by Joseph Tabbi
In life, William Gaddis was essentially a private man. In the spirit of New Criticism that he absorbed at Harvard in the 1940s, Gaddis simply felt that the work ought to be self-contained, semi-autonomous. The author shouldn’t have to “follow it around” telling people what he really meant, as Gaddis told more or less every interviewer who got him to talk, and many more whom he put off.
So when Mike Levine, an editor at Northwestern University Press, approached me a couple of years ago to see if I’d be interested in doing a Gaddis biography, I really had to think about what I was getting into. Would there be anything there, in the letters and so forth, and would there be anyone left alive who could recall first-hand the years when he was producing his major works? As it turned out, Gaddis kept plenty of materials, and even organized them for their eventual sale with the knowledge that every page would likely be looked over by some future “beleaguered graduate student” (as he wrote in one letter), and perhaps even an eventual biographer. I’m sure there are characters in The Recognitions and J R whose models in life I’ll never identify, but still I hear from Gaddis’s friends and colleagues (and will be glad to hear more from others, who may even be reading this blog).
One thing I’ve learned is that the New England reserve that characterizes Gaddis and many of his family members and acquaintances doesn’t mean that Gaddis was not autobiographical or highly personal in his writing. There are in fact plenty of traces of Gaddis’s private life that can be found in all the novels, and particularly in J R, which is in part a reflection of Gaddis’s abrupt transition from an aspiring novelist with a Greenwich Village past and international travel portfolio, to a freelance corporate writer supporting a family, while keeping (like Gibbs and Eigen) an uptown Manhattan apartment for his own writing apart from job and family.
Gaddis never tried to hide these biographical traces. To the contrary, many of them are foregrounded, as I’ve discovered while working on the biography and re-reading the works.
When you’re researching a literary biography and your time is spent reading letters, book reviews, and draft chapters from fifty years ago, you don’t always notice the way that a novel like J R can go on speaking to generations of readers - and will continue to do so, so long as the corporatist system depicted in the novel remains more or less unchanged. Indeed, it has only intensified since the time of the book’s writing.
I think it’s appropriate that #OccupyGaddis shifts our focus away from Gaddis as the supposed literary highbrow and toward a view of him as our great chronicler of ordinary life under increasing (and ever more personal) corporate domination. Gaddis himself lived through some of the biggest changes in the current world system: He saw family businesses based in the U.S. like the Bast General Roll plant displaced by globalized interests, such as the J R Family of Corporations; he observed how profits seemed to increase exponentially while “Nobody Grew but the Business.” (That’s the title Gaddis came up with for a June 1975 excerpt from the novel in Harper’s magazine.)
A number of blog readers have pointed out that all the nuclear families in the novel struggle - the Angels, the Jouberts, the Moncrieffs, DeCephilises, Eigens, and Gibbses. During the long gestation, and even longer, oft-interrupted composition of J R, Gaddis himself was living separately from his two school-aged children, with his second wife Judith who would leave him within a year of J R’s publication. The tension between corporate and private conceptions of “family” is how the personal and political encounter one another in America. Such tension certainly accounts for the unique (and often missed) emotional register in Gaddis’s later fiction; it is also, arguably, the primary affective change that has been wrought by our commitment to corporate life and education in America today.
This corporatizing of private life had its effects on Gaddis and was part of the reason for his media shyness, and the measures he would take to protect his private life.
His reticence about going on record with his thoughts about this or that, or doing “readings” from his work, was not the blank refusal of Thomas Pynchon or the fed up withdrawal of J.D. Salinger. It was a way for him, barely but surely, to distance himself from the corporate process. A way to keep open a space for its critique - but the critique would be entirely immanent: that is, readers would need to discover the critical, aesthetic presence in the midst of all that talk. This way, the author is a persisting presence, not just one more halting, hectoring voice among many. And this way, too he might transform the chaos and entropy that is the novel’s great theme. (As many here have noticed, you need to track everything because unspoken connections among characters and running themes are Gaddis’s way of countering disorder with small acts of literary - and simply human - attention.)
I don’t think we’ll find in American fiction a more prescient vision of corporate life than what we have in J R, and none of the direct citations in current fiction of email exchanges, text messages, chat sessions, and so forth quite get at the spirit of corporatization that underlies these symptoms. Gaddis was writing about the at once individual and impersonal nature of corporate deal-making before trading went off the stock exchange floor and online, but the essentials of a virtual economy were already in place, as young J R and the Hyde boy discover when they canvas the ads in the back of a newspaper:
I mean like this here bond and stock stuff you don’t see anybody you don’t know nobody only in the mail and the telephone because that’s how they do it nobody has to see anybody, you can be this here funny lookingest person that lives in a toilet someplace how do they know, I mean like all those guys at the Stock Exchange where they’re selling all this stock to each other? They don’t give a shit whose it is they’re just selling it back and forth for some voice that told them on the phone why should they give a shit if you’re a hundred and fifty all they…
At age 12, J R Vansant has already grasped the essentials of a virtual economy. Even if his own buying and selling was done through the U.S. post office and the pay phone nearby his Long Island grade school, he would have no trouble adjusting to the hand-held devices used by brokers today, not least the real-life teen”self-made millionaires” that turn up regularly in the news. (For example.)
With the Hyde boy, “sending away” and trading is a pastime that quickly turns into full-time employment, performed openly and with essentially no intervention by any of J R’s teachers, coaches, or school administrators. We know little about the boy’s mother and less about his father (who seems to be, like Gaddis’s own father, entirely absent during the boy’s formative years.) Neglect, mainly, and non-recognition is the basis of the free market in an advanced economy. J R himself appears, to his class ‘Six J’ teacher Amy Joubert (née Moncrieff) as if he “sleeps in his clothes” and “when you talk to him he doesn’t look at you.” Amy gets the sense that the boy is thinking of something else altogether, trying to fit what you’re saying into a completely different context. Which is to say, the young J R is doing, in business, more or less what Gaddis is doing in fiction, in this very novel where the real action—the rise and fall of personal fortunes and paper empires; the fast, definitive, but half-known transformation of America itself—proceeds steadily within and behind all the recorded talk.
(Those strange transitional passages hint at the unseen cultural and capitalist processes; they’re unique I think to Gaddis, and new to his work after The Recognitions : taken together, they constitute a kind of prose poetry full of recognition unavailable to the characters and at times barely perceivable even to close readers. They can be, very occasionally, ironic or satirical but mostly they are drained of any affect whatsoever: this affectlessness is even more the case, in scenes of sexual activity as we’ll see a bit further into the reading.)
The fatherless boy whose mother is a nurse who “works these strange hours,” has learned how to benefit from his own neglect. That, and a greed never compromised by sexual desire, is what outfits this pre-adolescent for a meteoric rise in business. While his elders - the composer Bast, the novelist Eigen, the essayist and jack-of-all-trades Gibbs - remain within a modern economy grounded in recognition, the youthful J R exists wholly in the capitalist present. He doesn’t need to look anyone in the eye, he doesn’t need to earn or build trust in order to transact, and he won’t be distracted by anything in the arts. A devotion to the latter is a distraction from buying, selling, and earning, and is partly what makes life so hard for the grown men in the novel.
Apart from Bast (whom he actually likes) J R does not waste energy on knowing, or finding out about, his business associates and informants—whether it is a mail-order lawyer or the head of a corporation (Governer Cates) encountered in a corporate bathroom. J R‘s needs of people are informational, not personal. A life lived without recognition: that is what the American system has come to embrace, and the difference between this corporatized world and what Gaddis knew coming of age as a post-war writer accounts for the vast aesthetic differences between his first and second novels, The Recognitions and J R.
So - there’s one key biographical convergence between craggy, careworn William Gaddis and the irrational exuberance of young J R. I’ll see if I can’t assemble a few more linkages over the coming days and weeks.