Who Shot J R?

William Gaddis’s Letter of Praise to Don DeLillo

William Gaddis (1922-1998) was one of the first American postmodern writers, and as the new Letters of William Gaddis from Dalkey Archive Press reveals, he corresponded with many other experimentalists and friends like William Gass and Robert Coover. Here, he writes an ebullient letter to fellow master Don DeLillo, praising his novel Libra (but preferring it far over White Noise)—a sort of passing of the torch.

Courtesy of Sarah Gaddis

[Don DeLillo praised Gaddis in a 1982 New York Times profile for “extending the possibilities of the novel by taking huge risks and making great demands on readers.” DeLillo would later attend Gaddis’s memorial service and contribute a brief tribute to the portfolio that Conjunctions published in fall 2003.]

Wainscott, New York 11975

19 July 1988

Dear Don DeLillo.

Why in the world have I waited till the day your Libra gets its nihil obstat from Christopher Lemondrop* to send you a note. It showed up in galleys in New York 2 or 3 months ago when things were ghastly (health) about the time I saw you, I looked into it then & should certainly have written without waiting to read it through because my response was immediate, it is a terrific job. I don’t know all your work & also hesitate to say to any writer whatever comparing one of his works to another but in this case must tell you I find it far beyond White Noise. Obviously if we take our work seriously we do not try to clone one novel to its predecessor so comparisons are indeed odious, & equally obviously the constantly shattered & reknit & fragmented again style of this new book appeals to me rather more than the linear narrative, when it’s always 9 o’clock in the morning at 9 am & 3pm at 3 in the afternoon if you see what I mean; but the hard cover arrived here a couple of weeks ago & I’ve just read it & confirmed all my earlier impression, its marriage of style & content—that essential I used to bray about to ‘students’ in those grim days—is marvelously illustrated here I think & especially as it comes together at the end as we know it must, speaking of the ‘nonfiction’ novel if we must but why must we, except that concept does embrace the American writer’s historic obsession getting the facts down clear (from “tells me more about whales than I really want to know”** to Dreiser tapemeasuring*** Clyde’s cell at Sing Sing, or Jack London’s “Give me the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!”****) & again one marvels at what you’ve marshaled in this impressive piece of work. We’ll be out of the country for August but may hope to see you in town in the fall, meanwhile high marks.

best regards,


*Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s approving review of DeLillo’s ninth novel appeared in the 18 July 1988 issue of the New York Times.

**obviously a response to Moby-Dick (1851), but source unknown. Gaddis notes Melville’s poor critical reception in A Frolic of His Own (p. 39) and Agapē Agape (p. 55).

***near the completion of An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser toured Sing Sing prison where Chester Gillette, a factory worker accused of murdering a young woman, and the model for his novel’s Clyde Griffiths, was interred.

****from The Iron Heel (1907), Gaddis quotes the same line in J R (p. 571).

From The Letters of William Gaddis edited by Steven Moore. © 2013 by the Estate of William Gaddis and Steven Moore. Reprinted with permission from Dalkey Archive Press.