Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis
December 24, 2013 | by Matthew Erickson
Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.
I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.
More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:
“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”
After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library?
Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.
If you are a certain kind of person, there is a unique form of pleasure to be obtained in an archive. With an important writer’s notes—or, even better, journals—there is a sense of ceremonious trespassing involved in having a specialist present you, the researcher, with a revered figure’s highly personal, and often rather trivial, belongings. The special collections room becomes an equalizing space where we can ogle at the humdrum remains of those we esteem the most; by looking through their assorted paperwork—through their receipts, to-do lists and preserved desk detritus—they become somewhat less elevated and more earthly. This is even truer in the case of the three-dimensional realia: due to the combinations of death, achievement, fame, and rarity, the worn and used objects of everyday life are eventually deemed research-worthy.
I pondered this in only the vaguest way as I stood at the long end of a broad, sternum-high wooden cabinet that would act as a makeshift examination table for the Gaddis zebra skin, which was slowly being wheeled out in its stored cylinder form on a standard library shelving cart, which became a makeshift gurney for this occasion. When I first approached Joel Minor, the curator of the Modern Literature Collection and Manuscripts at the Olin Library, I thought that my request would be rebuffed. Not only was I not a student, but I was asking to see what is surely one of the more obscure and cumbersome items in the entire library. Without hesitation, he informed me he would arrange for it to happen, and seemed slightly excited to do so. “That’s what it’s there for,” he told me. I still wasn’t entirely sure myself what it was there for and why I felt like I had to see it. Luckily, I didn’t have to know
Joel, and Sarah, the special collections assistant, hoisted the approximately four-foot-long tube onto the short end of the cabinet and slowly unfurled the specimen, which was rolled between two sheets of off-white, archival-quality muslin. Once it was spread flat, the three of us stared at the striated tones of skin for a silent moment. The item had only once before been removed from the shelf space that it has been occupying for the decade since the university had first acquired the novelist’s full archives. Joel had never seen the zebra, Sarah had seen it that one other time, and I have the dubious honor of being the first person to ever request Williams Gaddis’s zebra skin from the library catalog. Though the cabinet was fairly huge, the animal’s legs and tail draped over the edges. (The Internet tells me that an average zebra is about four feet tall and seven feet long; imagine those dimensions without the scaffolding of bones and muscle, then splayed apart into a stiff sheet). The head would have drooped over the border as well, but it was still rigidly curled, fresh from its long-term storage position. The zebra’s mane was tufted into a dense ridge along the animal’s wrinkled neck, leading between a pair of flattened ears and into a hollow face.
We spent some time speculating. Where had Gaddis kept this? In his office or before a fireplace? On a wall or on a floor? Had he bought it secondhand from a dealer specializing in exotic animal hides, or did he hunt it himself during his travels in Africa? (There was a small, clean bullet hole just above the negative spaces where the eyes once were.) I mainly wanted to know how this rather unwieldy and academically useless object came to be considered worthy of being part of the Gaddis literary archive and how it found its way into the library’s collection. Joel and Sarah told me that the entirety of the author’s archives ended up at the school largely through the persuasiveness of the novelist and essayist William Gass, who taught at Washington University for thirty years and was a long-term friend and associate of Gaddis. Rare-book dealer Ken Lopez guided the acquisition process between the library’s special collections department and the Gaddis family, who had assembled the enormous lot of what would become the entirety of the novelist’s permanent archives. The great mystery, the Question of the Zebra, was just as elusive to them as it was to me.
A former professor of mine once told a seminar about a sabbatical trip that he had made to the British Library to do research on gay culture in Victorian London. I don’t remember the exact details, but as I recall it, he was studying one periodical of early pornography so rare that a white-gloved attendant had to turn the pages for him, with the professor nodding each time he was done looking at a particular early photograph of parlor orgies or chaise-longue fellatio. Did the library attendant stare blankly at the wall, or would he steal a glance over the professor’s shoulder? Was there an inherent tension in being observed while looking at these magazines, especially under the guise of arousal-free research?
This strange kind of voyeurism has unfortunately never been part of my experience in rare-book rooms, though a certain level of inconvenience for the librarian on hand usually does figure into the equation. Several years ago, having been infatuated with the Fluxus art movement and its various tributaries for some time, my girlfriend and I decided to make a trip to the special collections at the Amherst College Library, where dozens of small, boxed Fluxus pieces are strewn throughout the guarded stacks. For the unfamiliar, aside from the multitude of books, prints, installations, films, concerts, performances, and happenings, a hefty channel of the creative energy within Fluxus in the 1960s was devoted to creating boxed ready-mades and multiples that could be viewed as either naïve abstract jokes or refined trickster koans. These crude and elaborate Fluxkits mostly baffled the art world at the time, despite their art-historical precedents. Their absurdity has surely only heightened, as they are now carefully kept among the rare books and manuscripts in a prestigious New England liberal arts college library.
After individually requesting an item—say Alice Hutchins’s Jewelry Fluxkit (1 box [magnetic ring, springs, and metal balls] ; 7 x 7 x 6 cm.), or possibly Geoffrey Hendricks’s Flux-reliquary (1 box [7 relics + label] ; 13 x 10 x 3 cm), the “relics” being “fingernails in a capsule … electrical wire … ball point pen … stone … ‘shit’ in a plastic box … bottle with liquid … small brass nails in a capsule …”—the librarian would disappear for several minutes, only to reappear with a small bundle wrapped in multiple layers of thin, stark-white tissue paper. Wearing latex gloves, she would delicately and precisely unwrap each item on the stained oak tabletop where we were sitting, peeling away the paper from the object as though she were removing a sleeping newborn from a wet blanket, until the kernel revealed what she, possibly unfamiliar with her library’s holdings in avant-garde history, likely viewed as a prank, which wasn’t entirely off the mark. There wasn’t much that we could do with the objects besides look at them for a minute, museum-style, and maybe giggle a bit before sending it back to the stacks. We inflicted this cruel punishment on the librarian by making her repeat this tedious process perhaps a dozen times, each slow unwrapping only revealing an artwork that functioned as a punchline to an undelivered joke, as it surely seemed with Ben Vautier’s Flux Holes (1 box [15 plastic straws] ; 10 x 12 x 1 cm.).
Having spent enough time with the zebra skin, even feeling the coarseness of its shoulder for a second, I considered this element of inconvenience as I left the special collections room that day, with Joel and Sarah deciding the best way to rewrap and reroll the animal hide for possibly another decade of storage, possibly more. Where the Fluxus pieces are, on all levels, more confounding than Gaddis’s zebra skin, they were still the end product of the group’s artistic activity. Gaddis’s realia, like that of any writer, was merely part of his daily life, rather removed and tangential from the process of crafting his five difficult and brilliant novels over the course of a multidecade career.
What the researcher, or even the dilettante, might want to know is how an author’s material surroundings and posthumous personal effects might distill and leak into their work. Most often, the realia from a literary archive are the typical objects that we would associate with the physical act of writing, such as it is: fountain pens, stationery, reading glasses, ashtrays. Essentially, these objects are to dead authors what the items in Hard Rock Cafe display cases are to dead rock stars: memorabilia. Hendrix’s famous acid-soaked headband or Faulkner’s famous tin of beloved pipe tobacco, take your pick. This fact makes an author’s nonwriterly objects stand out and seem more significant, more imbued with potential coded meaning. Indeed, zebras and their skins do make appearances within Gaddis’s fiction, so the poor beast in the special collections isn’t entirely irrelevant when considering his corpus. A rolled-up zebra skin appears midway through Carpenter’s Gothic (“He’d kicked aside a cobwebbed roll of canvas, the black on white, or was it white on black roll of a hide …”), sporadically emerging from the silent background and into the incessant stream of dialog that makes up the majority of the text. In JR, the downtrodden composer Edward Bast is commissioned to write a score of “zebra music” for a documentary being made by the big-game hunter and stockbroker Crawley, in a lobbying effort to convince Congress to introduce various African species, zebras included, into the U.S. National Parks system:
“Zebra music Mister Bast, zebra music. Just take a minute to fill you in here, friend of mine and I have gone to no damned little expense to put together a little film, —fellows you see up here mainly … and he herded the stares of the wall gallery indiscriminately together with a sweep of his arm,and zebras, damned lot of zebras in fact, whole idea is to wake up some people down in Washington to the idea of stocking our public lands with something more suitable than a lot of trailers and beer cans.”
Box/Folder 166.1/- Perforated Foxtrot Roll for Player Piano, (1 item)
Stored in black box.
After my time with the zebra skin, I wanted to look at another piece of realia that I knew related to the writing of JR, the doorstopper of a second novel that won Gaddis the National Book Award in 1976 and cemented the author’s reputation as a bedrock figure in modern letters. The pairing of this book with Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, published twenty years earlier, is largely responsible for his reputation as an unapologetically difficult writer. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, after being re-issued last year by Dalkey Archive Press, JR was also the unlikely candidate for a summer-long online reading group (#OccupyGaddis, in case, like me, you missed it) that attracted curious new flocks to the author’s work.
Clocking in at just over 750 pages, the novel is a kaleidoscopic volume told largely through a barrage of finely-tuned dialoge spoken through dozens, possibly hundreds, of spoken and overheard unattributed voices, with the occasional hall-of-mirrors, paragraph-long sentence put to use as interstitial flow. Like all truly encyclopedic novels, JR is “about” many things: the tentacles of modern finance, the greed of corporate growth, the awkwardness of adolescence, the neglect of the artist in the webs of capitalism, the dilution of education through technology, among others. It is also about—though like the zebra skin in Carpenter’s Gothic, this only pokes through the fog of the narrative at opportune moments—the player piano. One of the primary plotlines in JR deals with the soon-to-be inherited ownership of the General Roll Corporation on Long Island and the jockeying of various family descendents over the company’s accumulated fortune, which was made through the production of rolls for player pianos in the early parts of the twentieth century.
The second of Gaddis’s archived objects that I wanted to inspect was one such roll, a “Foxtrot for Player Piano” stored in a plain, oblong, black box. Like the zebra skin on a miniaturized scale, the piano roll was unfurled before me on a table. I looked at it, briefly examined its strata of miniscule holes, took a photo, and the roll was carted off for indefinite storage. It looked just like any other player-piano roll that can easily be found for next to nothing at an antique store.
The Metaphor of the Player Piano in the Works of William Gaddis could be, and probably already is, the grounding for an entire doctoral dissertation. In brief: for Gaddis, the invention of the player piano represented the growing mechanization of the arts and the related dismissal of the artist in the process. In a 1951 essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled essay “Stop Player. Joke No. 4,” Gaddis wrote that player pianos provide “the opportunity to participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the manifestation of talent when there was none.” (Clearly he had never heard the work of the great inventor-composer Conlon Nancarrow—a mere ten years older than Gaddis and active during the roughly same timespan—who manually punched the paper rolls to his own liking and put them through modified player pianos to create wild, dynamic flurries that no human hands could play on a traditional piano.)
The confluence of technology and artistic purity was an obsession that took hold of Gaddis early in his writing career and never let up. The cornerstone for any dive into the life of the author is the work of the literary historian and Gaddis scholar Steven Moore. At the international colloquium “Reading William Gaddis,” in the spring of 2000, in Orléans, France, Moore delivered a wonderful speech that was concerned almost exclusively with the rather esoteric topic of player pianos:
It was when Gaddis was working as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, in 1945–46, that he first became interested in the player piano, the subject of an article he was assigned to work on. He quickly became interested in this musical contraption not for its own sake—I don’t think he owned one or played one—but as a popular manifestation of what he considered a dangerous trend, namely, the growing use of mechanical reproduction in the arts and a corresponding loss of the autonomy of the individual artist. After he finished the assignment he decided to research the history of the player piano further and to write something of his own on the topic...The following summer, Gaddis made his first appearance in a national magazine with “Stop Player. Joke No. 4.” The fact that this essay is only a few pages long suggests that it was indeed only an excerpt from a longer work, and thus that longer work would be the basis for what he eventually called Agapē Agape.
Later, a supposed book in progress on the history of player pianos is briefly mentioned in The Recognitions, his first book from 1955; twenty years later, in JR, the disgruntled novelist Jack Gibbs, a clear stand-in for Gaddis himself, is working on a “social history of mechanization and the arts” called, of course, Agapē Agape. As Moore observes in his speech, the eventual sale of Gaddis’s project was reported in a 1997 issue of Publishers Weekly, which stated that a nonfiction work titled Agapē Agape: The Secret History of the Player Piano had been acquired by an editor at Henry Holt. The project was finally published posthumously in 2000, though as a slim novel rather than a nonfiction study, two years after Gaddis’s death and fifty-five years after the idea first sprouted in the author’s brain.
Box/Folder 166.1/- Pair of Women’s Shoes, (1 item)
The final fragment of Gaddis realia that I wanted to see was a mysterious pair of women’s shoes. Like the zebra skin, it was a rather confounding entry for a dignified literary archive. When the shoes were brought forth, they were set unceremoniously within a plain box; each had white tissue stuffed from the heel down into the sharply pointed toe. These three-inch heels were eggshell white, slightly creamier than the tissue filling out the void where an imagined woman’s foot would be. Long and narrow, with a thick, gaudy bow at the slope of the toe, they were of fairly standard midcentury appearance and rather drab.They were in remarkable shape considering their likely age. I inspected them for a minute, took a few pictures and let them be carted back into their storage place amongst the valise, the stapler, the Olympia typewriter.
What was notable about these particular drab shoes was that they likely first belonged to one of the greatest under-recognized, cross-sectional muses of twentieth century arts and letters, the painter and poet Sheri Martinelli. Her cultivated social and creative connections to mid-twentieth-century bohemia were astounding: she was muse and mistress to Ezra Pound; Charlie Parker frequented her West Village apartment; Marlon Brando was a known admirer; e.e. cummings collected her paintings; she was known as the Queen of the Beats in 1950s San Francisco and was a close friend of Allen Ginsberg; she corresponded with Charles Bukowski and was one of the earliest publishers of his writing; she acted in Maya Deren’s Ritural in Transfigured Time; she appeared in the writings of figures as diverse as Anaïs Nin, David Markson, H.D. and Anatole Broyard. (All of this is gathered from, yet again, Steven Moore, who wrote what is surely the definitive essay on Martinelli’s life.) She was also the direct model for the character of Esme in The Recognitions. Like Martinelli, Esme was an artist with a printing press in her apartment, had a young daughter, lived on Jones Street in the West Village, and was the object of desire for countless bohemian would-be suitors.
The two met while circulating in the same Greenwich Village scene of the mid-1940s, where Martinelli, by all accounts, emitted magnetism wherever she went, constantly attracting hordes of male painters, musicians, and writers. Gaddis was no exception, yet it is uncertain whether this infatuation was reciprocal, and, if so, how long a possible relationship may have lasted. (In the novel, Otto, the stand-in character for Gaddis, sleeps with Esme after meeting her at a party and for the remainder of the novel, within a complex plotline loosely orbiting art forgery and other broad topics. The love is bitterly unrequited and subsumed into an equally complicated love quadrangle.) Martinelli was thirty years old to Gaddis’s twenty-five when they met, and apparently thought of him as a “mama’s boy.” According to Moore’s essay, she recalled seeing the young writer, at that point unpublished, at an opening at MoMA wearing a pair of borrowed shoes that were slightly too roomy, causing them to emit audible clops against the floors of the gallery.
Another mystery. What were these white heels were doing in the possession of William Gaddis? Did she give them to him as a going-away gift before he moved from the Village to Panama? Were his clopping shoes at MoMA, a possible moment of early humiliation, somehow cause for Gaddis to take her shoes hostage at some point and keep them as a memento? Could they have belonged to another woman, a former wife, and misidentified? Why were they in the archive?
For the dilettante, as opposed to the scholar, the great thing about realia is that it is what it is, initially just objects on their own, whereas the notes and the drafts and the manuscripts all connect and threaten to pool together, drowning you in their paper mass. While a scholar might want to, say, do a study on the various corporate jobs that Gaddis held for most of his adult life and see how his various written reports have cycled back into his fiction—my sources at the library say that several different scholars have traveled from far and wide to undertake this “unique” study—the dilettante just wants to take a starry-eyed stroll through the museum of mundane objects. A zebra skin, a player-piano roll and a pair of women’s shoes. Any one of them is just the kind of artifact that could be found by accident at a quality estate sale, yet the fact that these once were part of the rote material life of a reclusive and complex novelist make the dilettante want to hunt them out and take a closer look, one by one. Why, though? “That’s what it’s there for.” That’s why.
Matthew Erickson currently lives in Saint Louis.