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William Gaddis

By Peter Matthiessen

William Gaddis was a brilliant writer and a delightful old sourball, yet so negative and ungenerous at times that one wondered how and why one had grown so fond of him. I think it was because he was authentic even in his negativity, and because he remained true to both expressions of his nature, writing almost to his last days, after which he resorted to dictation. In his life, as in his book, he castigated fools and scoundrels to the end.

In the interests of his failing health, Willie had abstained from cigarettes and hard liquor for some years, but when he realized that death was near, he took matters back into his own hands. The last time I saw him, in the hospital, he seemed so perky and yet so cross that I prescribed some white wine for what ailed him—this was seen to at once. But a few days later when his old friend John Sherry said, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” Gaddis snapped back, “Oh no you won’t.” Asked to explain, he said unsentimentally, “Because I’m headed for the crematorium.” That same evening he went home, where he asked Matthew and Sarah to bring him two cigarettes and a double vodka. Fearlessly, then, he sank into his last sleep and was gone peacefully before the morning.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 13, 1999.

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