Image from the Writers in Conversation interview with Malcolm  Bradbury.  View or purchase this videotape by following the link on the Gaddis on the Web page.

George Hunka
William Gaddis's course
at Bard College, 1979:
The Literature of Failure
The Literature of Failure was scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon – two hours, once a week  (Gaddis, I learned later, would take a midday train up from his home, teach the seminar, sleep over in a guest bedroom -- it could have been La Farge’s, if I remember correctly -- then finish up with his prose workshop the next day).   There were about twelve students in the class, and few of us were familiar with Gaddis and so didn’t know what to expect.

He showed up for the first class in what would be his usual outfit -- a corduroy jacket (usually tan), a necktie, very much what a middle-aged college literature professor might be expected to wear in 1979.  Gaddis was not a very tall man, perhaps 5'8" or 5'9"  at the outside, with sandy blonde hair slowly turning to white and a craggy, lined face.  His voice, a reedy, raspy drawl fed by years of cigarettes, brought to mind a more cosmopolitan W.C. Fields.  (The cigarettes were a constant presence.  During the first class, Gaddis announced that he smoked and suggested that we other smokers go down and sit at his end of the table, where there was an open window with some ventilation for the relief of non-smokers.)

The structure of the class was fairly simple -- a dozen books, one a week, with two short papers through the semester and a final long paper due in December.  The reading list itself was extraordinary, ranging over the whole field of contemporary popular culture.  The first assignment was Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, which Gaddis thought a masterpiece of a kind.  There was also Buried Alive, a biography of Janis Joplin; Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s psychobiography of Lyndon Johnson; and, most memorably, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which we students took care to hide from our fellow classmates lest they get the wrong idea.  (Or, given the gawky apprehensiveness of most kids our age, lest they get the right idea.)  Gaddis assigned us no readings from any of his own work, though there were great gobs of both novels he’d completed by then that would have made appropriate reading for the class.  This was the only time in my entire academic career when a teacher did not assign his own work as required reading.

The class itself was an exploration of the ideas of success and failure in American culture -- whether failures in one peculiar American sense were successes in some broader way.  Gaddis himself would ruefully punctuate our discussions on occasion with anecdotes from his own ambiguous career.  One of the ongoing anecdotal themes of the class was the interest a British television company had evinced in producing a miniseries version of JR. Week after week, Gaddis would start the class with some mordantly pessimistic comment on the continuing negotiations over the film rights.

This was however about as personal as Gaddis ever became about either his work or his life.  He conducted the class around the themes  of our study, not around himself.  The broad knowledge evidenced in The Recognitions and JR was also evident in the classroom.  We  students would show up for our Wednesday sessions with a notebook and a copy of the book we’d been assigned; Gaddis would show up with these too, but he’d also carry in his leather satchel another dozen dog-eared, worn books, which he’d pile on the seminar table in front of him.  He referred to them frequently during the discussion, reading out appropriate excerpts.

We always called him “Mr. Gaddis” -- I don’t think there was ever any question of us calling him by his first name, after the fashion of so many professors of the period -- but despite that his conversation during the classes was relaxed, full of good humor and respectful, sometimes more respectful than a callow 17-year-old deserves.  He didn’t make any effort to pretend that his own conclusions were gospel or laws from on high, and, like all good teachers in my experience, would never interrupt a student in the midst of discourse, no matter how irrelevant or sometimes sadly misinformed that discourse was.  He reserved his impatience and vitriol for those parts of the American experience he thought stupid and idiotic.  And he didn’t mince words here, either; his own growlings would often include phrases like “insanely stupid” and “completely idiotic.”

For general mass insipidity he had absolutely no patience. He was surprisingly easy to talk to, though, and often enough, after class another student and myself accompanied him as he walked back to his office, continuing the conversation we were having in class, tying up loose ends.

The fall 1979 semester was the last Gaddis spent at Bard.  By then, I think, he was able to forego whatever small honorarium Bard was dishing out to its visiting professors and to spend his time on his own work.  A few years later, though, his essay “The Rush for Second Place” appeared in Harper’s, a long piece that covered much the same material and ideas that we’d discussed in that seminar room at Bard.  I like to think that the seminar helped him form some of the ideas and conclusions that found final expression in the essay.

Gaddis was an effective, thoughtful teacher who provided new ways for us to look at the American scene and our own experience. While I’m sorry I didn’t have the chance to take another class with him, I think we’re all happier he went on to complete Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of His Own instead.


William Gaddis on his teaching at Bard College:

"My friend William Burroughs used to say that he didn't teach creative writing, he taught creative reading.  That was my idea in the Bard Courses I taught, especially "The Theme of Failure in American Literature," where we read everything from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People to William James' Pragmatism to Diary of a Mad Housewife.  What I was trying to do was raise questions for which there are not distinct answers.  The problems remain with us because there are no absolutes."  Gaddis originally wrote two additional sentences:  "Keeping the questions open, as I did at Bard, is a difficult way to teach; it's not like teaching mathematics.  This puts a great deal of responsibility directly on the teacher's shoulders."

-- from the Bard College Bulletin, November 1984, quoted by Steven Moore in his William Gaddis (Twayne United States Authors Series), pp. 112 and 151.  He also includes a list of some of Gaddis's assigned reading for his courses on p. 10:

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy
Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis
"Provide, Provide," Robert Frost
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman
A Fan's Notes, Frederick Exley
Pragmatism, William James
How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie
Social Darwinism in American Thought, Richard Hofstadter
The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman
How Children Fail, John Holt

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