by Sonia Johnson
“What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” asks Wyatt Gwyon in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. The question could just as easily have been asked by Gaddis himself, who disdained celebrity and shunned public appearances (as I discussed in my first post). He could not, however, stop people from sending him fan mail. What did they want from Gaddis that they didn’t get from his work?
Gaddis either didn’t receive many fan letters or was selective about which ones he left in the archive. What is there is fascinating, and in this post I will look at some the mail that he received after J R’s publication. I won’t be discussing the responses to Gaddis found in published books and intended for public audiences (if you’re interested in these, the Gaddis annotations has a comprehensive list). Nor will I discuss scholarship as a form of fan response, although there’s clear evidence of that in cover letters for copies sent to Gaddis, as that scholarship was produced for an audience of at least a dissertation committee. I’m also working from the assumption that the private address of these letters distinguishes them from the kind of responses we’ve been generating for #OccupyGaddis where we’re speaking to each other as fellow readers. I want to consider the letters that do what we can no longer do: speak directly to Gaddis.
Perhaps it was Gaddis’s hostility to authorial celebrity in his novels, as seen above, or perhaps this is normal for fan mail, but most of the letters have the fraught self-consciousness of a David Foster Wallace character. One correspondent claims to have needed three whiskies to get up the nerve to write to Gaddis. His letter alternates between earnest literary questions and embarrassed self-depreciation. Another letter opens by reassuring Gaddis that the writer is not a “college co-ed” looking to sleep with a famous author. Indeed, taken in context, Wyatt’s question about what they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work is clearly an attack on literary groupies. (If Gaddis ever got letters offering sex, though, he didn’t keep them.) This particular letter was from a seventeen year old boy offering a five-page scholarly discussion of J R including diagrams, a full-page graph, and references across the English and French modernist canon rather than racy pictures. The boy ends with a plea to Gaddis to write back, citing his fears of intellectual stagnation among the lesser minds of his teachers and peers. Like most fan mail, these letters want to extend the relationships these readers had with Gaddis’s novels to Gaddis himself, but this move is made difficult by Gaddis’s clear resistance to it.
The letter reproduced here is of note for its solution to the problem of how to speak to an author who doesn’t want to be acknowledged. Rather than speaking to Gaddis, Stephen A. Huth shows his respect for Gaddis by speaking like him. (Click the image to read the full letter.)
Huth shows his admiration for J R as much by how well he can imitate its style as by the praise he puts in his characters’ mouths. He opens mid-conversation with a Gaddisian mishearing of J.B. (Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 modern retelling of the Job story) for J R, in a familiarly Gaddisian setting of two men drinking. Huth’s imitation is impersonal, in that it distances him from his opinions by playing them out between the two conflicting characters. At the same time, the attentive reading and labor required to write such an imitation is very personal gesture. It is, however, the personal gesture of one artist speaking to another, rather than a fan speaking to a celebrity. This is nothing unusual – as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are a number of published works that imitate and reference Gaddis in this way – except for its being a private letter to Gaddis. Is this, perhaps, a healthier form of democratizing the arts than the banal “humanizing” of genius we see in schools and media in J R? Does Gaddis’s harsh refusal of literary celebrity force readers, or at least some of them, to act as equals of the author, rather than passive recipients his [sic] lofty genius?
Of course, we no longer have Gaddis to speak to. What we do have, however, is the unprecedented possibilities for community created by the internet. Perhaps we get at least part of that relationship and that community this fan mail seeks from things like the Gaddis email list and #OccupyGaddis. Is there something more though? Would you write to Gaddis if you could, and what would you want to say? I thought about this a lot as I worked through the Gaddis archives but I’m not sure I have any answers for myself yet.
Letter courtesy of William Gaddis Papers
Washington University Libraries
Department of Special Collections