William Thomas Gaddis, Jr. was born in Manhattan in the year that both James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland were published, which seems to have been an apt launchpad to the length, fragmentation, and allusion that came to characterize his work. The elder Gaddis was a man of Wall Street and politics; familiarity with those worlds helped define the misanthropy against which the characters of his novels struggle.
His parents divorced and he was raised by his mother on Long Island, save for a few years in a boarding school in Connecticut. He was an undersized boy, bookish and intellectual, with a dismantling wit acquired no doubt from his preternatural ear for American speech, which was later put on great display in his work.
After being expelled from Harvard in 1944 – during his senior year and less than a year before the World-War-II-ending bombs fell on Japan – he spent a bit of time fact-checking for the New Yorker and travelling widely (even becoming involved with a revolution in Costa Rica), while beginning the huge tome that became his first novel, The Recognitions, which was met with reviews that were befuddled at best, though it is now considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
He later earned the admiration of critics and won the National Book Award twice, once for JR, largely focused around East 96th Street, and again for A Frolic of His Own, also partially set in Manhattan.
While he anticipated the postmodernists’ detached, ironic, subversive, and mocking narration of the world’s decline, he also aligned himself with the modernists’ love of formal elegance. Many consider him to be the link that connects high modernism with postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace each tipped their hats to him, and his literary legacy is capped by the success of his daughter Sarah (about whom he once quipped, when she was a child, that she might finish a book before he did), who has published a novel and had fiction in the New Yorker.
Notoriously reclusive, he retreated at the end of his life to his home in East Hampton, where he began to grant sparing interviews while finishing the posthumously published Agapē Agape. His influence continues to shape and form the literary world, well surviving his own death.