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« In Which The Letters Of William Gaddis Become Part Of This »

The Device

The letters of the American writer William Gaddis range from an almost precocious naivete to a hardened cynicism. These shifts occur so frequently we can assume they were a distinctive part of his personality. Although the main output of his career was two voluminous novels, The Recognitions and J R, he assembled the raw material for these tomes through a variety of occupations, and various dalliances with the opposite sex, both of which merited time-consuming research. Many critics and readers struggled to understand Gaddis' brilliance, provoking his frustration at times. When his anger was set off, he expressed his dissatisfaction in a number of ways, but always in writing as well, since it was his prime form. In his letters Gaddis shows, like a master juggler, the merest of tricks first before asserting any mastery at all.

As a boy he had not yet been taught of evil.

January 1932

Dear Mother,

We just came back from the library but I didn't get any books.

I finished Bomba the Jungle Boy and I have started Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain. I wrote a poem and it went like this:


Easter is on Sunday
But today is Monday
And Easter is 11 weeks away
At Easter the bunny hides eggs all over,
Some in the grass, some in the clover.

Did you like it?

With love



He met model, artist and muse Sheri Martinelli in New York in 1953. He wrote her one surviving love letter, but never sent it:


Summer 1953

Sheri, what a great happiness it was, seeing you again; though there were enough moments of feeling young again, and too young again, and though other people seem to want to be young again I do not, once was enough. So we all go not changing just getting more so.

But you again, is something else, and still beautiful, yes: even then I could not understand other people taking your presence for granted and still I cannot, nor understand, no one weeps looking at you, I will. So, such a recognition, seeing you again: but to be grateful, right before God and everybody, for your being happy to see me again, take that for granted! no, no that could not be for granted, too kind a gift. Or, if the present is every moment reshaping the past, so that any instant is liable to come up with the verdict, I was wrong all the time! or, I was right all along — there: I was right all along? Not being a scientist who by measurement attempts prediction, it is a very dangerous way to live today. So gifts asked from the most selfish motives are the humbly received. And considered upon retirement. Knowing you go right on now, every minute being, thought of and loved you know. My selfish motives, my humble gratitude, then always the retirement for finally there is only the work. And all the while you are loved.


 Never one to miss an opportunity, Gaddis sent his debut novel, The Recognitions, to the father of the atomic bomb.

4 January 1955

Dear Doctor Oppenheimer.

I have already taken a greater liberty than this, asking your attention to my letter, in having called Harcourt, Brace & Co., who are publishing a long novel I have written, to ask that they send you a copy. You must receive mail of all sorts, crank notes and fan letters of every description, but few I should think of half a million words. And since I can also well imagine that you seldom if ever read novels, if only for not having the time, it is an added imposition to have sent you such a bulky one.

But for having read your recent address at Columbia’s anniversary, I should never have presumed to do so. But I was so stricken by the succinctness, and the use of the language, with which you stated the problems which it has taken me seven years to assemble and almost a thousand pages to present, that my first thought was to send you a copy. And I do submit this book to you with deepest respect. Because I believe that The Recognitions was written about “the massive character of the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual and in temporal order, . . .” about our histories and traditions as “both bonds and barriers among us,” and our art which “brings us together and sets us apart.” And if I may go on presuming to use your words, it is a novel in which I tried my prolonged best to show “the integrity of the intimate, the detailed, the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful” standing in “massive contrast to the vastness of life, the greatness of the globe, the otherness of people, the otherness of ways, and the all-encompassing dark.”

The book is a novel about forgery. I know that if you do get into it, you will find boring passages, offensive incidents, and some pretty painful sophomorics, all these in my attempts to present “the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue” as I have seen them: I tried to present the shadowy struggle of a man surrounded by those who have “dissolved in a universal confusion,” those who “know nothing and love nothing.”

However you feel about the book, please allow my most humble congratulations on your address which provoked my taking the liberty of sending it to you, and in expression of my deepest admiration for men like yourself in the world you described.


After eloping with a woman named Patricia Black, Gaddis felt he had to write a letter to her mother for some reason. What resulted is the best, and the writer even outlined it beforehand, writing, (dnt wnt to snd apologtc: proud)(come see us, I dnt know when we can get there) (household problems, $, the usual bickering over groceries, the life I hope to give her &c, but I depend on her stability & household sanity, after bachelordom &c).

May 1955

dear Mrs Black,

It is late for me to be writing you, at last, of my marriage to your daughter, and I want first to offer you my deepest apologies for uncertainty and anxiety that you have suffered because of the way we have managed things starting off our life together. Like so many difficult parts of the whole situation, this letter is hardly the way I should want to be doing even now, writing you instead of seeing you, to tell you of what is already accomplished, instead of seeking your good wishes for our plans. All of this does bring home how selfish I have been, or both of us have been perhaps, not in what we have done, but in the way we have done it.

A moment came when it seemed there were so many complications that the only thing to do, and the best thing, was to take matters into our own hands. We have been aware of the complications that would follow and, to some extent of the hurts and disappointments we might cause. My mother had met Pat and of course liked her immediately, but she too found our news rather abrupt, and had a little difficulty adjusting to it so quickly. I know how much she would have wanted to participate in such an important event in her only son’s life, and in spite of how happy she is about us now, I shall always regret causing her that disappointment. I wish that you and she could have met before this, —but I could sit here writing ‘I wish’ all day, and it wouldn’t change any of the anxiety we have caused for others. Except for these things, we are happy, I know we are going to be happy together but I hope never at the expense of others who are, in different ways, equally dear to us.

I was fortunate in meeting your son Bob, and I hope the advantage we took of his stopping here didn’t seem an unfair one, in asking him to carry our news home to you. Never having had a brother or sister myself, that relationship will probably always be strange to me, and I find wonderful how much Pat shares with her brother, even after such a long separation. I also marveled at how he could step out of army life in Alaska straight into new responsibilities, to his return to home and civilian life, and I deeply appreciate how readily he took on what we asked of him, and how well he must have taken care of it.

Now I wish I could go on to say that we were coming down to see you any time soon. But you may imagine we have a good deal of readjusting to do ourselves. For myself right now that involves pulling together enough writing work which I can do at home so that I can be with Pat here in Massapequa, instead of commuting to New York or spending the hot summer there. If I can continue to work this out, she should spend a restful and pleasant summer out here in the country, and be as healthy and ready for the fall as possible. None of this yet is the life I hope to give her, but it is a good start. Meanwhile she is an excellent cook, which isn’t difficult to appreciate after so many years of cooking for myself. But cooking aside, there are qualities in her, of patience, and kindness, and unselfishness, simple consideration and loyalty, which I know that at last I have you to thank for, in the way you brought her up. And as these things go, from generation to generation, I suppose the only way I will be able to show my appreciation will be indirectly to you, by trying to be worthy of them in her, and making her happy.

Looking back at the early part of this letter, I find a constant tone of troubled apology. I repeat it, concerning my feelings and our feelings for you, but I don’t want that to be the whole tone of all this because I am proud to have your daughter Pat for my wife, and grateful, and happy at the prospect of our life together. I hope that it will be something we will be able to share in some ways with you, and that after the anxiety we have given you, you will be proud of us.


with legendary dick Donald Barthelme at an awards ceremony

Pat Gaddis divorced her husband eventually, taking the kids with her, and Gaddis remarried a travel editor at Glamour, Judith Thompson. This is his first letter to her.

August 1966

How strange this is the first ‘letter’ I have ever written you, & can’t begin “Dear Judith” with a straight face, dear girl, dear Judith, dear heaven how long ago only this time yesterday already has become.

And you may imagine how much news there is here since our telephone call—and how you haunt this house — and that downstairs room where I hope to move tonight if the children can be persuaded to move into theirs, Sarah quite entranced with hers, mirrored dresser &c — and how this letter is merely a device to see if mail really works between here and there, and so you will have something in the mail, and know I have mounted a pencil sharpener on a kitchen wall and once more spread out work.

And to tell you you must call, wire, come, if things, pressures, get too disproportionate won’t you—including $ (and use the enclosed just to keep you in balance until I see you)—though for the moment 2 days’ a week work may not be unrealistic, may allow you a little more freedom at home—the horoscopes keep insisting how splendid everything is for us, and that means work I guess, you to fight off the difficulties in your situation there, toward work; I to fight off the attractions in mine here, toward work; and toward seeing you Sunday night, barring disaster.

yours, with you know what and you know why


Gaddis sent a copy of F. Scott Fitzgeralds' The Crack-Up to his daughter Sarah and enclosed the following note:

September 1970

Dear Sarah.

Here is a book I’ve meant to get you a look at since you talked of keeping a sort of notebook journal. Obviously it’s not for you to sit down and read straight through but I thought you would be interested in what one writer turned the idea into and continue and expand your own along the lines of catching ideas, impressions, thoughts, images, words and combinations of words and overheard remarks and stories and anecdotes at that instant you encounter them, which is so often one you can never recreate purely from memory and may in fact lose forever. Of course in this case, assuming Fitzgerald never expected these notes to be published, I think you find a lot of material which he would have reconsidered and thrown out and never wanted published; but at least, having written them down, he gave himself that choice, rather than putting himself through those long moments of trying to remember — What was it? that remark I heard yesterday, that idea I had last night . . . What is it that makes end of summer at Fire Island unlike anywhere else, and yet like a concentration of the whole idea of summer’s end everywhere.

See you soon, much love, write!



The following letter Gaddis wrote in the style of a classified report in order to advise his wife Judith of his activities while she was away.


08:25 waved

08:26 watched down hill to make sure car turned corner safely; waved

08:28 walked dog to Aufieri garbage can and returned

08:31 poured coffee

08:45 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking Judith had gone on errand and would return

08:46 saw bag with grapefruit, put it by door to remember to give to Jack

08:47 let cat in

08:48 poured coffee

08:49 saw MIL’s letter

08:59 went in to look for stamp for MIL’s letter

09:00 saw work laid out on table, decided to have drink

09:01 let cat out; decided not to have drink

09:02 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking Judith had gone on errand and would return

09:04 burned toast

09:09 called John, reached hoarse lady who said he would call back

09:11 let cat in

09:12 poured coffee, looked at work laid out on table

09:14 decided to clear kitchen table and bring typewriter there to be near ’phone

09:16 tied up newspapers

09:23 emptied ashtray

09:25 decided to make list of things I must do

09:29 could not think of anything so decided not to make list

09:31 cleared kitchen table

09:34 John called; read him note from his Mrs emphasizing all underlined words but did not know Pat’s ’phone number. Haha.

09:44 let cat out

09:45 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking I had gone on errand and would not return

09:46 moved car back to house

09:58 looked at work laid out on table, decided to have cereal

09:59 made cereal

10:02 ate cereal reading Swarthmore alumni bulletin; noted one alumnus who claimed 3 billion dependents for federal taxes and given 9 months in prison for filing fraudulent W-4 form, decided must remember to warn MIL who might consider something similar

10:40 looked at work spread out on table

10:41 twinge at noticing coffee cups &c, put them in dishwasher to not be reminded of departure

10:48 examined contents of refrigerator, discovered spaghetti sauce with Message and put it in freezer

10:50 discovered corned beef and potatoes

10:55 thought I should probably go down and get butter; checked first, found 4 sticks of butter

10:57 let cat in

10:58 hung up coat

10:59 put trash out

10:00 listened to news on radio

10:04 went upstairs and looked around

10:08 came downstairs and looked around

10:13 sat down and studied design in kitchen floor linoleum

10:20 looked outside for car to make sure I had not gone on errand and might not return

10:22 decided I should probably go down and get cigarettes; checked first, found 5 packs

10:24 brought typewriter in to kitchen table to be near ’phone

10:28 decided to have nap till suppertime when I could have corned beef

10:29 sat down in livingroom chair

10:33 woke startled by ghastly liquid snoring, decided I had horrible cold and should have drink

10:34 discovered snoring was being done by dog, very relieved

10:37 decided not to have drink, went to typewriter in kitchen to work

10:41 decided I should get some letters out of the way before settling down to work, got paper

10:50 could think of no one to write to

10:51 stacked wood more neatly on porch, checked newspapers to make sure they were well tied

10:57 returned to kitchen and listened to refrigerator hum

11:01 examined contents of refrigerator

11:04 thought I should probably go down and get milk; checked first, found a full quart

11:06 looked to see if mail had come but flag was still down

11:09 discovered memorandum WILLIAM THINGS TO REMEMBER and read carefully

11:29 put cat out

11:31 examined clam chowder from refrigerator

11:33 decided clam chowder looked thin, decided to add potatoes

11:34 peeled and diced 3 small potatoes and put on boil

11:51 heard mailbox, got mail

11:55 opened mail, one item from American Express with new card and literature which said read enclosed agreement carefully

11:56 read agreement carefully


12:18 diced potatoes somewhat soft, added them to chowder; decided chowder looked somewhat thick, got spoon

12:22 served bowl of hot chowder, got spoon

12:23 ’phone rang: talked with Hy Cohen at agency who said check should arrive this week; who also said Aaron Asher is leaving Holt and was concerned that Asher’s departure would not or might upset me; I told him I was not unless Holt wanted their money back; he said that would be fine, certainly sell it elsewhere; I told him I was working hard on it right this minute; he said Asher might go to Dutton which would be logical following on Hal Sharlatt’s death; I said Dutton had no money; he said we will think about it, it could all work out extremely well especially if I finish the book soon; I said I would finish the book soon, was working on it right this minute; he did not answer; I told him my only real dismay at this moment was confidence and faith Asher has shown in me and my work over many years and would be a shame to part with him at this point; he said we will talk about it, that the Dutton possibility is only a possibility; I said I will not tell a sole; he said we’ll be in touch with you I said boy you better.

12:55 poured chowder back into pan to reheat

12:56 listened to news on radio

01:00 ate chowder, reading interesting article on Alaska in Swarthmore bulletin

01:21 checked upstairs, nothing changed

01:23 checked downstairs, emptied ashtray

01:26 looked at work spread out on table, noticed stamp for MIL’s letter

01:29 walked out with dog to mail MIL’s letter

01:42 returning from walk waved cheerful friendly wave to neighbor standing on corner

01:43 realised neighbor standing on corner was really Jack’s garbage can, hurried inside hoping no one had noticed

01:52 sat down at typewriter to work

01:58 ’phone rang, talked with Mr Cody a real estate agent who wished to be helpful if we wished to rent or sell our Saltaire house this summer; wrote reminder to call Savages

02:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter

02:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed; checked and found 2 full cans of cat food

02:19 decided to call Hy Coen back with some ideas

02:35 could not think of any ideas so declined to call Hy Coen back

02:36 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:39 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:41 decided to reread whole book through up to this point

02:42 looked at MS, decided not to reread whole book up to this point

02:44 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:47 began to type rough version of present sequence in book

03:05 dog passed through going east to west

03:07 dog passed through going west to east

04:01 began to type second page of rough draft

04:26 dog passed through west to east

04:27 dog passed through east to west

04:44 read two pages of rough version of present sequence in book

04:48 began to type third page of rough version

05:26 decided to have drink as Adrienne rang doorbell, told her to come back in the spring

05:26 fixed drink

05:28 sat down to read pages of rough version just written

05:31 laughed heartily

06:31 decided might be a good idea to start checking motels in Virginia, North and South Carolina

06:35 could not find Mobil guide to motels in Virginia, North and South Carolina; wondered where they were

06:44 wondered where they were

06:55 turned on oven to heat corned beef, dog passed through west to east; let cat in

06:57 reread pages of rough version just written

07:02 did not chuckle; wondered where they were

07:09 put in corned beef to warm; wondered where they were

07:16 fed dog; wondered where they were

07:18 fed cat; wondered where they were

07:41 served corned beef

07:42 ate corned beef

08:01 watched Benny Goodman Story did not know he was such a sap and wondered where on earth they were

Gaddis felt the barest measure of politeness for people who considered him their own because they had read his novels. Here he is turning down an interview request.

July 1981

Dear Tom LeClair.

Yours of 21 July & ‘no graceful way to ask about the interview’ must provoke no graceful way to decline it. Unfortunately the deadline of your publisher ‘who wants to schedule printing’ has got to be of less concern to me than mine.

For now then, all I can do is recall to you some lines I wrote 30 years ago in The Recognitions (p. 106 in the careless little Avon edition) asking what they want from the artist they didn’t get from his work? & why must one repeat this & repeat it when that is what the whole damned thing is about? If it didn’t come through in the work then what use or interest is an ‘interview’? All the purposes such interviews can serve seem to me, on the one hand, to say ‘this is what I really meant to accomplish’ or, on the other, some definitive statement from the writer regarding his ‘interest in making some statements about fiction and (his) work’ as you say; whereas this is precisely what his work constitutes for better or worse when he offers it, in the best & most final shape he can give it at the time, the final statement in ‘interview’ terms being, of course, his obituary, & the real final statement no more than the sum of the work itself, its fictions offering probably fewer opportunities for misinterpretation even than the interview’s that isn’t what I meant (at all).

So for the moment at any rate your notion of publishing any transcribed version of our talk edited, disclaimed or whatever, is unacceptable, as a condition of your original proposal. I appreciate your time and effort spent on it but it was very much the petulance of an afternoon.


W. Gaddis

You can purchase The Letters of William Gaddis here. It is edited by Stephen Moore and published by Dalkey Archive.

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