William Gaddis’s Lives & Works: Review of Biographies by Joseph Tabbi and Steven Moore — Jeff Bursey
Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis
Northwestern University Press
Cloth, 272 pp., $35.00
William Gaddis: Expanded Edition
Paper, 241 pp., $29.95
The usual starting point for a reviewer of anything by or about William Gaddis (1922-1998) is to say, in woeful tones, that he is neglected, more heard about than read, apparently forbidding, and other remarks that would rest on the negative side of a ledger book. It is perhaps more positive to say what stands out, for this reader: people who haven’t read Gaddis don’t know what they’ve been missing. Fans of low and high humour, of pastiche, of ventriloquism, and those who favour long novels that take the time to explore some of the most insidious systems around us, as well as historical matters—faith, business, the law, authenticity, the American Civil War, and religious fundamentalism—told with a definite emphasis on style and structure, if they have not yet picked up one of his books, will be delighted when they do.
Yet Gaddis is still subject to what Jack Green, an early metacritic, raged against in the 1960s in a small publication called newspaper, where he illustrated, using extended examples, how The Recognitions (1955) had been traduced by its first reviewers, many of whom never read more than the blurb and some sample pages. Dalkey Archive published Green’s remarks under the title Fire the Bastards! (1992; introduced by Steven Moore), and on the first page he declares that “one critic made 7 boners.” Carrying on this tradition, Jonathon Sturgeon made an assertion in July that since the Los Angeles Review of Books had its Occupy Gaddis movement in 2012
there hasn’t been much aside from the stray essay or scholarly scrap — until this year. Prompted, presumably, by the double anniversaries of The Recognitions and J R, Northwestern University Press has just published Joseph Tabbi’s Nobody Grew But the Business [sic], a welcome, sophisticated, and humanizing biography of Gaddis that takes its name from an early version of J R.
There are a handful of William Gaddis specialists in the world. One of them, Stephen Burn (also a respected David Foster Wallace critic), in a quotation on the back of the expanded edition of Moore’s critical study of Gaddis’ works—suitably updated and released in February of this year, a handful of months ahead of Tabbi’s biography—states that its author “invented Gaddis Studies when he published his comprehensive guide to The Recognitions” (in 1982; now available online). Anyone writing after that, and after his original Twayne edition of William Gaddis (1989), owes much to Moore’s analysis of the three novels available to that time: The Recognitions, J R (1975), and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985). Tabbi has also done important work in this field by copyediting (along with Moore), and providing the afterword to, Gaddis’ final fiction, Agapē Agape and editing his only collection of non-fiction, The Rush for Second Place (both from 2002). Further, with Rone Shavers he co-edited a collection of papers titled Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System (2007). (In 2009 another set of essays by various people came out: William Gaddis, “The Last of Something”: Critical Essays.) In 2013 Moore resumed his labours by editing The Letters of William Gaddis.
Bloomsbury clearly believe in the award-winning Moore. They published his conversation-changing works The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010) and The Novel: An Alternative History: 1600-1800 (2013), works that upset many conservative critics with significant buy-in to out-of-date and never-quite-sensible paradigms on the origins of the novel. Now they have re-published his Twayne book with additional analysis of Gaddis’ last major novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), and Agapē Agape. When added to the Letters and Mark Taylor’s Rewiring the Real (2013)—a theological examination, in part, of “the nexus of religion, literature, and technology” (5) as “illuminate[d]” through Gaddis’ first novel and works by Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo—these two publications, pace Sturgeon, mark something of a resurgence of interest in Gaddis. The emphasis in this review will be on Tabbi’s biography, but Moore’s work must be kept in mind too.
Tabbi places a clear statement of purpose in his introduction: “This book will be a literary life and intellectual history, in that I recount the growth of a major writer’s art over the course of a lifetime in the context of social and cultural transformations” (Tabbi’s emphasis). Anyone reading this work soon will realize that while there is much new information about Gaddis’ life, there are major and minor gaps, such as how he fit in at The New Yorker (where he worked as a fact-checker for a little over a year); what his life was like on a more intimate level as he moved from Harvard to Costa Rica and back to New York; whether or not Duke University had a parapsychology laboratory, which Tabbi opts for believing existed without determining; more about Gaddis’ mother and how she regarded his work; and the family history of his two wives, Patricia Black (with whom Gaddis had his children, Sarah and Matthew) and Judith Thompson. There are far more second-hand reports on their feelings about an often-absent husband (whether travelling or writing in a study) than there is direct testimony. The last companion, Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, “daughter of a Russian-Jewish founder of a pickled herring fortune” with whom Gaddis lived, for sixteen years, in higher society than he had experienced before they broke up after his diagnosis “with a terminal illness,” left a book of sorts, Excerpts from the Unpublished Files of Muriel Oxenberg Murphy. She remembers her time with Gaddis, says Tabbi, “as one long alcoholic haze…” But the voices of women are mostly silent in this book, with the exception of his daughter and one or two others.
In charting the development of the first two novels in particular, Tabbi shuffles the chronology of events so that we get, as promised, “intellectual history” rather than a straightforward account. In a brief review, George Hunka, once a student of Gaddis, says “…Tabbi’s biography shies deliberately away from a warts-and-all approach to a close reading of Gaddis’s experience only as it applies to the writing… Tabbi finds more promising an examination of Gaddis’s exploration of womanhood as reflected in his readings of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, two books that profoundly influenced The Recognitions but also found their way into the rest of Gaddis’s novels as well. That said, Tabbi’s treatment of Gaddis’s family life as husband and father is properly circumspect, even touching.”
That is fine in criticism, but it means that it will be a task for a future biographer to establish the missing facts, bring in the unheard histories and voices, and provide a fuller picture of the life of Gaddis. The issues here, then, are: does Tabbi’s book do what it wants, and is that sufficient in assisting newcomers and those familiar with Gaddis to come away with greater insight into the author and his works?
Tabbi’s book has 12 chapters that attempt to cover a mass of personal and societal change, while also stopping to explore the themes that reappeared in Gaddis works. For those expecting a chronological approach the book will be, at times, ungainly as it reaches forward and backward to draw threads together.
The first two chapters focus on Gaddis’ early life. His father, William Thomas Gaddis, Sr., left his wife and son when “Billy” (not called Jr. beyond a young age) was three and had little to do with the family after that. What shaped this child, in part, were this loss of a father figure—Tabbi provides plentiful examples of characters in the books who are either abandoned or leave their loved ones—and the example of his mother, Edith Charles Way, whose “work ethic, derived in part from her Quaker grandfather’s teaching, musical, and writing career,” instilled in her son the importance of knowing subjects inside out. Tabbi is very good at showing how the influence of his maternal grandfather, Samuel, and Samuel’s brothers, Ernest and Jan, were positive models in the fields of education and music. “The growth of a family, and a business dedicated as much to measurable, material progress as to personal creative development, remained the ideal to which Gaddis held himself, and his country.” Capturing the sprawl and richness of his subject’s literary career, Gaddis’ “novels are filled with life—and not least the author’s own life and the lives, words, and recounted experiences of people he knew and family members he knew about, going back to America’s founding in apostasy, migration, speculation, noise, and sheer recklessness.” In that one cascade of causes and origin myths reside the nation’s growth, and an announcement of many themes and features found in his fiction.
Childhood events of Gaddis’ life and the atmosphere he grew up in—which, between the ages of five and thirteen, included attendance at the Congregationalist Merricourt Boarding School and Home Camp—added to the absence of a father, brought in an element of loneliness. It could be imagined that life at school away from his mother would be hard, but the picture painted here of this boy’s life, and what he did with his classmates as part of their education, is worth quoting for what it says about the future man: “The church, or the downtown movie house, meant moving through the town, not sitting at home or being transported in a parent’s car to a self-contained entertainment or caregiving facility. And imagine the sense of belonging, of at-homeness in the larger world when, on a class excursion to the city, the boy could attend The Little Minister at Radio City and see his ‘Uncle Jan play too.’” This is the America Gaddis knew, and as he grew older he would witness it largely disappear. Now, as Tabbi makes clear through the use of contemporary news stories, “a child left alone even briefly [at a train station, as Gaddis was, to make his way home from school] could be cause for state intervention.”
While the years passed Gaddis carried with him solid memories from Edith’s side of the family, but without a paternal figure to serve as a model a void opened up, and something had to fill it. (The Recognitions is filled with fathers who disappoint their sons. This carries on in the figures of Jack Gibbs and Thomas Eigen of J R and Judge Crease of A Frolic of His Own, covering a span of forty-years. In Tabbi’s book, and in the Letters, readers will see how Gaddis softly instructed his children.) “The psychic scars of his formative years,” concludes Tabbi, “certainly contributed to his adult demeanor and his motivations as an imaginative writer”; he was, Tabbi goes on to say, a “would-be aristocrat” with an air of “studied superiority.” Throughout those early years—including a mysterious childhood illness that could have killed him but which, as mysteriously, went away—Gaddis had his mother’s family’s attention, and more importantly his mother’s love, as a support, as he did, indeed, for the rest of her life.
Having set the psychological stage Tabbi moves on, from chapters three through five, to concentrate on the path that would lead to The Recognitions, an almost 1,000-page novel that is a seminal work in the advancement of post-modernism in the United States, and a book that, in Moore’s view, “weighs an entire civilization… and finds it wanting.” Both scholars re-emphasize points made in earlier Gaddis criticism—for example, that the erudition behind The Recognitions came, in part, from a small list of books mined for archaic elements—and they also underline how the apparently encyclopedic knowledge of counterfeiting, Christian imagery and the veneration of saints, and mythical patterns that would be familiar to readers of The Golden Bough and The White Goddess was not a façade. Gaddis absorbed that material—he met “Graves in Majorca in 1950”—along with the works of Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, and made it his own. When those sources and ideas were combined with his mother’s family history, his interactions with Greenwich Village society in the late 1940s and early 1950s—where he mingled with William Burroughs, and inspired characters in the fiction of Jack Kerouac and Chandler Brossard—and his travels in the Western United States, Central America, and Europe, the result was an astonishing first work, the one that Tabbi (and Moore) sets aside a good amount of space to describe and explain. The creation of this novel established a pattern evident for the rest of Gaddis’ writing life: study in the pursuit of presenting believable worlds, precision of concept, and a relentlessness when it came to following where the material would lead him.
After elaborating on the genesis of its many layers—the career of painter-forger Wyatt Gwyon whose habitats are the murky milieu of the Village and the shady back alleys of the art world; the habits, occupations, and manias present in the people in his life; and the struggle old and new faiths waged with the modern world of disbelief (science and modernism)—Tabbi offers this interpretation of the novel’s importance:
What Gaddis’s early work gave to his and subsequent generations [e.g., David Markson and, later, Mary Caponegro and David Foster Wallace], which they would not yet have found in universities or in bookstores, what could only be seen by someone of Gaddis’s background to be degraded by emerging mass media, was something entirely unforeseen and (for several decades) uniquely American. Through his apolitical insistence on craft and care in the face of mass production and private dissembling, and through his powerful influence on the “very small audience” of aspiring writers whom he actually reached…, Gaddis may have anticipated something else altogether, without intending it or even appreciating it after the fact. Neither postmodernism nor a regenerated modernism in literature, what Gaddis best realized were all the outlines and many of the practices of the oncoming discipline of creative writing in America.
This is one of the many stimulating new takes—open to argument and further investigation—offered in Nobody Grew but the Business. Chapter ten, “Portrait of the Artist as Writing Professor: Carpenter’s Gothic,” follows along from that thought through a fascinating examination of Gaddis as a creative writing teacher in “the same classrooms that shaped the generation of Wallace and [Jonathan] Franzen and Ben Marcus, whose emergence there may have rendered them skeptical, and largely uncomprehending, of the previous generation’s attempts to resist incorporation,” and on the “Program Era (circa 1984 to our current first-person present),” where making a living writing fiction and making a living by being a fiction writer are two very different things. (Gaddis belongs to the first camp, though that was perilous living at times.)
That concern over being subsidized and owned by, to use a familiar term, The Man is elaborated in chapters six through nine which deal largely with the work experiences Gaddis had after the utter critical and commercial failure of his first book. He spent much time as a corporate writer for, as chapter seven puts it, “IBM, Ford, Pfizer,” including involvement with the insertion of televisions in the school system. That twenty-year pause allowed him to absorb the language and attitudes behind business practices and accrue material on communication theory that, married to an obsession with the mechanization of the arts through the invention of the player piano, informed his second novel, J R, perhaps his most brilliant and hilarious work. It features an amoral eleven-year-old boy, J R Vansant, who, through the manipulation of penny stocks and the adults at his school, becomes a business mogul. Among other things, the novel is an indictment of a capitalist system that had replaced the social and cultural connections Gaddis knew from his childhood, where progress and creativity were aligned, with companies buying, selling, and leveraging solely out a desire for profit. As Lee Konstantinou wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in October 2012:
I’d suggest that what J R documents is the way that America is hollowing out the foundation necessary to even read a book like it, an America that teaches its children via closed-circuit television, an America that thinks democracy means owning a share of profit-maximizing publicly traded corporations. This is what it means to say that J R is about the conditions underlying the impossibility of its own reception. If there were a welcoming mass public for books like this, a public able to appreciate its beautiful difficulty and astonishing imagination, we wouldn’t live in the sort of world so in need of savage satirical critique in the first place.
(He also suggested, as Tabbi states in chapter nine, “The Imagination of the State,” that Mitt Romney is who J R “might have grown up to be…” )
With the movement of Gaddis from an outlier to a National Book Award winner for J R—or, alternately, now a writer who, in Moore’s view, is “anchored in America’s literary traditions” that include Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain—his position in the literary world should have been secured, but his second wife decamped a few years later and he was in debt from advances for a novel that had taken many years to write and, despite the award, did not sell well. Later access to grants, and a move into teaching at universities, eased certain financial worries, and introduced Gaddis to younger writers and those who wanted to be. He figured that a much shorter novel would be more accessible (and classroom-friendly), and chose a simple setting—a type of house called carpenters gothic (no apostrophe)—and a plot that revolved around an abused wife, Liz, who takes on an older lover while her husband and brother, and almost everyone else, runs scams and schemes, from simple thievery to control over mineral interests to, again in Moore’s words, “the apocalypse.” Carpenter’s Gothic is confined to that one house, a permeable structure that is unable to withstand the flood of bad news constantly arriving via radio, telephone, and in correspondence from other parts of the United States and Africa. There are deaths and the imminent promise of Armageddon in this close-packed novel. “He had scaled back knowingly… for commercial reasons not for loss of power,” (155) judges Tabbi in chapter nine, who provides valuable context in that and the next chapter, including a brief depiction of his life as a teacher and how it may have shaped this new work.
Tabbi’s biography closes strongly. Chapter eleven deals with the 1994 National Book Award-winning A Frolic of His Own—a truly biting satire on the law and the legal profession, personal identity, the absent father who has dismissed his two children, and a (usually futile) search for what is real amidst court documents, plagiarism, a play, and the ceaseless sound and (usually bloody or violent) imagery from the natural world coming from a television—a work that had its genesis in a gift from an admiring bibliophile and attorney of “the entire 81-volume American Jurisprudence…” A monumental work of its own, Frolic is as “encyclopedic” as The Recognitions and J R, and bitterer than anything else Gaddis had written. In it, explains Moore, “Gaddis marshals all his arguments to make his case against America as a failed culture…” Tabbi makes the same point, but uses the unequal relationship of Gaddis and Murphy, who circulated among “the empowered and the influential,” to good effect, particularly when he illustrates that despite a change in social status Gaddis refused to “let up on his critique of what his own country had become.”
The final chapter discusses the novella Agapē Agape. In his New Yorker days Gaddis had attempted to write a history of the player piano. Nothing had come of it beyond an early, short non-fiction piece that did get published, and a few quotations from the work placed in the mouth of Jack Gibbs, a character in J R. Nearing the end of his life, and after being introduced to the monologues of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Gaddis fashioned the mass of notes into a soliloquy on the diminishment of people and their replacement by, at first, the automated loom, then tabulating machines, piano rolls, punch cards, and the modern computer. The unnamed old man is beset with health problems similar to his own. (Moore, who regards this as Gaddis’ “least impressive, least satisfying work,” argues that there’s little that “distinguishes the narrator from Gaddis himself, and it’s naïve to pretend otherwise…”) Tabbi, like Moore, draws in many of the literary inspirations and favourites of Gaddis, explaining how they feature in this final work in a monologue that is, at the same time, a dialogue with the ideas of Walter Benjamin and Plato, among others. He is especially acute on the matter of an old friend of Gaddis, Martin Dworkin, a kind of mentor-cum-inquisitor, whose presence is more, it appears, in Gaddis’ thinking about this novella (and earlier works) than in the final version. The old man’s thoughts wander, but he consistently returns to the plane of music, in Tabbi’s words “a separate place where one experiences emotions and sensations that are less easily defined.” Equal in consistency, Tabbi himself returns to a major point he has sustained over the course of this literary biography, that in this novella, as earlier, Gaddis, for the final time, spoke about “the materials, systems, and specialized languages of corporate America.”
By the end of Nobody Grew but the Business the questions posed above of Tabbi’s book can be answered. George Hunka doubts that “either Tabbi’s biography or Stephen Moore’s recently updated monograph on the novelist will gain Gaddis any new adherents…,” but he does think that the biography “provides an excellent inroad for the newcomer or supplementary reading for the enthusiast — the best we’re likely to get for a long time.” His reasoning is solid, for rarely does an academic study like Moore’s propel readers into bookstores, but I do hope that Tabbi’s approach, complete with its silences and virtues—such as the emphasis on family, music, social context and corporatism—will rouse others to buy this book, and then devise their own portrait of this remarkable author, perhaps through further exploration of his archives at Washington University in St. Louis.
The last word on William Gaddis goes to Joseph Tabbi. “Who can it be, if not the 99 percent, whose talk makes up the bulk of his written work? In channeling his critique and his world vision through us, through voices we recognize as our own and the voices of those near us, Gaddis offers an alternative to markets and corporate systems that operate without recognition. This is what makes him the novelist for our time.”
— Jeff Bursey
Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.
Thanks for the review. I must say that The Recognitions is certainly a master work. The entire book was a joy but there is a section, as I recall, about 1/5 of the way through, for about 80 or so pages, that is sheer perfection and as fine as anything I’ve ever read. With, perhaps, that in mind, I could only make it about 40% of the way into JR. Excellent writing no doubt but for some reason I just could not follow the conversations. There is one point in which I disagree with Mr. Moore. I think Agapē Agape is his finest achievement. Prose distilled down to essence. Of course, I am a huge fan of Bernhard.