"Thank God somebody could sit down and read it and get what it's all about (or almost all). At any rate a very positive kind of atmosphere seems to be building around J R's publication and our prospects look good"
William Gaddis Correspondence Archive containing numerous
letters (near 160), photographs, clippings, and other manuscripts
and documents, all dated between 1968 and 1993. Most items in the
archive are letters written by Gaddis to his son, Matthew, and
dated between 1968 and 1977, the time Gaddis was writing J R, his
second novel which won the National Book Award and was dedicated to
William Gaddis (1922- 1998), considered one of the greatest postwar American novelists, authored five demanding novels, winning National Book Awards for two. Though often compared to such literary greats as James Joyce and Herman Melville, he lived most of his life neglected by readers and critics. After attending Harvard in the early 1940s, Gaddis lived in Greenwich Village where he mingled with the Beat Generation. While there, he worked for the New Yorker and wrote his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), which was not well-received. Soon afterward he married Patsy Black, an aspiring actress who bore him two children, Sarah (b. 1955) and Matthew (b. 1958). The marriage soon ended and the two children lived with their mother near Boston; Gaddis saw them on occasional weekends. In the late 1960s, he married Judith Thompson and worked as a speechwriter (mostly for Kodak executives) and screenwriter. During that time, he also began his second novel, J R, which was published in 1975 and won his first National Book Award. Many of the letters in this archive contain references to the book and updates on its progress.
The letters from Gaddis to his son Matthew, are thoughtfully written and reveal Gaddis as a loving, doting, and devoted father trying desperately to stay connected to his young son. (Gaddis was abandoned by his own father when he was three years old.) These are very personal letters containing advice, encouragement, plans, and news of Gaddis' life. A few have newspaper or magazine clippings carefully affixed by the author. All letters are signed "Papa" and most are accompanied by their transmittal envelopes; many are written from the Gaddis' home in Piermont, New York.
We have arranged the contents of the archive into twelve chronologically arranged folders.
(1) The first folder contains photographs of Gaddis and Matthew (ca. mid 1960s); a divorce petition signed on May 25, 1967 ("incompatibility of temperaments between my wife and myself"); attorney's letters (including one to Gaddis' future second wife, Judith Thompson, dated 1967, informing her that "Enclosed herewith are the papers [the petition] for which you have waited so long"); a Decree of Divorce, May 1967, issued from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, signed by Mexican and American officials; a copy of a play manuscript entitled Faire Exchange No Robbe[...] (the eleven pages have been vertically cut in half; only one half remains), 1947; and William Gaddis' New York certificate of death.
This folder also contains a typed inventory entitled "CONFIDENTIAL" and listing Gaddis' lawyers, agents, banks, houses, belongings (including listings of archives related to his novels), etc., "as of 1 June 1994." Also included, a Saul Steinberg autographed letter signed and dated February 3, 1999, giving $50,000 previously willed to William Gaddis to Matthew. This letter is accompanied by an attorney's letter. Steinberg was a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Additionally, a six-page typed manuscript entitled Butler Did It bearing five lines written by Gaddis in red ink to Matthew. (A form of this manuscript was published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in March 1995.)
(2) The folder labeled "1968" contains eight letters from Gaddis to ten-year-old Matthew (five typed letters signed and three autograph letters signed) in which Gaddis discusses football tickets for a Harvard-Dartmouth game ("Certainly will be on the Harvard side and I think not the end zone") and advice for Matthew's first day of school ("Don't punch anybody . . . take time to sit back and sort them out").
(3) The folder labeled "1969" contains twenty-one letters to Matthew (twelve typed letters signed and nine autograph letters signed) discussing cameras, hockey, homework, and ice skating. Also included is a typed letter signed to fourteen-year-old daughter Sarah in which Gaddis encourages her writing: "One persistent difficulty in writing is this, on the one hand, writing about what you know, & on the other hand working in the story or plot that even though it may be very thin does keep the reader wondering, --What will happen next?" (Sarah later became a novelist.) Also included is a four-page untitled typed play manuscript; a signed ("Papa")postcard; and a b/w photograph of "the Piermont house", Gaddis' home from the late 1960s through the 1980s.
(4) The folder labeled "1970" contains fourteen letters to Matthew (thirteen typed letters signed and one autograph letter signed) in which Gaddis encourages Matthew, a struggling student, to make new friends at school and set priorities ("At school, if sports have to come second for a while, well, so they come second for a while"). In one letter, Gaddis exhorts, "Maybe some of the things I've said in this letter sound somewhat harsh, but really, if I just went along saying fine! everything's great! well, that would be failing you as a father, wouldn't it."
(5) The folder labeled "1971" contains fifteen letters (thirteen typed letters signed and two autograph letters signed). In one, Gaddis explains "humor": "And what after all is a sense of humour? It's not, as so many people seem to think, the ability to tell a joke or laugh at one. It's a sense of proportion about life and the things that happen in life, of being able to see things as they really are, all at once."
(6) The folder labeled "1972" contains fifteen letters (eight typed letters signed and seven autograph letters signed). In these, Gaddis reports to Matthew on Sarah's visits to prospective universities and his own attendance at "a party for the Dutchess" which was "very fine-even had a chat with Tennessee Williams (about Marylin Monroe)-and of course George Plimpton (who said Willie! I think about you every day!-why?)."
(7) The folder labeled "1973" contains fifteen letters (eight typed letters signed and seven autograph letters signed). These letters, written to a now fifteen-year-old Matthew, contain more mature content, with quotes from poems, discussions of Greek literature, and frank advice about goals ("Have a hungry curiosity in all directions for anything that brings you and your mind to life"). In one letter, Gaddis tries to persuade Matthew to read poet A. E. Houseman instead of Bob Dylan; afterward, he relates a story of poet Robert Creeley crashing his mother's car. In another, he writes that "Everything here goes its quiet course-including J R."
(8) The folder labeled "1974" contains fourteen letters (nine typed letters signed and five autograph letters signed). During this year, Gaddis was still toiling on his "heap of paper" ("I've got Bast and JR off the train finally and trying desperately to see the last of JR"), which often meant being at "the typewriter-cutting table." "You can imagine I'm pretty sick of JR," Gaddis writes on August 8, "but spend every day with him and his friends and otherwise, the main comfort being that after this I'll NEVER (except for galleys HAVE TO READ THE INFERNAL BOOK AGAIN! Boy I can't wait hey. Also maybe I can learn how to talk like an intelligent adult again)." In the February 13 letter, Gaddis reports that he was "Made most uncomfortable last evening by a call from the NY Times, prompted by Joseph Heller who is bringing out his first book since Catch 22, they ask a lot of questions about how a writer (me) feels taking so many years between books, heaven knows what I said." While writing in 1974, Gaddis was getting used to using an electric typewriter: "Here I am fighting Sarah's electric machine, mine stopped abruptly with a strange whirring sound in the middle of a page and I am still not used to this one, touch a key and zing you're typing, even when you don't mean to be. And the sound of its engine running while one tries to think of the next word is a little nervewracking too. So I am being dragged by the heels into the 20th century."
(9) The folder labeled "1975" contains eight letters (six typed letters signed and two autograph letters signed) with news about completing J R ("Once JR is out of the way I really don't know what I'm going to do next") and his promotional work for the book ("JR is entirely out of my hands . . . and for the first time it really looks like something real may come of it!"). In some of his 1975 letters, Gaddis acknowledges many of the reviews which were written about the book; most were favorable, but Gaddis tried to keep them in perspective. He wrote his September 24 letter on the verso of an Alfred A. Knopf J R promotion confessing, "Whatever Knopf's ad says, you each [Sarah and Matthew] give me more to be proud of than JR. (Throw in THE RECOGNITIONS TOO.)"
Gaddis, known for being reclusive, writes on September 13, "I went to town to talk with a reporter from the Village Voice who wanted an interview for JR, I would really stay away from these things if the paperback rights were sold but right now feel I can't afford to pass up anything that may help the damned book. . . . I'm enclosing a copy of a review [included in this archive] that will appear in the October 4th issue of the Saturday Review and it may be one of the best I'll get, thank God somebody could sit down and read it and get what it's all about (or almost all). At any rate a very positive kind of atmosphere seems to be building around JR's publication and our prospects look good."
In another letter (October 21), written on the verso of a favorable book review, Gaddis writes, "here is another piece of entertainment (Oh Lord keep the good news coming!)" A few days later, he excitedly reports, "Well we got it-the front page of the Sunday Times Book Review-or half of it rather. . . . The review of JR is excellent, about the best one yet. . . . Also a good review this week in Newsweek which should help balance that flat-footed piece in 'Time' [the Time review was the result of a five hour interview written about in his September 24 letter]."
(10) The folder labeled "1976-1977" contains thirteen letters (eleven typed letters signed and two autograph letter signed). The 1976 letters begin with Gaddis exulting, "This feels like the first time I can start a new year wide open to practically any possibility, without that book hanging over my head." In February, there were even hopes of a possible movie deal ("I'm holding my breath, think we may have a live one interested in movie rights to JR wouldn't that be superrrrrrrrrr"), but by April, the deal had not materialized and Gaddis writes instead about an offer from Bard College to teach two courses as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. By the end of May, he had won the National Book Award, of which he simply writes, "What an incredibly long time it seems since we've seen you -partly of course because of . . . the Nat'l Book Award come and gone as though it had never really happened at all. It doesn't seem to have sold a million books at any rate."
Many of the 1977 letters are addressed to Ohio, where Matthew was attending Antioch College; one of those contains news of Gaddis' separation from Judith: "I came back late Monday from the Rochester episode & Judith had returned & staying at Scarborough. We have had 2 long talks & at this point it doesn't look as though we will put things together, obvious to others for a long time I guess." With the marriage over, Gaddis, in a December 2 letter, sends Matthew information about the trust funds for him and Sarah, along with an attached typed list of the numerous stocks in the trust. Also included from 1977 is a program for the 7th Annual Writers Workshop at the University of Rochester, July 10-16. Gaddis, whose bio and photograph are included in the program, seems to have been a reluctant participant, writing a note to Matthew below his picture stating that he thinks he "can manage one more day of this without losing my mind."
(11) The folder labeled "1978-1993" contains a one-page manuscript (not signed) entitled "The Eighth Step: A Politically Incorrect screenplay". The play is typed on the verso of an Author's Guild letter dated October 22, 1993. Also included is one postcard written to Matthew, n.d.
(12) The final folder contains thirty-three undated letters (twenty-two typed letters signed and eleven autograph letters signed). In addition, this folder includes a Judith Thompson autograph letter signed, four pages, ca. 1975, to Matthew "to ask you to write just once or twice a month a real letter filling him [Gaddis] (us) in on your activities. . . . I don't know of any other father in his situation who writes his children regularly once a week as yours does or is as concerned or devoted. . . . I've seen him take time away from his other work or pleasures to write you and make things sound interesting and fill you in on current happening. He does it because he loves you dearly and it's a way of keeping close when you are apart." Also included are three photos; an undated humorous letter entitled "All Purpose Vacation Letter (Trial Sample)", likely typed by Gaddis to encourage Matthew to write more; and a postcard written and signed "Papa", ca. early 1970s. This folder also contains an undated (ca. 1974) autograph letter signed in which Gaddis comments on his J R character Edward Bast, "You know it's curious, thinking about this book: after a thousand pages what young Edward Bast comes up with is pretty much this: up till now (the end of the book and his association with JR), I've done a lot of damage to serve things I didn't understand and that weren't mine; from now on any damage I do is going to be because of what I have to do: I'd rather fail at something of mine, something worth failing at, than succeed at something of somebody else's."
Matthew Gaddis, whose interest in cameras and film are evident in this archive, became a filmmaker whose credits include God's Country (1986), Alamo Bay (1985), and The Suicide Club (1988), among others. Sarah Gaddis became a novelist (Swallow Hard, 1991). This archive also includes other manuscripts, book reviews, clippings, and a signed check ("William Gaddis"). All items have been well cared for and are in fine condition. This exceptional collection merits much further research.
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