William Gaddis’ The Rush for Second Place

I picked up the posthumously published The Rush for Second Place, a collection of the essays and miscellaneous non-fiction of William Gaddis, in preparation for reading his 1955 opus The Recognitions, widely considered the best American novel of the 20th century, despite languishing in obscurity for decades before it received its due acclaim. This collection, assembled with reverence by Gaddis biographer Joseph Tabbi, spans more than four decades of the author’s career, beginning with his first nationally published piece, “Stop Player. Joke No. 4” in 1951, and concluding with a tribute to the artist Julian Schnabel, written in the year of his death, 1998 (Schnabel, incidentally, did a famous portrait of Gaddis). Apart from his literary talents, abundantly evidenced in every essay, three major themes unite these very different and often obscure pieces: his horror at what he saw as the usurpation of man’s originality and creativity by technology (exemplified by the player piano); an anger at the United States, directed variously at its complacency, wanton ignorance, and brute strength; and a sense of humour that leavens and redeems even his most trenchant criticisms (Gaddis briefly served as President of the Harvard Lampoon, a position later occupied by the likes of John Updike and Conan O’Brien). Finally, there’s something telling about the narrowness of this volume, fifty-plus years of nonfiction writing amounting to fewer than 200 pages – and even that including speeches and juvenilia. This is true, in part, for the same reason that he seldom read from his own work in public: because he believed that the author, if he were worth anything at all, should say his peace in his work, and only in his work.

There are two standout pieces in this volume, either one of which would justify the price: the first is the titular “The Rush for Second Place” originally published in the April 1981 issue of Harper’s and based, in part, on a course Gaddis taught at Bard College “on the theme of failure in American Literature.” The essay is a sweeping broadside against some of the most salient trends of the post-war era, including the self-help movement (exemplified by the best-selling How to Win Friends and Influence People), the no-holds-barred capitalism of the Reagan era, and the endorsement of said capitalism by the “Moral Majority” led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who famously described material wealth as “God’s way of blessing people who put him first.” The trend of conflating capitalist success with moral righteousness long predates Falwell. Gaddis quotes from John D. Rockefeller, the man whose name remains synonymous with industry: “The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendour and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely a workout-out of a law of nature and a law of God.” Did you catch the clever little amalgamation encompassed in those lines? Gaddis: “In a world where Darwinism had pulled the rug from under the first book of the Bible and appeared, therewith, to threaten Christianity itself, he had synthesized the two without a blink.” It’s not America’s zeal that Gaddis faults, but its aim: what, he wonders, will we do with the inevitable losers, “who fail at something that was not worth doing in the first place”? The next standout piece is a fictional work, “J R Up to Date,” which takes the title character from his 1975, National-Book-award-winning novel (a precocious, money-obsessed child whose creed of “get all you can” leads him to create a financial empire based on penny stocks and defaulted bonds) and imagines him fifteen years later, advising the American Congress on financial matters. (When it originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review in October of 1987, shortly after a stock market collapse, it was titled “Trickle Up Economics: J R Goes to Washington.”) J R takes the position that America should pursue a policy of “full employment,” though not via free enterprise competition but by what he calls “degeneration.” When a haughty Congressman has the temerity to convey America’s crumbling educational standards (“we have the poorest literacy record of all the industrial nations, […] 29 million adults can’t read a newspaper headline, a third don’t know when Columbus landed …”), J R unveils his novel approach:

Okay look Mister Congressman that’s just what I’m coming to. Like you start off with all these here schoolteachers? I mean right at the start they were always getting paid worse than anybody, so they were mostly these ladies, right? So you create this second class profession you get second-class people, so now you get all these pupils which can’t hardly read so they have these here remedial reading programs. See if these teachers got it right in the first place then all these remedial teachers would be out of work which that’s what we call this here ripple effect, where each new job creates like three more new ones. Like half the teachers will retire this next six years and they figure the replacements will be off the real bottom of the academic ladder, so each new one should degenerate like maybe five remedial ones, that’s how it works. I mean this last five years of this here Administration the economy has degenerated like 13.5 million new jobs, so …

I didn’t bother to look up the initial facts quoted (“29 million adults can’t read a newspaper headline”), because even a passing familiarity with the appalling standards put forth not only by America’s K-12 schools but now its universities will confirm that nothing much has changed and incompetence continues to underwrite the creation of a plethora of new jobs and titles.

I recently completed David Halberstam’s The Fifties, a panoramic history of the 1950s, and am nearing the halfway point of The Recognitions, published in 1955, and I’m beginning to assume vicariously some of the anger and outrage Gaddis felt in appraising his own society, teetering on the verge of momentous social changes. Television, advertising, and an explosive prosperity were sweeping away the vestiges of pre-war America, and offering in their stead a society built on consumerism and insatiable desire. From 1950 onward, the original Protestant ethic made famous by Max Weber, that good works would bring just rewards, was much in evidence, but the moral substructure that underpinned and directed that energy was in fast recession. The America of the early 21st century, characterized by widespread anomie, ugly and dying towns, and vast disparities in the wealth and wellbeing of rich and poor, had its foundations laid in that decade, and William Gaddis was among the very few who noticed and dared to object.