The Novelist and His Mentor

by Dr. Bernard Looks


                 Then he turned back, and he seemed like one of those

                  Who run for the green cloth of Verona

                  through the open fields; and of them he seemed

                  One who wins rather than one who loses.                       

                  Dante Alighieri (about his teacher, Brunetto Latini)                     

          The following memoir is based essentially upon what was told me over many years by my close friend, Martin S. Dworkin. I have also derived information from at least three meetings with William Gaddis, as well as from his novels, recorded interviews that he gave to various individuals, and a reading of an article by Thomas Girst, “Every Box Bears a Pearl,” dealing with the contents of Gaddis’s archives. The conclusions I have drawn from these sources are entirely my own.

     In l950, Martin S. Dworkin, already a successful writer and photographer, took a job in New York City as a writer and Acting Editor of Amerika Illustrated, a publication in Russian of the United States Information Service.  It was there that he met William Gaddis, who had come to the U.S.I.S. in July in a white linen suit, flower in his lapel, and gold watch chain across his vest, to see Elmer Davis, Director of the Office of War Information during the war and a Harvard alumnus.  "Tell him that it is William Gaddis, a former editor of Lampoon," he said.  That announcement  gained him entrance.  Dworkin and Gaddis spoke for about ten minutes that day, and subsequently, Gaddis was to write some pieces for Amerika Illustrated.  Their close friendship, which was to last until shortly before Dworkin's death from leukemia in 1996, began with that meeting. 

     Gaddis, having already traveled extensively since l947 in Central America, North Africa and Europe, was now in Paris, writing radio scripts for United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization broadcasts.  Throughout this period of travel and work, Gaddis was also working on his first novel.  Many of the places he visited and things he experienced were to turn up in The Recognitions. Martin Dworkin  was to remark to me later that William Gaddis transforms his life into fiction. When Gaddis, in one of their conversations, and following one of Dworkin's pithy remarks, asked, "Marty, why don't you write that down?", he replied, "That's for others to do."  In putting it this way, he was telling Gaddis that not only was he not interested in writing about his own life, but that he was writing an entirely different kind of fiction.   Unlike so many other writers, Dworkin showed no interest in self-promotion.  For example, he referred with manifest rejection for himself to Norman Mailer's "genius for self-publicity."  It was his belief that it was for others to see the merit, if any, in his work and then to do something about it.  More, he absolutely refused to sell himself.

      By 1951, Gaddis, having returned to the United States, had resumed work on The Recognitions, which was to lead to its publication in 1955. Dworkin had come back to live with his parents after the war. Already envisaging the kind of life he would have to lead if he was to maintain his independence as a writer, he was thinking of taking an apartment in Manhattan.

     It was during the decade of the fifties that the friendship between Dworkin and Gaddis became close.  How close?  This poem by Dworkin, which mentions the name of Gaddis's daughter in the title, grew out of time spent by him and and his wife Miki with Gaddis and his family at the ocean. Dworkin told me about Miki's concern and care for Sarah and how good she was to her.  Quite possibly, he was referring to the difficult time Gaddis's family went through during and after his divorce from his wife, Pat.  

                    Sarah at the Sea

          At an edge (taste fire, touch air,

          sniff earth, sneeze oceans, standing here).

          Oh, there is an edge!--if not this edge,

          foaming up to flow away the imprints

          of the funny fingers of our feet--

          an edge of questioning,

          an edge of voices dwindling,

          of mortal moments murmuring.

          At this edge of land, of daily edges:

          lawns, fences, hedges, streets and ways and walls;

          the worlds of houses where the others are,

          alone, themselves, persons of histories,

          eras and territories,

          faces of the games we do not play.

          At an edge of oceans, where the heart

          is clasped by a hand, and love is a wave,

          and another wave, and another wave.

          At an end of edges, when we have come

          from all the edges

          where we walk and run and stand,

          waiting to be drawn beyond the sand.

              Regarding this poem, I would like to note Dworkin’s interesting  metaphor for death as “an end of edges, when we have come from all the edges.”  So many of his poems have death as the main theme that it is possible to think of them musically as variations on a central theme.

     Gaddis was referring to his son when he said, after reading this next poem, "This is what I've always wanted for Matthew, a sense of neighborhood."  Dworkin, struck by the depth of Gaddis's perception, was to tell me later that he had demonstrated a remarkably accurate grasp of the poem's intended meaning.

                 Evening Games

               A place of unfinished buildings,

               where the children play,

               is the world in ruins,

               the future fallen in washed sand:

               dead beams and blind window-frames,

               severed conduits and random wreckages

               of kitchen habits and toilet pieties.

               The wars here resurrect the dead,

               the victors bear declamatory wounds,

               the corpses claim their glory

               till the watchman cries,

               and crippled captains rise

               to race the calling darkness home.

                To get back to the early fifties, Dworkin was crucially involved during those years in Gaddis’s work on his first novel, The Recognitions. A few years older than Gaddis, and already an excellent editor, photographer, and widely published writer, he became, to all intents and purposes, Gaddis’s teacher, urging him on to heights he would not have achieved without Dworkin’s inspiration. There are some thirty-eight conversations involving Gaddis and Dworkin that got into the book. They were of such importance, that the latter remained convinced until the day he died that Gaddis should have acknowledged them in a separate essay.  He often stated that he himself has never been afraid to credit someone since he always made clear where that person ended and he began. Gaddis, on the other hand, tended to regard the substance of these conversations as he regarded his accumulation of newspaper clippings, for example, as so much grist for his mill. 

      Much later, during the year of Miki's death, in 1984, Gaddis told Dworkin that he himself had changed his way of life radically a number of times in order to prevent a particular way of life from holding him back in his work.  He suggested that Dworkin consider this course of action for himself, but Dworkin could not see how this applied to him.  "I can't, like Willie, shut out the troubles of my life and concentrate on my work."  To this it must be added that Dworkin found it very difficult if not impossible to make changes in his way of life.  He dreamed of certain changes--a little carriage house on Long Island, for example, for which he asked me to look--but nothing ever came of it.  Many were the times I thought I had found a suitable place for him and Miki, but for one reason or another, he would turn it down. Perhaps it was only a dream, which he never really thought would become a reality. Besides, he was not convinced that the changes in Gaddis's life were all that great.   

     On the eve of the publication of The Recognitions, Dworkin and Gaddis were talking and drinking all night in Dworkin's one room apartment in the Village. The metal plates had already been prepared and were ready for printing.  Toward morning, Dworkin, always the good host, asked Gaddis if he wanted something to eat.  He then went to his small refrigerator and took out some fully ripened gorgonzola and said, with the book clearly in mind, "Here's one example of corruption that won't do anybody any harm."  As Dworkin tells it, Gaddis's face fell.  This had to get into the book.  Later that morning, as soon as he could reach his publisher by phone, he authorized the scraping of the already printed metal plate to include the changes he wanted.

     At the time that Gaddis brought The Recognitions in to his agent, Bernice Baumgarten, she made some remark indicative of her assumption that he still had a copy of the manuscript.  She nearly flipped when he told her it was "the only one" and she had it.  "That's what the book's all about." He said.  Dworkin also told me Gaddis's remark when he saw the sculptured head of T.S. Eliot, which had been done by Sir Jacob Epstein, in Dworkin's apartment.  "You mean this is the only one," he exclaimed.  

     "The almost universal critical hostility which greeted the novel upon its publication forced Gaddis into a twenty-year silence during which he supported himself by writing speeches for corporate executives and scripts for industrial and military films."  So says A Reader's Guide to Twentieth Century Writers regarding the years following the publication of The Recognitions.  During a recent conversation with a good friend who himself is a retired corporate executive I took the opportunity, without mentioning names, to broach the ethical question raised by Gaddis's devastating criticism of the business world in his novels, on the one hand, and his ghost writing for business executives on the other.  My friend's response was that the novelist was being "pragmatic," that he can't be blamed for supplying what the CEO's were willing to pay for, and that he was simply giving the executives what they wanted.  In short, he completely refused to take a moral stand on the question. 

     Dworkin would not let his friend off the hook so easily.  How could Gaddis deliver such devastating attacks upon the business world in his novels while he was making it possible with his speeches for the President of Eastman Kodak to reach his position?  Gaddis's  father, Marty relates, abandoned him and his mother when he was a year old.  Dworkin, who couldn’t speak too highly of his own father, expressed the opinion that Gaddis may have been trying to account for a certain lack of moral direction in his life.

     In Gaddis's fiction something will not be described directly but obliquely.  Someone buying a newspaper, for example, will become the point for viewing something else taking place at a distance.  Gaddis maintains, Dworkin said, that this is the way things happen--by chance.  But this approach to reality, it can be argued, would seem to effectively banish moral considerations.

     Dworkin says that when he was a young boy he knew then that he wanted to be a teller of stories.  The model, he came to realize later on, was the Talmud (as used by writers like Kafka and I.B. Singer).  "Once upon a time there was a man, a woman, and their child... ."  His scenarios are examples of such stories.  And whereas Gaddis, the novelist, takes events from life, conversations with Dworkin, for example, and makes them into something he can use in his novels, Dworkin's stories are works of pure imagination.  Dworkin never put it this way, but I think he was convinced that what he was trying  to do reached for something greater--something universal.

     It was while making the long trip by bus up Madison Avenue to visit his dying wife at the hospital, which was the usual way in which he got there, that Dworkin worked on what he had come to call his scenarios. The first of them, “the Monument,” had been completed in 1974 and published at least as early as 1976 in Melbourne, Australia. Dworkin sold his best pieces over and over again.  It was in August of 1984 I learned that “the Monument” had been accepted yet again for publication by Another Chicago Magazine. Dworkin said that he wrote in haste, on the train, the bus, in transit from one scene of trouble to the next.  After Miki died, and I think, in defense of his deepest beliefs regarding creativity, he was convinced that it took the great trouble with Miki, and the long bus rides to the hospital, to make possible the conditions for the creation of the new scenarios. 

     I remember mentioning at the time a book I was reading about The Black Death and how terrible the conditions for life and creation must have been then.  Dworkin’s comment was that he used to tell his students that they couldn’t understand earlier times in Europe--Luther, Calvin--unless they realized that everyone lived with the immanence of death.  In a strange perverse way, the creative work on his scenarios, accomplished in such difficult circumstances, sustained him,  and provided the one bit of light in an otherwise dark world of disappointments.  And yet, although I knew that he had been sharply critical of creative artists who had failed to fulfil their moral obligations, and that he had told Gaddis that he could not and would not change his way of life when Gaddis told him that he himself had changed his and urged him to do the same, I heard him, bitter and torn, remark at this terrible time in his life that "maybe those who get done what they set out to do are not wrong." 

     The Bible, Dworkin said, was made up of great stories, which have become sacred to the Jewish people. That is what the artist truly desires, since there is something about the act of artistic creation that makes it appropriate.  Not distracted by the banners of avant-garde groups supporting new fashions in the arts, he found his roots in the old stories of the bible and talmud, stories with beginnings, middles and ends.  And he poured into them what he had to say about life and death, war, duty and love.  Dworkin told me that rather than saying the things he wanted to say in an essay, he had decided to use the scenario, which was essentially an outline of the plot of a dramatic or literary work.  In this sense incomplete, these  stories seem to me to qualify for inclusion in what Dworkin was to consider his “Unfinished Ruins,” the name he was reserving for a book of his poetry, which he never published, but which I, after collecting as many of his poems as I could find, and using his title, have recently brought to publication.

     That William Gaddis, the novelist, took events from life (conversations with Dworkin, for example) and made them into something he could use in his novels, and Dworkin’s scenarios were works of pure imagination, a line was drawn between the two men. This difference in approach, I strongly suspect, was to have something to do with why their friendship was rocked by an angry exchange over the telephone not long before Dworkin died. 

     Regarding his scenarios, Dworkin told me, at the time of Miki’s final illness,  that he planned to write over twenty of them and wanted to group them in threes.  “The Road,” “The Merchant of Bruges,” and “The Store,” are examples of such stories.  I read “The Store” and “The Road” at Dworkin’s place on May Day of 1984.  I remember one horrifying episode in the latter  involving soldiers who had to watch their loved ones slaughtered brutally, and there was not a thing they could do.  Whether Dworkin ever published these two stories, I don’t know.  “The Merchant of Bruges,” he told me is a piece he began (in the first person) years before and then set aside to await a quieter more carefree time of leisure, which never came.  During the desperate time of Miki’s final hospitalization, he was working on it once again, on the fly, writing it now in the third person.  It was about a merchant who had arranged, before he died, that following his death his body be placed in the coffin wrapped in a great work of art, depicting a merchant weighing gold.  When the body was later exhumed, the corruption of his flesh had destroyed the painting.

     Perhaps the peak of the friendship between Dworkin and Gaddis  occurred during the months that followed Miki’s death in 1984.  Dworkin was clearly pleased and grateful to Gaddis after the funeral when he and Muriel Murphy, with whom he was then living, opened up their apartment in Manhattan for those who wished to be with Dworkin  after the funeral. But although the friendship  between Dworkin and Gaddis seemed strong at the time of Miki’s death  and was actually to continue on a cordial basis up until early in 1995 about a year before Dworkin died, there were things brewing in their relationship which I would now like to bring out into the open--things that I have touched on so far in passing but which I would now like to develop further in some detail. I think they will shed light upon the motivation behind Gaddis’s complete silence about his friend until after his own death.

     Speaking about the development of the character, Thomas Eigen, in J R, during a television interview with Malcolm Bradbury in 1986, William Gaddis said that "He starts out being quite a good fellow who has had bad luck, but as it went on he became very unpleasant, thoroughly, because this is the way he developed in the novel.  I gave up identifying with him, and started to hold him at arm's length.  But I saw this really was who the man was; he was not just a man who had had bad luck, but his embittered state had turned him into a really, not anybody you'd want to know." 

     I must say that I was bowled over when I first read this.  It struck me that somehow Gaddis's evolving thinking about Eigen, a character in his novel, which was published in 1975, might constitute a prevision of his thinking about his friend, Dworkin, later on.  Of course there were important differences.  Dworkin was actually Gaddis's close friend, an extraordinary individual with a fine sense of humor, an excellent critic and a fellow artist, active in a number of different artistic endeavors.  But his increasing bitterness, to which I can certainly attest, could not have failed to produce in a man like William Gaddis a stronger and stronger desire to be rid of the burden of listening to him complain, overcoming in the long run the requirements of friendship and the continuing stimulation of an outstanding intellect.  Let it be said that while, on the one hand, a conversation with Dworkin was always a stimulating and intellectually rewarding experience, it very often wound up being an exhausting one as well for his companion. Dworkin almost invariably pursued the subject relentlessly, bringing to bear the enormous resources he had at his disposal. 

     Moreover, Gaddis's advice to Dworkin to change his life as he himself had already changed his recalls his evident approval in The Recognitions of the radical changes Wyatt makes in his life and those anticipated by Otto.  When Dworkin said that he didn't see how this advice could apply to him and then wondered whether Gaddis's announced changes in his own life were all that significant, Gaddis may have identified Dworkin in his own mind as just another one of those failed artists, like the ones in his novel, who failed because they were unable to move away from the things in their lives that were holding them down and causing them to fail.  He might even have come to think of Dworkin’s failure to change his life as evidence of a fatal flaw in his character.  Thoughts like this may, ultimately, even have had something to do with Gaddis's silence about their close friendship and his apparent decision to keep Dworkin and his contribution to the writing of his novels out of what he permitted to be recorded about his life and work.  For me, however, whatever Gaddis told himself in order to exculpate that course of action, must remain subject to question.

    Something should be said here regarding Gaddis's evident desire to rigorously separate the events of his life from his art.  Firmly convinced, as he once said in an interview with John Kuehl and Steven Moore and  reiterated in 1987 in an interview in Budapest given to Zoltán Abádi-Nagy, representing The Paris Review, that "the work itself is going to stand or fall uniquely on its own," and that the question of autobiographical sources in his fiction was "one of the more tiresome going, usually what simply amounts to gossip and about as reliable," it is not surprising that characters in his novels reflect his disdain for those who find this kind of information interesting or even important.  “What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?”  Gaddis has Wyatt asking in The Recognitions.  What do they expect?  What is there left of him when he’s done his work?  What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work?  The human shambles that follows it around.  What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.”  But as Kuehl and Moore say elsewhere, "we would do well to dispel the air of legend and mystery that has surrounded Gaddis ever since that novel.  But more important, Gaddis has drawn extensively upon his own biography for many characters, incidents, and themes in his novels, an understanding of which, while certainly not causing the novels to stand or fall, enhances them with an auxiliary interest.”  That of course reflects the abiding interest of scholars in the life of a particular artist, which I share.  But I would add that there is always the man, apart from his work, who remains and must be held accountable as a man for what he does or does not do in his life. 

         In July of 1984, not long after his wife, Miki, died, Dworkin remarked to me about his friend, "Willie Gaddis is an aristocrat.  He quit the Harvard Club in a dudgeon because they had the temerity to bill him for his dues."  As an aristocratic gentleman, Gaddis probably tended to approve of those who can keep their emotions in check, a stiff upper lip, you know, and to disapprove of those who can't or won't.  In view of this, Dworkin's growing bitterness, which he certainly refused to hide, could not fail to earn Gaddis's disapproval.  When I related to Dworkin that a former colleague of mine at the Great Neck High School had once told me that in her opinion Ruel Tucker, our principal, was a real gentleman because he never lost his temper, while John Miller, our superintendent, was not, he remarked, "My father was from Moscow.  I cry."  In this connection, Dworkin was convinced that although Gaddis fancied himself a liberal and moved in the liberal circles  of the Hamptons in eastern Long Island, he was essentially a puritan and quite conservative.

     It may be that Gaddis was convinced that he owed Dworkin too much for him to consider admitting it.  Dworkin never said about Gaddis what he had said about Lawrence Cremin, his colleague at Columbia’s Teachers College--that he had changed his life for him, since their's was an entirely different relationship. At one point, Dworkin told me, "With Willie Gaddis you are getting close to the real edge of American culture.  Larry is nowhere near it."  Let us not forget, however, that Dworkin was a great teacher.  Knowing the force of his personality, and the great range of his knowledge, I think it would have been impossible for years of close friendship with Dworkin not to have had some affect upon Gaddis and perhaps considerable influence.  What puzzles me is the fact that other writers and friends have slowly but surely been entering into what up until Gaddis’s death from prostate cancer, on December 16, 1998, has been the intentionally limited and closely guarded picture of his life and work.  Why not Dworkin, who seems to have played so important a part in them?

     Interestingly and of no small importance in the long run, although Gaddis's novels are highly regarded, they are very little read.  Gaddis was for the most part ignored for a generation, until critics began to realize the significance of his work, discovering that he was a forerunner of certain literary styles that were emerging in the fifties and sixties.  It was then that he began to achieve recognition as an inspirational force in post-war American fiction. 

     Steven Moore, who has written analytical studies of his novels  writes, regarding The Recognitions, that Gaddis revised it "through two isolated winters" after returning to the United States in 1952.  According to Dworkin, and as I have already pointed out, he and Gaddis were already friends and Dworkin made significant contributions to the book during this period in which Moore says that Gaddis was isolated.  Regarding the circumstances in which Gaddis might have been in touch with Dworkin, Moore has the following to say: "From Long Island he occasionally came into the City to mingle in the Greenwich Village milieu so mercilessly re-created in the middle section of The Recognitions, and eventually became acquainted with most of the emerging writers of the time."  Dworkin spoke to me about Gaddis visiting him at his Greenwich Village apartment.  Out of these visits and any other meetings that might have provided an opportunity for discussion, came the thirty-eight conversations which found their way into the book.  One can only conclude from this that Gaddis, for reasons of his own about which he remained silent, chose to leave his friendship with Dworkin as well as Dworkin's contributions to his first novel out of the accounts he gave to scholars like Steven Moore.

     Outside of the few readers who recognized the importance of  Gaddis's first novel, the book had no success.  It was at that point that he began working in industry, which experience was to provide him with material for his second novel.  In the fall of 1975, J R was published and its reception was considerably better than that of his first novel.  But even though it was given the National Book Award for best fiction of that year, its readership remained small.  In the course of the seventies, Gaddis did free-lance writing and some teaching, usually of creative writing.  A significant part of his teaching took place at Bard College, where he developed a course on the theme of failure in American literature, which is clearly of central importance not only in his own thinking but in his novels as well. 

     It may be of no small importance for an understanding of a central difference between the two men's approaches to the business community in America that whereas Gaddis uses caustic satire and humor, brilliantly, to expose the evils of the business world, since he had already judged it and found it terribly wanting, albeit not beyond repair as he pointed out in the Budapest interview, Dworkin, sensing in that community a significant desire to behave ethically, attempted to teach it how to realize that goal.  When he was performing the function of "working conscience" during the sixties in seminars with journalists as well as with representatives from the world of business, Dworkin called upon them to remember that they play a critically important part in the education of the public.  They had responsibilities that must be acknowledged and recognized, responsibilities that required ethical decisions, which were inevitably involved in the choices those professionals had to make. Dworkin was once asked by a student what he thought of abstract art.  His reply was in the form of a question. "What particular work are you talking about?"  I'm certain that he thought in exactly the same way about the business community. 

     Unlike Dworkin, Gaddis did not see himself as the teacher of the business community, unless one can teach by lambasting, but as one in collision with that community, which signified to him "What America is all about," getting ahead, succeeding and making money.  In a discussion of J R, Steven Moore refers to Gaddis's "excremental vision of the American free enterprise system."  The artist, in this view, has the duty to shock and to disturb, to expose the evil.  As is sometimes the case with thinkers like this who wind up condemning their own economic, social, religious and political circumstances, Gaddis seemed to look back favorably upon an earlier, more genuine religious expression, before the overlays of "fake" religion set in.  In The Recognitions, for example, he has Wyatt describing that earlier  religious expression as "religious that is in the sense of devotion, adoration, celebration of deity, before religion became confused with systems of ethics and morality, to become a sore affliction upon the very things it had once exalted." 

     With this view Dworkin would have disagreed.  In an article he wrote for The Progressive, “ The Suburbs of Criticism,” in 1956, he cautioned “against the false paradise of conscientious agreement.”  There, Dworkin was placing himself in critical opposition to W. H. Auden’s bitter view that the suburb of dissent was something to which sensitive people had been reduced as a result of the destruction of an earlier, presumably better society, at the hands of today’s demotic society.

     Regarding Gaddis’s apparent desire to divorce ethics and morality from religion, we must remember that it was the publication of J R with its slashing attacks upon the business world that prompted Dworkin to say that "Willie could write the most devastating criticism of the business world in his novels and yet earn money ghost writing for business executives. The President of Eastman Kodak may have reached his position largely due to Willie's speeches."  For the way Gaddis justified writing for corporations, there is the following revealing quote from an interview that took place in Japan in 1976: "These writings did not show my name.  I did not care because all I wanted from these works was the money.  In fact, I liked this kind of work better than writing essays or stories for magazines, because they presented a greater challenge."  It must be said, however, that  Gaddis was also an artist in search of things he could use in his novels.  “As for the corporate world,” he remarked during the interview given to The Paris Review, “I do read the newspapers, clip things, ideas, articles, and just use them as fodder.”

     While Gaddis was supporting his family in the various ways that I have described, literary critics began to give increasing attention to his first two novels.  Essays in scholarly journals, dissertations in significant numbers, a first book on his work in 1982, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (which is awarded for genius) all culminated in his election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984.  Calling Dworkin from the Hamptons at the time he received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1982 with its monetary award of 275,000 tax free dollars, Gaddis told his friend that he didn't want him to find out by reading of it in the newspapers.  Again, when Gaddis was inducted into the American Academy, he called Dworkin, stating in the course of their conversation that he had paid his dues for this honor.  Miki, when she heard this, burst into tears and cried out to her husband, "So have you."

     In July of 1984, not long after Miki died, Dworkin showed me a remarkable letter Gaddis had written in reply to a note he had sent him with the enclosure of two poems by Robinson Jeffers,"Wise Men in Their Bad Hours," and "Shine Perishing Republic," which his intimate woman friend had shown him sometime in the seventies while he and Miki were separated and during some of his own bad hours. Gaddis was profoundly moved by the two poems because they resonated so profoundly in his own life and work. 

      Asked in 1986 not long after the publication of Carpenter's Gothic, "If your work could have a positive social/political effect, what would you want it to be?"  Gaddis replied, "Obviously quite the opposite to what the work portrays."  Steven Moore, who emphasizes the presence of a hopeful element in Gaddis’s first two novels, writes that "Only with Carpenter's Gothic do the charges of pessimism have some validity. A positive message is conspicuously absent here."  Dworkin confirms this judgment, having noted to me at the time that Gaddis was writing the book that he was "frantically" trying to get it ready for publication. "Does he think it will be his last?", Dworkin asked rhetorically.  "What if it’s a bust?  Has his drinking  adversely affected his writing?" Each of these questions was uttered with a concern for his friend that was clearly evident to me.  According to Dworkin, Gaddis's attitude toward his new book seemed highly ambiguous--something, he said, that had not been there in the cases of the two previous novels.

     More needs to be said about the impact of Jeffers's poems upon Gaddis after Dworkin made him acquainted with them.  Steven Moore asserts that Gaddis, in a conversation he had with him in August, 1984, told him that for a time, he had considered using the phrase, "thickening to empire," from "Shine, Perishing Republic," as the title for Carpenter's Gothic.  Also, his idea of America as undergoing organic decay, noted by Cynthia Ozick in her review of the book, was probably obtained from this very poem, that Dworkin had placed in Gaddis's hands while he was writing his third novel.  It seems all too clear, that by not mentioning Dworkin’s role to Moore, Gaddis was  making it appear as if the two poems were his own cherished discovery. More important, it seems to me, is the fact that, unlike William James, for one example, who had openly acknowledged his debt to the French philosopher, Charles Renouvier, for helping through his philosophy to restore James's will to go on living, Gaddis had not seen fit to mention that his friend may have similarly rescued him at a time of profound uncertainty and depression by giving him a gift of these two excellent sources of inspiration.  Let it be said, in this connection, that Dworkin always knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.  Perhaps it was because he anticipated behavior like this from Gaddis that Dworkin once told him that he believed in the truth of the characters of his fiction, but that he didn't trust in Gaddis's ability to tell the truth. With reference to the wealth of information that went into Gaddis's novels, Cynthia Ozick, in her review of Carpenter's Gothic, says, "Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything: not only how the world works--the pragmatic cynical business-machine that we call worldliness--but also how myth flies into being out of the primeval clouds of art and death and money."  Ozick's enthusiastic praise for Gaddis's knowledge and art is surely deserved, and his writings provide an interesting contrast with the way he came on in his public persona--a reserved gentleman, not at all colorful or very funny as are his novels.  At one point, Marty, in advising me to create a different persona for my writing than the person I was in private life, gave me the example of Gaddis as one who had created a private persona, one very different from the writer of The Recognitions with its wealth of precise and accurate information.      

     But there does remain the insistent question of Dworkin's influence and why Gaddis hadn't acknowledged it.  For Dworkin, it was not only the thirty-eight conversations with Gaddis that are in The Recognitions, but the fact that Gaddis often phoned him over the many years of their friendship for information of one kind or another, tapping into Dworkin's vast stores of knowledge for things that were later inserted into his novels.  I might also mention in addition the notes Gaddis must have taken when they met. Dworkin, an excellent critic with an encyclopedic mind, was always ready during their discussions to pour of himself out unstintingly as he did with all his friends and students.  I am certain that he offered valuable insights as well as stimulating ideas and suggestions that were often useful to his friend, helping him to decide whether to choose one thing or another in his writing.

    Of course, all this fed Dworkin's later resentment at Gaddis’s silence.  Contributing to the suspicion growing in Dworkin's mind was Gaddis's silence following Dworkin's offer to contribute photographs, letters and other memorabilia, attesting to their close friendship, to the papers that Gaddis told Dworkin he was preparing for his children, Sarah and Matthew.  Gaddis told Dworkin he estimated the papers to be worth in the six figures.  One of the photographs that Dworkin was offering him, had been taken at the time of Dworkin's marriage to Miki in Washington D.C. in 1961 and included Martin Dworkin and his wife Miki, Lawrence Cremin and his wife Ciardi and William Gaddis and his wife Pat.  In this connection, Dworkin always maintained that his photographs of Gaddis were the best around. Perhaps when all is said and done, Gaddis decided to treat certain parts of his life the way he treats his works of fiction and to simply exclude what he wants to exclude--Martin Dworkin, for example.

     Finally, how did each judge the worth of the other’s  writing? Let it be said, each thought the other could have  accomplished more as a writer, and must have said so. Dworkin was certain that Gaddis could have been a greater writer and kept driving that point home. However, I can remember only one short remark offered by Dworkin in passing. Commenting one day on the quality of the fiction being written today in the United States he said simply, “Willie’s is the best around, “faute de mieux.” As for Gaddis, what did he really think and feel about Dworkin as a man and an artist? On the one hand he was surely aware that he owed him a great deal for his role as his vitally important mentor during the writing of his first novel.  On the other hand, with apparently excessive concern that there not be a rival so close to him, and being in a position to do something about it, he denigrated Dworkin’s achievement as an artist. Asking himself the question, as he must have, how posterity would view Dworkin’s written work, he decided to preëmpt the answer by mounting in his archives a sharp attack upon the quantity and quality of Dworkin’s artistic production. Thus, he reduced Dworkin to a kind of Svengali, denying him any merit as a creative artist. For Gaddis, his friend was merely a talented critic who fed on the work of true artists–-someone who at best had the potential for greater accomplishment, but was not capable of realizing that potential. He was in Gaddis’s words, “the self who could do more.” For Gaddis, then, Dworkin, like Svengali, used another’s voice, since he was unable to use his own. I am, however, left with a question. Was Gaddis really afraid that his teacher, ultimately, would constitute a threat to him and his place in the pantheon of American writers?         

     As late as June of 1991, Gaddis was telling Dworkin that two of them(the other one he had in mind was Lawrence Cremin, who became the President of Teachers College)had achieved recognition, but that the game was not played out yet.  Neither knew at the time that Dworkin was at the threshold of his final illness.  For not too long afterward, he was diagnosed with leukemia.  

     Contributing to Dworkin’s increasing bitterness, as his illness progressed, however, was the realization that others had used him for information and ideas but failed to credit him.  In a telephone conversation late in June of 1991, he told me how he had informed Victor Navasky’s book Naming Names with hours of talk with the author.  But there is no mention of this in the book, although Navasky does credit a number of others who provided him with ideas or information.  It would almost seem as if there is a conspiracy out there to use Dworkin and then ignore him, although this is something that Dworkin never suggested.  He simply restricted himself to citing individual cases where he was convinced the person involved had not acknowledged his debt.  Dworkin always insisted that if one was to write on a subject, it was necessary to know what had already been written on that subject and to acknowledge any significant indebtedness.  That, of course, is one of the fundamental canons of scholarship.  For him it was a moral question and from that conviction he never deviated.

            At that time, during a conversation that I had with him at his house and apropos of the recent death of I.B. Singer, he mentioned that Willie Gaddis could not see anything of literary value in Singer’s apparently simple prose.  Dworkin told me that he argued with Gaddis that Singer was a great story-teller.  One can only wonder what Gaddis thought of the “simple” prose in Dworkin’s short stories.

            Finally, Dworkin seemed to know that his work was not going to be appreciated in his own lifetime, but that like buried treasure  would be discovered and valued at a later  more propitious time. Following Dworkin’s death, I came up from Florida to be at the funeral, which was held at the Frank  E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue on Monday, March 25, 1996.  There were not many people in attendance at the chapel and just a few, myself included, who went to the cemetery.  William Gaddis was there, accompanied by his son, Matthew.  I am offering my thoughts about the funeral in the following poem, which, although far from deathless, does possess the virtue of expressing clearly what I have to say:                   

    At the Funeral of Martin S. Dworkin  

 I was told he did ”not go gentle into that good night,”        

That he thrashed about on his hospice bed,

In the final agony of dying,

“Marvin was a Jew,” he had said to Marvin’s widow many years before

About a friend and artist who had died.

“There is nothing in the coffin.”

Now it was over,                                              

Half of him in view,                                             

Neatly laid out in sports jacket, shirt and tie,

Features carefully composed,

Characterless and strangely still,

In a coffin at Campbell’s.

Could this dressed up clay be the man we had known,

Who with masterful authority

And not a little wit and taste

Had struck such wonder, fascination and awe

In us all?

 A tribute to a great teacher

Sent in gratitude by an old student

And read to those assembled

Was too neat–-

High praise,

Nicely balanced by guilt and an apologia                        

For those who had refused to pay the price

And abandoned him.

Too simple the latest version of an old canard,

That his “tight,” “convoluted” prose

“Devoid of lubricating redundancy”

Had driven readers away.

Closer to the truth would be to say

That he too had paid his dues

But recognition never came.

Of course, everyone knew the price.

The incessant, oppressive teaching

Smothered incipient expression of self,

Or so we were told.

The honey was no longer sweet, it seems,

For they felt only the sting of the bee.

As for myself, there can be no absolution,

No shred of solace,

Though I too could confect justification.

In the secret recesses of the heart

There remains something that forbids exculpation.

In the all too small assemblage

Each is alone with his thoughts.

Scattered here and there are the remnants

Of old abandoned friendships.

Here sits the widow of a once close friend and colleague.

There a noted novelist,

(silence rather than exculpation here)

Who had profited from many a conversation over the years

With this formidable critic--

Fountain of brilliant insights,

Friend and equal.

But even that peer, I am certain,            

Was not spared the barbs

Of the critic’s “passion for truth.”

Alone in a limousine,

Part of the small cortege,

We three cousins,

Two by blood and I, myself, a friend, by marriage,

Fell to sharing stories about the man

Who was our cousin and friend.

Endlessly, or so it seemed,

We regaled one another.

Even in death he could do that

For he was uncommon,

And the ore to be mined

Appeared precious to us then and inexhaustible.

Oh how he had made us laugh,

For he could play the clown with telling effect.

And oh how surprised they were to hear

That I could bear witness that he had recited the Shema

At the hospital bed with his dying wife,

For they had always thought him

To be without faith.

And so on and on and on ...

Later, after a brief repast,

Walking together toward the car

That was to take us to the inevitable parting,

We three cousins and his close friend,

Now the executor of his will,

Or was it at the grave that

I mentioned the simple order he had given me

For the inscription on his stone


And wondered what was to become of his poetry

As “he became his admirers?”

       On June 20, 2001, less than three years after Gaddis’s death from prostate cancer, an article, published in Germany by Thomas Girst, entitled, “Every Box Bears a Pearl,” appeared in translation on a major web site devoted to the life and work of Dworkin’s friend, William Gaddis. The article describes the contents of Gaddis’s personal archives, located then in a warehouse in Long Island City, New York, to which the author of the article appears to have had access.

     For me, what is of importance in this article is that the archives provide belated confirmation of the close friendship, for forty-five years, between Dworkin and Gaddis as well as the importance of Dworkin’s contribution to Gaddis’s work. In fact,  Girst states clearly, and this must have been said at some point by Gaddis, that Dworkin was his mentor and a permanent source of inspiration for him. However, there is a judgment that has been made by Gaddis about Dworkin,(implied in the phrase, “the Self that could do more,”) whom Girst says he described in  the archives as “a desperately striving Self, fallow potentials, miserable failure,” that must be challenged, and is being challenged with the publication of books of his work.

     The question does remain, however, why Gaddis, somewhat like Dante in The Divine Comedy, who places his teacher, Brunetto Latini, in Hell, seems to have placed his friend and teacher, Martin Dworkin, in a kind of Hell. Perhaps, as R.W.B. Lewis suggests, in part, regarding the motives of Dante, which by analogy may be applied to the motives of Gaddis,“another age-old impulse may also be at work, the one the critic and theorist Harold Bloom has named ‘the anxiety of influence,’ whereby a literary artist, as a mode of self-identification, discounts and denies...the importance,” as a literary artist, of his friend and teacher. Finally, since it is not an exageration to regard Dworkin as Gaddis’s surrogate father, there may be, as Lewis further remarks, “somewhere in the downscaling treatment a shadow of the father-killing process.”

                                                                               Bernard J. Looks


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Failed Friendships

A Memoir of Martin S. Dworkin: His Life and Work

Last modified: April, 10, 2005


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