William Gaddis’s project was noble and exemplary. Those books, the first three, especially, are like icebergs calved off a gigantic glacier. As a young writer, I mainly steered around them as they floated into my more southerly latitudes, knowing that if I hit one straight on, I’d sink. So I admired their colossal size and whiteness from a safe distance, mostly.
There are certain twentieth-century American literary projects, like Olson’s Maximus cycle or Pound’s Cantos, that we need because of their gigantism, their absurdly vast scale, if only to take an accurate measure of our own feeble attempts. Gaddis is like that in prose fiction. Dahlberg. Paul Metcalf. Harold Brodkey. Writers like that, without whose work American literature would be a much diminished thing. Their existence enables the rest of us to be both more reckless and more ambitious than we’d ever dare to be otherwise.
He was to me a true deep modernist, only a little late for the party (we didn’t know postmodernism back then), so he seemed almost anachronistic. His influence on me, such as it was, came early, in my twenties and, as I said, was about scale. I tried to marry him to Dreiser, which clearly would not have been a happy marriage for either, but it’s one I try to live with myself and would not have dared to try without his example.
I have a theory, not very original, that postmodernism is mainly an intellectually nostalgic holding action against the death of modernism. Gaddis might be a case in point. If literature is, or was, a church and Joyce in the 1920s and ’30s its pope, then Gaddis in the 1950s and ’60’s was its American cardinal. Possibly the last one. The shadow cast by the High Modernists was so long that, after they’d stepped out of the sun and were gone, it was hard in the 1950s and ’60s, except perhaps for the Beats, to write anything not conceived in terms of that preceding generation’s High Priestly ambition. Gaddis looms larger, casting a longer shadow of his own, than all the others of his ilk and kin, Barthelme, Hawkes, etc., in that term mainly, ambition, but it was an important one, and he helped keep it alive. His ilk and kin, more wise than he, or shrewd, may have backed away from it—too transparently oedipal, perhaps, or simply too risky to put so many eggs in one enormous basket. But when Gaddis went to market, he brought home the whole pig, and I love him for that.