William Gaddis Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Parse a William Gaddis monologue or dialogue, tracing the strands of thoughts that develop. What does this exercise tell about communication and how people relate to one another?

Gaddis was a scathing critic of capitalism but also believed that it is the best system humankind has created. Explore how this tension is expressed in his work, showing both capitalism’s excesses and its advantages.

Consider the role of inaction in a Gaddis novel. What characters resist actingz? What are the results? Is action always the best option? Why or why not?

Explore anger and frustration as the defining mood of Gaddis’s work.

Gaddis often uses puns and wordplay in his books. Explore specific examples of this and how they serve the story thematically.

Discuss techniques of transition in Gaddis’s work, such as the telephone in J.R. or passages marking time in Carpenter’s Gothic. How do they influence the reading of his work? How are they unique stylistic choices?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Gaddis’s literary reputation is based on his novels; he also contributed a number of essays, poems, and short stories to major magazines. Gaddis’s papers are housed in the Washington University Library’s Modern Language Collection. The archive includes the author’s personal library as well as his collected notes, source materials, correspondence, and manuscript drafts and unpublished works.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Gaddis’s fiction is convoluted, confusing, and difficult, qualities that have led some readers to criticize it. His work is also sophisticated, multilayered, and technically innovative, qualities that have led most thoughtful readers to see Gaddis one of the most important writers of the post-World War II era, though he is not fully appreciated or understood.

Gaddis’s accomplishments began to receive greater attention in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, during which time he was at work on his second monumental novel, JR. Between 1955 and 1970, only a single article on Gaddis appeared in the United States, but in the 1970’s momentum started to build. The first doctoral dissertation on Gaddis was published in 1971, providing valuable information on The Recognitions and basic facts about Gaddis’s life. The year 1982 saw the publication of new essays on Gaddis in a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, as well as a full-length guide to The Recognitions, written by Steven Moore; in that same year, Gaddis was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Gaddis’s success was confirmed when he received the 1976 National Book Award in fiction for JR. Indeed, Gaddis responded by publishing his third novel only a decade later, down from the twenty years between his first two efforts. Carpenter’s Gothic was widely hailed for its bitter yet readable satire of ethical vanity in American business, politics, and popular religion. The novel broadened the readership for a novelist accustomed to a comparatively small audience, and it confirmed him as one of the most gifted and serious writers of contemporary American fiction.

Gaddis’s fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, was published in 1994 to a mixed response similar to that given his earlier works. It won for him his second National Book Award and was praised for its savage wit. However, some reviewers raised the old complaints that it was difficult, long-winded, and all too faithful in its representation of the tedium of everyday conversation and legal minutiae.

In addition to the National Book Awards and the MacArthur Fellowship, Gaddis received a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1963), two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1963 and 1974), and a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award (1993).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Beer, John. “William Gaddis.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 21 (Fall, 2001): 69-110. A very thorough overview article and a good introduction to Gaddis’s body of work. Focuses on Gaddis’s satirical style.

Gaddis, William. “The Art of Fiction, CI: William Gaddis.” Interview by Zoltan Abadi-Nagy. Paris Review 105 (Winter, 1987): 54-89. An extensive interview with Gaddis, conducted during a 1986 visit to Budapest, Hungary. The author talks in detail about his sources, reputation, principal themes, and work in progress. He dispels a number of misconceptions, especially those linking his work to sources in Joyce, and discusses how the writer must ignore pressures of the literary marketplace.

Green, Jack. Fire the Bastards! Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992. A series of three essays originally published by the pseudonymous author in 1962, indignantly attacking the reviewers of The Recognitions for failing to appreciate its greatness. Green cites numerous factual errors in the reviews and excoriates the reviewers for being unwilling to make the effort to understand the book. In contrast to the academic tone of later studies, this book is written in tones of rage with eccentric syntax and capitalization.

Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions, 1940-1980. New York: Harper and Row,...

(The entire section is 571 words.)