William Thomas Gaddis, Jr. (1922-1998) was an American novelist. Born in New York City, Gaddis’ parents separated with he was three and he was subsequently raised in Massapequa (Long Island) by his mother. At age five, Gaddis was sent to Merricourt Boarding School in Berlin, Connecticut. He continued in private school until the eighth grade, after which he returned to Long Island to receive his diploma at Farmingdale High School in 1941. He entered Harvard in 1941 and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon (where he eventually served as President). After leaving Harvard without a degree in 1945, Gaddis worked as a fact checker for The New Yorker, then spent five years traveling in Mexico, Central America, Spain, France, England, and North Africa, returning to the United States in 1951.
Gaddis’ first novel, The Recognitions, appeared in 1955. A lengthy, complex, and allusive work about art fraud, it had to wait to find its audience. Newspaper reviewers considered it overly intellectual and overwritten. However, as famously explained by Jack Green in his trenchant exposé “Fire the Bastards!” in 1962, many of these reviewers either had not even read or finished the novel and simply churned out the same negative clichés, sometimes with factual errors or purloined excerpts from other reviews. It is now recognized as a landmark in postmodern fiction.
Gaddis then turned to public relations work and the making of documentary films to support himself and his family. In this role he worked for Pfizer, Eastman Kodak, IBM, and the United States Army, among others. He also received a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, a Rockefeller grant, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants, all of which helped him write his second novel. In 1975, he published J R, a work even more difficult than The Recognitions, told almost entirely in dialogue, with very little attribution for which character is speaking.
By the time of JR, critical opinion had caught up with him, and the book won the National Book Award for Fiction. Gaddis' third novel Carpenter's Gothic (1985) would be nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, while his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), would earn him a second National Book Award in 1995.
Gaddis died of prostate cancer, but not before creating his final work, Agapē Agape, which was published posthumously in 2002. The Rush for Second Place, published at the same time, collected most of Gaddis's previously published nonfiction.
For information on the William Gaddis Papers, as well as links to other Gaddis-related collections at Washington University, please go here.