William Thomas Gaddis was born in New York City on December 29, 1922, the only child of parents who were divorced when he was three years old. His mother soon moved to Massapequa, Long Island, where Gaddis was raised in a house that would eventually serve as a model for the Bast house in his second novel, JR (1975). On his mother’s side, Gaddis’s family were Quakers, but he was brought up in a strict Calvinist tradition upon which he would draw for his first novel, The Recognitions (1955).
An intensely private man, Gaddis granted few interviews, and little is known about his life. He always preferred that his novels speak for themselves. It is known, however, that between the ages of five and thirteen, he was educated at a boarding school in Berlin, Connecticut, and that he later attended Farmingdale High School in Long Island. These experiences appear to have provided material for the vividly anguished recollections of his fictional character Jack Gibbs in JR, who cynically laments a lonely and emotionally unsatisfying childhood. Indeed, in Gaddis’s novels much of the alienation, disorder, and strife that sets the narratives in motion and besets the characters has its beginning in the absence or death of the protagonists’ fathers.
While in high school, Gaddis contracted a rare disease, erythema grave, upon whose symptoms of high fever and delusions he draws for Wyatt Gwyon, the protagonist of his first novel. Though easily cured with modern drugs, a kidney disorder that was a side effect of his treatment left Gaddis unfit for military service in World War II. Throughout the war he was a student at Harvard University. Enrolling in September, 1941, Gaddis majored in English literature, joined the staff of the Lampoon (a satirical campus magazine) in 1943, and then, beginning in September, 1944, took over the prestigious post of Lampoon president. This work provided Gaddis his first outlet for publication. His early pieces covered a wide range of forms: reviews, verse parodies, essays, short fictions, and satires of such forms as the scientific report.
Gaddis’s Harvard career was cut short in his senior year. He and a drinking companion tangled with the Cambridge police, word of it came to the college dean, and both students were asked to resign. Gaddis then took up residence in New York’s...
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