William Gaddis Biography


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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It has often been noted that a satirist functions as the infuriated conscience of his or her national culture. The novels of Gaddis attest the accuracy of that statement. Gaddis’s principal subject concerns the terms of failure in America. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, or Herman Melville, Gaddis took issue with the democratic ideal that success in great things shall come to all Americans who simply work hard for it. Throughout his writing runs the counterconviction that even small successes come only through hard-fought moral, aesthetic, and spiritual struggles.


After spending his early childhood in New York City and on Long Island, William Thomas Gaddis attended a private boarding school in Connecticut for nine years. He then returned to Long Island to attend public school from grade eight through high school. He was accepted by Harvard in 1941 and stayed there until 1945, when he took a job as a reader and fact-checker for The New Yorker, a position he left after one year in order to travel. In the years that followed, he visited Central America, the Caribbean, North Africa, and parts of Europe, all of which became settings in his first novel. He continued to write after returning to the United States, and in 1955, with ten years of effort behind him, he published The Recognitions.

Throughout his life, Gaddis was reluctant to discuss his private life. Although he was sometimes seen at writers’ conferences and occasionally did some teaching, he guarded his privacy extremely well. Two scholars of Gaddis’s work, David Koenig and Steven Moore, made a number of important inferences about Gaddis’s life. For example, theprotagonist of The Recognitions, Wyatt, has a lonely and isolated childhood. His mother dies on an ocean voyage when he is very young, and his father gradually loses his sanity. When Wyatt is twelve, he suffers from a mysterious ailment that the doctors label erythema grave. They mutilate Wyatt’s wasted body and send him home to die because they can find neither a cause nor a cure for his illness;...

(The entire section is 620 words.)