The Author in Hiding : On William Gaddis

Excerpted from William Gass' introduction to a reissue of William Gaddis' "The Recognitions," to be published in May. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin. Gass is a novelist and critic. He teaches philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis

He had been a floorwalker at Bloomingdale’s. That was one rumor. He was presently writing under the nom de plume of Thomas Pynchon. That was another. He had had to pay Harcourt Brace to publish “The Recognitions,” and then, disappointed and peeved by its reception, he had the unsold stock destroyed. He died of dysentery or some similarly humiliating and touristy disease at 43 and had been buried stoneless-in-Spain under a gnarled tree. Among the more absurd was the allegation that he had worked as a machinist’s assistant on the Panama Canal and served as a soldier of fortune for a small war in Costa Rica. He had no visible means. What he did do was traipse. He became a character in books that bore a vagrant’s name. No. He worked for the army and wrote the texts of field manuals. No. He scripted films. They told you/showed you how to take apart and clean your rifle. A rather unkind few suggested he had been a fact checker at The New Yorker. Not at all, argued others, he was born a freelance. And became a ghost who moved corporate mouths while gathering material for a novel he would write one day about America and money. When John Kuehl and Steven Moore edited a collection of essays about him, the honored author turned artist and, for the title page, self-drew himself suitably suited and bearing a highball glass. The figure has no head.

In 1975, when his second novel, “JR,” won the National Book Award, his admirers, confused by William Gaddis’ previous anonymity (very like the chary pronouns above), by the too sensibly priced fume blanc and by the customary babble at celebrational parties, frequently miscaught his name, often congratulating a fatter man. Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, “Carpenter’s Gothic,” to that selfsame and similarly sounding person. Yes. Perhaps William Gaddis is not B. Traven after all, or J.D. Salinger, Ambrose Bierce, or Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he is me.

When I was congratulated, I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.


These mistaken identifications turned out to belong in William Gaddis’ book where reality already had been arrested; for what can be true in a world made of fakes, misappropriations, fraud and flummery? Only this: that if we had two doorsteps, on one would stand a hypocritical holy man, on another a charlatan dressed as a statesman; that among our most revered relics, if we had some, we’d find out our local saint’s pickled thumb belonged originally to a penniless neighborhood drunk, that our museum’s most esteemed painting was a forgery, thatthe old coins we’d collected were inept counterfeits, and the fine car we’d just bought a real steal. What Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of Auguste Rodin is certainly true of the man in that headless sketch: “Rodin was a solitary before fame found him, and afterward perhaps he became still more solitary. For fame is finally only the sum of all those misunderstandings which gather round a new name.” In our oddly clamorous yet silent times, to be a famous author is to be unknown all over the world. Similarly, “The Recognitions,” the work which wrapped William Gaddis in the cloud of its carefully adumbrated confusions, remains widely heard about, reverently spoken of, yet narrowly read. It seems to lead, like an entombed Pharaoh, an underground life, presumably surrounded by other precious things and protected by a curse.

Like Malcolm Lowry’s great dark work, “Under the Volcano,” “The Recognitions” needed devotees who would keep its existence known until such time as it could be accepted as a classic; but a cult following is not the finest one to have, suggesting something, at best, beloved only by special tastes--in this case, the worry was, a wacko book with wacko fans. In fact, a cult did form, a cult in the best old sense, for it was made of readers whose consciousness had been altered by their encounter with this book; who had experienced more than its obvious artistic excellence, and responded to its neglect not merely with the resigned outrage customarily felt by those who read well and widely and wish that justice be accorded good books; it was composed of those who had felt to the centers of themselves how much this novel was indeed a recognition and could produce that famous shock; how it revealed the inner workings of the social world as though that world were a nickel watch; how it combined the pessimisms of its perceptions with the affirmations of the art it, at the same time, altered and advanced; more, how its author, though new to the game, had cared enough about himself, his aims, his skill, to create greatness against the grain, and, of course, against the odds.

Begun in 1945 without really knowing what or why, and continued in bursts from 1947, “The Recognitions” was published in the middle of the ‘50s, a decade so flushed with success it could not feel the lines of morbidity which were its bones. A typesetter, it’s said, refused to continue work on the text, and sought advice from his priest, who told him he was right to desist. Naturally the novel, when it appeared, won an award for its design.

Its arrival was duly newsed in 55 papers and periodicals. A few critics confessed they could not reach the novel’s conclusion except by skipping. Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed “Finnegans Wake”? What does it mean to finish “Moby-Dick,” anyway? It was wrong in someone young to be so ambitious, the reviewers thought; the result was certain to be pretentious, full of the strain of standing on tiptoe. If the author works at his work, the reader may also have to, whereas when a writer whiles away both time and words, the reader may relax and gently peruse.

Well, it was ambitious certainly, dense, lengthy, complex. Its author is a romantic in that regard, clearly concerned to create a masterpiece; for how else, but by aiming, is excellence to be attained? It’s not often one begins a sand castle on a lazy summer morning--pattybaking by the blue lagoon--only to--by gosh!--achieve--thanks to a series of sandy serendipities--an Alhambra with all its pools by afternoon. The book was about bamboozlers, the slowest wits could see that, and therein saw themselves, and therewith withdrew. This was not to be a slow evening’s soporific entertainment, it was to be their indecent exposure.

They cribbed from the dust jacket. They stole from any review appearing earlier. They got things (by the thousands!) wrong. They condemned the subject, although they didn’t know what it was; they loathed its learning, which they said was show-off; they objected to its tone, though they failed to catch it; they rejected with fury its point of view, whose criminal intent they somehow suspected. They fell all over one another praising Joyce, a writer, who, they said, was the real McCoy, whereas . . . yet had they been transported to that earlier time, they would have been first in line to shower Ireland’s author with deaf Dublin’s stones.


Following the hubble bubble of its initial reception, “The Recognitions” was left in a lurch of silence, except for those happy yet furious few who had found this fiction . . . about the nature, meaning, and value of “the real thing” . . . found it to be the real thing.

A slender ring of fans kept the work afloat for the next 20 years, but its neglect, I think, was due to factors having little to do with its alleged difficulty or the dubious distinction of having a cult following. If you are to remain known while writing books (for the books themselves are likely to have a mayfly’s life), you must either court the media and let publicity be your pimp like Truman Capote, or cling like old ivy to the walls of the Academy, passing your person around from campus to campus like a canape on a party tray.

William Gaddis did none of these customary career-enhancing things, remaining, as the politicians’ escape-phrase always conveniently claims, “out of the loop.” Out of the network. Not in the swim. Silence became his mode, exile (in effect) his status, cunning in scraping by his strategy, while compiling data and constructing other people’s niggling or nefarious plots, building another long book out of our business world’s obsession with money, manipulation, and deception, composing a hymn to Horatio Alger, music made of inane, conniving, sly, deceitful speech. “JR” did OK at the store for a time, and gathered in the National Book Award, but I think it was less read than “The Recognitions,” less enjoyed, and could not produce, of course, the same surprise. Furthermore, although clearly created by a similar sensibility, and expressing a common point of view, “JR” was as different from the early novel as Joyce from James. But do not go to “JR” yet, even if it is almost as musical as “Finnegans Wake,” a torrent of talk and Tower of Babble, a slumgullion of broken phrases and incomplete--let’s call them--thoughts; because there is plenty to listen to in “The Recognitions”; because we must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen we hear, hear ourselves, singing the saying, and now we are real readers, we are participating in the making, we are moving the tune along the line, because no one who loves literature can follow these motions, these sentences, half sentences, of William Gaddis, very far without halting and holding up their arms and outcrying hallelujah there is something good in this gosh awful god empty world.

Which is almost the whole point of what we do.