The Last Obscenity: William Gaddis’s Collected Correspondence

By Len GutkinJune 3, 2013

The Letters of William Gaddis by William Gaddis

IN A 1978 LETTER to the novelist Cynthia Buchanan, William Gaddis — The Recognitions and J R behind him — discusses the difficulty, in late middle age, of staying angry enough to write well:

A difficulty I suppose with a bit more age & a bit more experience is summoning that indignation to surface yet once more & for long enough to sustain a fiction to embrace it, so the problem’s to get one’s head together & onto what will ‘reach more people’ now the vein of sex has been so exhaustively (& exhaustedly) mined, politics done in by ex-politicos cashing in from prisons, the evangelistics (& God go with them) (& stay) done up long since & once for all by Elmer Gantry and even death itself yielding right & left, madness & suicide to a fare-thee-well. What remains? Obscenity had for centuries been the dependable component (for ‘reaching more people’) in our Protestant Ethic but now that it’s been robbed of sexual content by the beaver-shots littering every news stand where does it turn? Maybe J R was right […] maybe money really is the last obscenity & one we’re so used to handling it never occurs to us to wash […]

As sources of interest and indignation, sex, politics, religion, and then sex again are all played out. None retains the power to shock. Only money is “obscene” enough to motivate writers and attract readers. The logic is hurried and imperfect, but the upshot is clear: money, not sex, is the thing — although Carpenter’s Gothic, Gaddis’s next novel, would deal not just with money but also, rather pointedly, with “politics” and “evangelistics.” With its exhilarating condensation of so many of Gaddis’s concerns, this letter is perhaps my favorite in the selected Letters of William Gaddis — heroically edited by Gaddis scholar Steven Moore and published by Dalkey Archive Press — but at over 500 pages spanning nearly 70 years, there are riches enough to choose from.

That Gaddis largely avoided sex as a literary subject distinguishes him from many of his male contemporaries. “Sex is like money; only too much is enough,” John Updike’s Piet Hanema says in the 1968 novel Couples, which might be taken as a mantra for much of the period’s fiction. But in the years since, the sex in Updike’s novels has come to many to seem, indeed, like too much. In his now legendary denunciation of the “the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction,” David Foster Wallace positions Updike as exemplary of the period’s ostensibly solipsistic eroticism. “I'm guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60s and 70s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike's evocation of the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic.” For Wallace, it no longer does.

Wallace’s GMNs — he also names Philip Roth and Norman Mailer — were never, as a group, so narrowly self-involved as he pretends, and it’s worth asking whether a category that can assimilate Norman Mailer to John Updike is internally consistent enough to be useful. But Wallace was clearly on to something. The GMNs thought sex mattered, and they thought they could tell us how it mattered. In this respect they were all working novelistic turf prepared by Freud. (Indeed, Portnoy’s Complaint is narrated from the analyst’s couch.) Freud’s case studies may have aspired to clinical precision, but they always opened onto the loftier planes of allegorical truth, intruding into and colonizing the domain of the novel. They told us not about medicine but about the soul, which turned out to be, in the last (psycho)analysis, an endless procession of sexual microdramas. We like to think we know better now, and consequently the work of Roth and Updike, even of Mailer (by far the most interesting and intellectually lively of the GMNs), can seem not only offensive or misogynistic but also rather quaint.
Gaddis anticipated this quaintness. Why write novels about sex when there are “beaver shots littering every news stand”? In The Recognitions (1955), true, a kind of doomful puritanical prurience is powerfully evoked. But between that novel and J R (1975), sex has been virtually expelled from Gaddis’s purview of novelistic competence. I don’t want to overstate the case here. There are a couple of quite lovely “sex scenes,” there are some very funny dirty jokes, and certainly amorous investment motivates strands of plot and character. In Carpenter’s Gothic there’s even, quite tellingly, an erotic interlude pressing into lyric service some imagery from a porno mag, stuffed, punningly, into the heroine’s mailbox at the book’s beginning. But Gaddis’s treatment of sex resembles his treatment of the natural world: each presents punctuated moments of escape from the real business of the plot. Sex is never the main event.

For the GMNs, of course, sex was precisely the main event, although that meant very different things for each of them. In Mailer’s view, large-scale societal sexual hang-ups are responsible for just about everything, including the depredations of American military policy abroad, while for Updike sexual freedom is another brick in the edifice of American greatness. Here’s an oft-quoted Updike line: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.” This sentiment illuminates Wallace’s critique of Updike, who might at times lovingly limn the sorrows of eros but who at bottom remains a celebrant of sex as American freedom’s master mode. We tend to think of the sexual revolution as an adjunct of the left — second-wave feminism, the anti-war movement, the bacchanal resistances of the Beats — but Updike wedded his celebration of sexual freedom to a pro-Vietnam stance and a jingoistic patriotism whose occasional crudeness is hard to believe. In a 1967 New York Times column, for instance, he defended the war in Vietnam and accused war protesters like Mailer and Mary McCarthy of naïveté, concluding with a wide-eyed paean to American freedom of speech:

[I]n my own case at least I feel my professional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it. I recognize that what to me is essential may well be, to a peasant on the verge of starvation, an abstract luxury.

The whole column is an ugly spectacle, but the non sequitur with which Updike concludes is especially galling. Under the guise of a caveat, Updike extols First Amendment guarantees and thereby invokes his own fame as a writer of explicitly represented sexuality. This so obviously has nothing to do with the slaughter in Vietnam that Updike wisely avoids spelling out the logic, lest its weakness become apparent, but make no mistake: he is suggesting that the lack of censorship in American publishing morally underwrites the invasion of Indochina. “Solipsism” hardly seems an adequate term for this sort of thing.

Gaddis did not think America was a conspiracy to make you happy. In a fascinating 1994 letter to Updike (“dear Reverend John”), he alludes to the difference in the moral vision of each by way of a reference to Vietnam:

Your letters (now & a couple of years ago) breathe a kind of self contentment — longlasting wife, real estate, retirement work — which I gave up on long ago & which may point to our essentially opposite orientations […]. Of course you have borne a tragedy which may only have confirmed your stance (like the patriotic parents who lost sons in Vietnam) either of which I am sure would have destroyed me confirming my stance. […]

It’s not evident what tragedy Gaddis is referring to (the note suggests this is “perhaps a reference to the death of Updike’s mother in 1989,” which frankly seems unlikely), and the larger context of the exchange is missing, but the distinction drawn by Gaddis is clear. What Gaddis sees as his and Updike’s “essentially opposite orientations” can shed some light on Wallace’s critique of the GMN’s narcissism, a critique which is less about sex than about all that gets left out when a writer’s vision and his libido are the same thing (in this respect, Roth fits the GMN bill somewhat less neatly than Updike, and Mailer less neatly still). The “self contentment” Gaddis finds in Updike rhymes with Wallace’s diagnosis of “solipsism.” It is an essentially anti-critical disposition, excusing the novelist from confronting the unpleasant world outside the bedroom.

For Gaddis, the Vietnam War is more than a merely convenient illustration. In 1965, he sent LBJ a telegram to “RESPECTUFLLY BUT VEHEMENTLY URGE REALISTIC FULBRIGHT ALTERNATIVE TO PRESENT FUTILE MILITARY COURSE IN VIET NAM,” and the manic despair of Gaddis’s middle novels, J R and Carpenter’s Gothic, should be understood in part as reactions to that war. Besides Vietnam, Gaddis was especially dismayed by corporate exploitation of Africa and CIA machinations in Latin America, concerns that would come together in the bitter blast of Carpenter’s Gothic — a novel in which the only response to America is to talk like this:

the one thing they’ve learned is where the money moves and who’s got it and the one thing they’ve cornered is how to get in on it, call themselves risk analysts and the bigger the mess they’ve left behind them the higher the fee. Iran, Chile, the Phoenix program, Angola, Cambodia, one monstrous miscalculation a few thousand body counts later and they’re right there holding their heads up in Le Cirque and Acapulco, obsequious interviews in the Times and discreet dinner parties comparing their little black books with the other black tie refuse, even an expresident or two or their dazed widows, a few decorators, haute couture, any transient damned joke on reality while he’s peddling the thing itself on the side in a poisonous little package.

Gaddis was a didactic novelist in the best sense; the focused fury of his fiction trains us to feel as angry as we ought. But his rage is leavened by humor. J R, his funniest book, depicts an enterprising middle schooler’s amassment of a stock market empire through the payphone, a basically farcical premise pursued with abundant detail. Gaddis worried sometimes that readers and critics missed the humor in his work (“[W]hat pained me most about the reviewers was their refusal — their fear — to relax somewhat with the book and be entertained,” he writes in 1961 of The Recognition’s reception), but the comedy, especially in J R, is always in service of the critique, and reviewers aren’t necessarily wrong to sense a certain forbidding sternness. These are virtuosic protest novels.


Gaddis’s early letters — written from the time of his entry to and expulsion from Harvard in 1944 to the publication of The Recognitions in 1955 — are largely to his mother Edith. Written in Boston and during travels across Latin America and Europe, these letters chart Gaddis’s growing sense of assurance as a writer, but they also speak of financial hardships (occasional work and his mother’s largesse kept him afloat, but, it seems, just barely), and (mis)adventures of various kinds. The most interesting early letters are those in which the would-be novelist practices his voice. It is touching to discover that Gaddis, whose writerly authority is so pronounced and unassailable in the novels, had in fact to struggle for his style. The record of that struggle shows a young man at once tremendously precocious but also, at times, amusingly naïve. Exemplary here is a trio to Katherine Ann Porter, whom Gaddis wrote from Panama in 1948 to “tell you how much your [Harper’s] piece on Gertrude Stein provoked and cleared up and articulated for me.” Porter responded kindly, and Gaddis’s lengthy replies are a fascinating blend of affected intensity and genuine insight. They show him groping towards the baroque textures of The Recognitions, but not quite getting there:

But the vanity of letter-writing, of shouting out for witnesses. I have thought a great deal about this whole insistence on a witness that we all make, that is certainly one reason why so many bad novels are so bad. Much of it seems to be a very American thing too, I see the American with the camera everywhere, that filthy silent witness; and to jump off of the aeroplane when it lands in one country after another: no time to look at the volcano or feel the air except to say to another how hot it is, but (because the ’plane will only be in Guatemala, in Nicaragua, in Costa Rica, for fifteen minutes) that one must get to the counter and send off postal cards with a picture of the volcano he did not see, to witnesses. I have recently finished reading the New Testament, which makes much of witnesses.

A few thousand words of this stuff from a stranger must have surprised Porter, as Gaddis perhaps surmised: “Now I presume to write you again; and I say presume because I cannot tell but that after my last letter you may have wearily shaken your head and said, — There must be some way to put an end to this.” But for all their pretentiousness, these early letters show Gaddis finding the style he would come to wield so masterfully: those long, thorny, rhythmically virtuosic, richly allusive, asymmetrically hypotactic sentences out of which Gaddis’s miraculous first novel is built.

Much of the material that would eventually find its way into The Recognitions is drawn from Gaddis’s post-collegiate travels, and The Letters are bursting with set-pieces, descriptions, rhythms that will resound familiarly to readers who know the novels. Steven Moore’s thorough footnotes are particularly attentive to such correspondences, not surprising when one considers that, as the author of A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and a major contributor to’s line-by-line annotations of all five novels, he knows Gaddis’s fiction more intimately than anyone else alive. He has done fans and scholars of Gaddis an enormous service.


If, in the period of The Recognition’s conception and execution, Gaddis would sometimes practice his authorial voice in his letters, during the long composition of J R his epistolary voice and his novelistic one would occasionally merge almost completely. Anyone familiar with that novel will hear, in this 1974 letter to Warren Kiefer describing the difficulties of finishing, the voice of J R’s Gibbs: “I ‘finished’ this book 1004 (legal size) pages am now on page 180 cutting ruthlessly nothing to make you wearier of yourself than artfulness when you were 10 years younger whole God damned proposition like living with an invalid real God damned terminal case.” This is an extreme instance of a prominent pattern in the letters. Gaddis’s “personal” voice takes on the compressed syntax of outrage and aghast disappointment that resound so powerfully in his fiction. There’s something almost campy about the appearance of this voice in the letters, as if we’re watching Gaddis don his anger-drag in preparation for more work.

But the desperation attending the composition of J R was surely real enough, and took a tremendous toll on Gaddis’s domestic life. His second marriage, to Judith Thompson, fell apart at about the time he finished the book. This pattern was continued when his long-time partner Muriel Oxenberg Murphy left him following the publication of his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), which was dedicated to her. (Gaddis narrates this breakup in a 1995 letter to Murphy ventriloquizing Thomas Bernhard, evidently rehearsing for his short, posthumously published Bernhard pastiche Agapé Agape.) In 1954, Gaddis wrote to John Napper of “the feeling of absurdity and bereavement” he suffered after sending off the manuscript of The Recognitions, and perhaps he experienced similar bouts of depression when finishing the other novels. He does seem to have recognized that he could be a hard man to get along with, and to have seen, rather late, that his chronic drinking compounded the problem. He observed in a painful 1990 letter to Judith that “the drinking I think looking back was a great part in ‘what went wrong’, I only realized recently what a large part it played in a good 40 years of my life.”

J R’s winning the National Book Award in 1976 inaugurated a major shift in Gaddis’s status: no longer a figure of merely underground renown, he would become something of an institution. A 1982 letter to Napper, written on the occasion of his receiving a MacArthur “Genius” Grant ($50,000 per year for five years, or about $120,000 per year today) poignantly reveals Gaddis’s uneasy accommodation of recognition finally achieved:

The Lord knows—less well perhaps than you & I—that having the money burden lifted for 5 years late along the way is an undisguised blessing: I say undisguised advisedly, since had I got such a ‘prize’ on the heels of publishing The Recognitions I’d really have been a good deal less surprised than now […] but here it comes undisguised by such illusions of the world & the place of one’s work in it, & serves rather to underline the capriciousness of both. No one cavils when some egregious effort brings $1 million in paperback sale, $3 million from the movies, all disappeared tomorrow. Should one now?

Of course having spent a lifetime at caviling it’s hard to change one’s ways, but it’s the damndest thing: has this recognition spurred a rush of high paperback offers on either book? no. Or movies? no. Or W German, Swede publishers bidding wildly or at all? no. My last statement from Harcourt Brace reads debit of $4.29, incorporating the 35 [cents] they overpaid me on my last royalty check six months ago of $11.48. […]

So while I cavil I certainly do not complain, but rather marvel at this splendid further evidence of the inconsistency that I’ve celebrated from the start; for in the USA real money is the only proof against taking ‘defeat from every brazen throat’.

Fans of Gaddis, beset by the irritated conviction that their man has been denied the central place he ought to hold in the postwar canon — reduced instead to a kind of shadowy ghost presence — have been complaining (not to say caviling) for years. Perhaps this complaint was always a bit overstated, reflective less of critical neglect (after all, two National Book Awards and a MacArthur Genius Grant hardly a forgotten author make) than of the proselytic energy Gaddis’s novels inspire. But it’s still fun to get angry over Gaddis’s shoulder as he kvetches about the critics and book reviewers who panned J R: Alfred Kazin (“how Kazin’s dreary pomposity is still taken seriously is quite beyond me”), Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (“if your wife wrote a novel and the best agent in town declined to handle it, would you go around giving a free ride to the agent’s clients”?), and (his special bane) John Gardner (“simply eaten out by envy & I have never quite understood how he was allowed to run around loose for so long patronizing his betters”).

Gaddis was certainly appreciative when he got good press, but he probably needed a few bad reviews to keep his hackles up. The nearly constant refrain of anger in the letters evinces its own narcissistic satisfactions, different from those with which Wallace charges the GMNs, though at times equally wearying. But this is personal correspondence, and surely one is permitted a bit of narcissism there. In the novels themselves (with the unfortunate exception, in my view, of Agapé Agape), rage is always transmuted into art. Gaddis seems to have required crisis in order to work. When he concludes a 1986 letter to the Nappers with “whiskey still somewhat the problem but tobacco the abiding curse, that & late in life leisure? does one long for the panics of debt NO, No no” it’s impossible not to read a “Yes” between the lines.


Len Gutkin is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Yale. He has written for Bookforum, Democracy, and jacket2, among other venues; his scholarly articles are forthcoming in ELH: English Literary History and Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies.

LARB Contributor

Len Gutkin is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He has written for TLS, Boston Review, and elsewhere.


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