” Book dealer Ken Lopez guided the family through the transfer of the collection to Washington University.
William Gass comments on the importance of Gaddis’s papers, “With the acquisition of the papers and manuscripts of William Gaddis, the Washington University Library has added to its Special Collections fundamental source material for the work of one of the most influential and innovative American novelists of our time – a true enrichment of riches.”
Previously Gaddis’s papers were unavailable for research or teaching purposes. Joseph Tabbi says, “The archive, rich in both personal and public documents (Gaddis threw away nothing), will be an enormous asset not only to current and future biographers, but to scholars and cultural historians interested in the methods and materials that one individual, a single mind and singular imagination, used when transmuting his own and our collective history into a compelling narrative art.”
Sarah Gaddis says, “My father was profoundly grateful for receiving the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Now the Foundation’s generosity will help to ensure the preservation of his legacy and will enable scholarly access. I am so grateful to the Lannan Foundation and Washington University for their generosity, their vision, and their commitment."