12 Winters Blog

“Honored by the Error”: The Literary Friendship of Gass and Gaddis

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 21, 2022

The following paper was presented at the William Gaddis Centenary Conference, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, October 20-22, 2022. It was part of the opening panel on Friday, Oct. 21, “Historical Gaddis & Literary Gaddis.” I had the honor of introducing the keynote speaker, Steven Moore. See the end of this post for my introductory remarks.

Anyone who knows William Gaddis or William Gass more than just a little likely knows of their long friendship. They first met at the National Book Award ceremony April 21, 1976—Gass being one of the judges that gave the prize to J R—and when Gaddis was near death in 1998 Bill Gass was one of the last people he wanted to speak to. Unfortunately Gass received the message too garbled and too late, and that final telephone conversation never took place. Throughout their more than twenty-year friendship, they supported each other’s work in myriad ways, both publicly and privately, and they shared in the amusement of people confusing them due to their sound-alike names and similar ambitions when it came to the written word.

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

I’m ashamed to admit that I was nearly 40 when I learned of both writers practically simultaneously, which I hope indicts the shortcomings of the U.S.’s literary culture more severely than it does my own. What I mean is, I read Gass’s brilliant introduction to The Recognitions before embarking on my maiden voyage into Gaddis’s now-mythical inaugural novel. Indeed, Gass’s introduction is probably almost as well known as the novel itself, and quite possibly more frequently read than the masterpiece it precedes in the Penguin Classics edition. The intro took on a life of its own, being reprinted in various iterations and quoted countless times. Unlike the book it introduces, the piece’s brilliance was recognized (sorry) from the start. Michael Millman, senior editor at Viking Penguin, wrote to Gass on January 21, 1993: “Would you have any objections to our approaching The New York Times Book Review [sic] about running your introduction? In my experience . . . I can’t remember another time when we had an essay of this caliber as an introduction to one of our volumes. . . .”

William H. Gass, 1924-2017

As we recall, Gass begins the piece by talking about the enigmas and confusions surrounding William Gaddis. Writes Gass, “Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, to that self-same 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” (179). What follows is where I borrowed for this paper’s title: “When I was congratulated,” continues Gass, “I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.” In his tribute to Gaddis, in 1999, Gass said that he “could enjoy these mistakes, since Gaddis seemed equally amused” (204).

It’s difficult to say when the two writers became aware of each other’s work. They were close contemporaries. Gaddis was born in 1922, Gass in ’24. The Recognitions came out in 1955, the same decade that Gass’s earliest fiction began to appear (the literary journal Accent, published by University of Illinois-Urbana’s English Department, co-edited by Stanley Elkin, included three pieces by Gass in its Winter 1958 number). Gass’s writing began to appear here and there in this journal or that (unlikely to be on Gaddis’s radar), but his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, came out in 1966, quickly followed by In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (a collection of novellas and stories) and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (a wildly experimental novella), both in 1968, and Fiction and the Figures of Life (a collection of essays, including essays on the writer’s craft), in 1970. The essays were well regarded by Gass’s peers. We know, for example, that Cormac McCarthy acquired a copy of the collection while he was writing Child of God, published in ’73 (King 31).

It seems fair to assert, then, that by the ’70s both Gaddis and Gass had read one another, and apparently approvingly. In a Gaddis letter dated March 17, 1976, having to do with J R’s National Book Award nomination, he references Gass, writing to his second wife Judith, “But if the book selections are odd, the judges are even odder; a writer, a critic, and a complete idiot: Wm Gass, Mary McCarthy, and Maurice Dolbier” (Letters 310). Compared to the epithet he uses for Dolbier, a novelist among other things, too, the neutrality of “a writer” almost sounds like praise. That same year, 1976, Gass talks about Gaddis in his “Art of Fiction” interview in The Paris Review, specifically in response to Thomas LeClair’s question “Who are some living novelists you respect?” Gaddis makes the list. Gass says he admires Gaddis for the same reasons he admires John Barth: “What I like . . . is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and total control. I really admire a master” (37). Gass underscores Gaddis’s masterful control of the narrative apparatuses in his books.

Gass read his peers’ work and commented on it regularly, in interviews, guest lectures, critical articles, and book reviews. Gaddis, on the other hand, was not inclined to read his contemporaries. Steven Moore writes that “[h]e seemed to have little interest in the novels of those contemporaries with whom he is most often associated,” including Barth, Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, John Hawkes, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon. “William H. Gass was an exception,” says Moore, “whom he admired both personally and professionally” (William Gaddis 13). At the tribute to her father in 1999, Sarah Gaddis said, “William Gass was important to Gaddis. . . . He held Gass in the highest esteem for his work, and no other writer made him feel so understood” (150-151). This respect for Gass and his opinions, literary and otherwise, is made clear by Gaddis’s frequently quoting or paraphrasing his friend in letters to others over the years (e.g. see Letters pp. 423, 459, 464, 477 and 481); and his admiration for Gass’s abilities as a writer is put plainly in an April 13, 1994, letter to Michael Silverblatt, host of the literary radio program Bookworm: “Gass is for me our foremost writer, a magician with the language” (Letters 507).

Similarly, Gass’s admiration of Gaddis had a great deal to do with his poetic use of language. In a 1984 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman, Gass said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t have a chance” (91). In Gass’s introduction to The Recognitions he writes about the poetry of both that book and J R, saying: “. . . J R was as different from the earlier novel as Joyce from James. But do not put down what you have to go to J R yet, even if it is almost as musical as Finnegans Wake. . . . [W]e 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 . . .” (184).

After their meeting at the National Book Award ceremony, the two writers became fast friends. The following year they were slated to be at a writers’ conference in Sarasota, Florida, and Gaddis’s participation was somewhat contingent on Gass’s being there, also. In a March 18 letter to Judith, Gaddis laments that other writers had canceled or declined—namely Barth, Susan Sontag, and Donald Barthelme—and says that “if Gass abruptly disappears I may be tempted to do the same.” Gaddis explains that he was looking forward to “hav[ing] a good & encouraging talk with William Gass [who is] coming with his wife [Mary].” Otherwise Gaddis had been “shying from readings and panels” because they interfered with his writing process. He notes that “Gass admires me because I’ve been able to stay out (till now), I admire him because he separates it all clearly & relaxedly in his head” (Letters 319). Later that year, Gaddis was scheduled to appear at an event closer to home, in Stonington, New York, for which—he says in a July 7, 1977, letter to Joy Williams and Rust Hills—he was “girding his loins.” Part of his trepidation was that “it won’t have Gass” (321).

Reading their personal correspondence, filled with warm regards and jokes that each man knows will land because of their kindred kinds of humor, it is obvious how much they genuinely liked each other. An excellent example of this tone appears in a letter to Gass dated August 25, 1980, in which Gaddis alludes to a previous trip to Washington University in St. Louis. Gaddis begins, “Dear Bill. Attending a stylish Hamptons opening of a very good painter [Polly Kraft] out here.” He believes that Gass will appreciate her art and has enclosed some slides of her paintings. He says, “I inveigled them from her on grounds of your sterling generous & rowdy character & Mary’s good looks.” Then, “I write this on the assumption that you are still alive, after day after day reports of 114° in St. Louis (my recollection being -10°)” (Letters 358). Gaddis had been in St. Louis in February 1979 for a three-week teaching session at Wash U. A few months beforehand (October 14, 1978) he wrote to his daughter Sarah about receiving “a letter from Washington Univ in St. Louis (where Bill Gass is)” with the teaching proposal. The letter was from Stanley Elkin, a writer who is “marvelous.” Gaddis says that he “accepted immediately . . . mostly for the prospect of rowdy time with Elkin & Gass & I’m really looking forward to it. I think we’ve all 3 got similar views on what good writing’s about plus highly compatible senses of humor” (Letters 341). He concludes the August 25, 1980, letter by encouraging Gass and his wife to visit him on Long Island when they can. It is an open invitation that Gaddis expresses in several letters.

Their relationship was not just about mutual admiration and sharing “rowdy” times together. They also did what they could to advance each other’s careers and reputations. Gass’s efforts on Gaddis’s behalf began with his judgment of J R for the National Book Award and continued for the next two decades. It included his writing the introduction for the Penguin edition of The Recognitions, and his being instrumental in bringing Gaddis to St. Louis to teach, and then again, in 1994, to contribute to a symposium on “The Writer and Religion.” What is more, Gass wrote a recommendation that contributed to Gaddis’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981. Gaddis wrote to him (April 12), “Do you KNOW what joy (read money, prestige, vainglory) your kind effort has contributed to this modest household?” (Letters 361). Gaddis, for his part, appeared to always have Gass’s best interests at heart. In the 1980 letter in which he references St. Louis’s harsh weather, he also writes that he “escaped Knopf for Viking (a move I’d encourage you in . . . enthusiastic leaves-you-alone . . .)”; and he recommends a specific editor at Viking he thinks Gass would like (Letters 358). In 1991 and ’92 Gass more or less sequestered himself at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, to complete, at long last, his novel The Tunnel, which he’d been writing since 1966. Gaddis wrote to him at his Santa Monica address to offer some comic relief (composing much of the letter in Huck Finn-esque dialect), as well as encouragement and support. He says, “[I]t would be something if we both finished these god dam books this same year 1992 . . .” (“Letter [January?] 1992”). Gaddis, presumably, is referring to A Frolic of His Own, published in 1994. Gaddis informs Gass that his daughter Sarah is soon to arrive in California also and closes by saying “let me know if theres [sic] anything I can do for you here.”

If one were to do a Venn diagram (so popular these days) of the two writers’ influences, there would of course be notable common ground. Both had a taste for some Medieval authors as well as Elizabethans, especially Donne and Shakespeare (Gaddis’s favorite play was As You Like It, while Gass counted Antony and Cleopatra as one of his “Fifty Literary Pillars” [Moore 11; Gass 36]). Contemporary European authors were among each man’s favorites, perhaps most notably Rilke, who was Gass’s literary lodestar. They had their differences too, however. Gaddis claimed to have read little of James Joyce, in spite of the critics who were convinced of the Irish writer’s influence; whereas Gass counted Ulysses and Finnegans Wake among his “pillars” and alluded to Joyce frequently in his nonfiction. Perhaps the most significant disagreement centered around Russian novelists, particularly Dostoevsky, whose place for Gaddis, says Steven Moore, was “paramount” (10).

This difference of opinion was comically and touchingly captured by Gass in his piece about the two writers’ participation in a trip to Soviet Russia in 1985, which included frigid visits to landmarks associated with Dostoevsky and especially his writing of Crime and Punishment. Gass was in the mood to be flippant and wanted Gaddis to be too. Writes Gass, “Gaddis’s love for the Russian novel—and for the predictable Russians at that—had surprised me, though in hindsight it shouldn’t have, if I’d kept The Recognitions fully in front of me . . .” (94). As such, Gaddis didn’t “relish [Gass’s] popping off” during the tour, and Gass’s wife Mary worked to keep his tongue in check by squeezing his arm when she knew he was about to say something that could prove regrettable. Gass continues, “I could see [Gaddis’s] youthful love glowing plainly when our group visited Dostoyevsky’s apartment. The sight of the master’s desk actually wet Willy’s eyes. I envied him. When my eyes moistened, it was only for Bette Davis, and such a shallow show of weakness made me angry with my soul” (196-97).

Gass concluded his tribute to his friend by recounting Gaddis’s arrival at a celebration in his honor in Cologne, Germany: “Gaddis slowly emerged into a starfall of flashbulbs worthy of the Academy Awards, the popping of a hundred corks” (205). I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I think it’s a swell idea. In fact, I like to imagine a Literary Great Beyond, a kind of Valhalla for writers instead of warriors. And if such a place did exist, I would hope that the great friends, Gaddis and Gass, were both greeted as novelist titans just as Gaddis was on that glorious Teutonic night.

Works Cited

Gaddis, Sarah. “A Note of Gratitude.” Conjunctions 33, 1999, pp. 149-51.

Gaddis, William. Letter to William H. Gass. [January?] 1992. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

——. The Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Gass, William H. A Temple of Texts. Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author, The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 17-38.

Millman, Michael. Letter to William H. Gass. 21 Jan. 1993. Gass Papers, Washington University in St. Louis.

Moore, Steven. William Gaddis: Expanded Edition, Bloomsbury, 2015.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Keynote Introduction of Steven Moore

Introducing Steven Moore (foreground) at Holmes Lounge, Washington University, St. Louis, as part of the William Gaddis Centenary Conference. (Photo: Mary Henderson Gass)

I don’t recall the context, but some twenty years ago I said “Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore.” For the past few weeks, in anticipation of this conference, I’ve been getting back into a William Gaddis state of mind, and it occurred to me that the statement is still true. Everything I know about William Gaddis I learned from Steven Moore. Like so many of us, I first encountered Steven’s scholarship while grappling with The Recognitions. His Reader’s Guide, first published in 1982, was an invaluable lifeline. A revised edition appeared in 1995, and an edition translated into German was brought out in 1998. As my own interests were sparked by Gaddis’s work, Steven continued to be my guide, especially his critical biography of Gaddis and his books, simply titled William Gaddis—both the 1989 edition, and the expanded edition of 2015. As if being the founder and leading voice of William Gaddis studies wasn’t enough, Steven has produced scholarship in an impressively diverse range of areas; perhaps most notable are his two volumes of The Novel, An Alternative History, the latter of which won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism in 2013. However, one of the more obscure credits on his bibliography is the most personally meaningful to me. In 2012 I was finalizing my first academic book for publication—a postmodern take on the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf—and my publisher was hoping I could land a scholar of note to write the book’s foreword. I was hoping that too. A few years earlier I’d had one brief exchange of emails with Steven. He’d actually contacted me for assistance with a Gaddis project (I think he was editing the letters). In my recollection I was little to no help. However, that one exchange encouraged me to reach out to Steven about writing the foreword. To my surprise, he agreed to do it. I sent him the manuscript and in short order he’d written a wonderfully insightful, not to mention generous, opening for the monograph. My only concern was reading reviews that would say something like “What a terrific foreword—it’s too bad Steven Moore couldn’t have written the whole book.” Luckily for us all, Steven has written several whole books, and he’s not done yet. This coming spring, Zerogram Press will release his memoir Dalkey Days about his time with the legendary Dalkey Archive Press from 1987-96. We have to wait a bit for the book, but our time of waiting to hear this keynote address—on “New Directions for Gaddis Scholarship”—is over. Please help me welcome Steven Moore.