‘Letters of William Gaddis’ shed light on his life

Unless you’re a pope, canonization is a slow and ugly process. When William Gaddis published his magisterial debut novel The Recognitions in 1955, it was reviled by the shortsighted literary critics of the time and considered obscene. Of course, the same had been said about Moby-Dick and Ulysses, two novels that are now undisputed classics. You know a book has caught on when the mayor shows up once a year to help read it aloud at the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

In hindsight, it’s clear that The Recognitions is among the greatest American novels of all time. That book ends – spoiler alert! – with a terrible tragedy in an old church. Of the organist trapped inside, Gaddis wrote:

He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.

Gaddis’ novels have suffered a similar fate. They have earned a small cadre of loyal and rabid devotees, but perhaps because of their perceived difficulty, they have yet to gain a foothold with a broad reading public and are seldom read.

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