The Recognitions

a. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, March 1955; second printing (May 1964) by Harcourt, Brace, & World 
b
. Toronto: George J. McLeod, 1955 
c. Cleveland and New York: World (Meridian Fiction), February 1962; second printing September 1962 
d. London: MacGibbon & Key, September 1962 
e. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (Harvest Books), 1970. 
f. New York: Avon (Bard Books), 1974. 3 printings.
g. New York: Penguin, July 1985 
h. London: Penguin, January 1986 i. New York: Penguin, 1993 (with introduction by William H. Gass)
  This was Gaddis’s first novel published when he was 32 and more than 40 years on it is at the very heart of his enviable literary reputation.  It has now come to be seen as a Janus-faced text that looks back in its complexity to the great Modernists of the inter-war years such as Joyce and Faulkner and forward to the post-war American writers such as Barth, Coover, Pynchon, De Lillo and Gass in its taste for black humor, literary play and absurdity.  It has established itself as a unique and influential novel, a pivotal work that makes connections between Modernism and what has come to be called Postmodernism, both as a literary style and as a philosophical position.

Gaddis’s first novel takes the form of a quest.  In a carefully wrought and densely-woven series of plots involving upwards of fifty characters across three continents, we follow the adventures of Wyatt Gwyon, son of a clergyman who rejects the ministry in favor of the call of the artist.  His quest is to make sense of contemporary reality, to find significance and some form of order in the world.  Through the pursuit of art he hopes to find truth.   His initial “failure” as an artist leads him not to copy but to paint in the style of the past masters, those who had found in their own time and in their own style the kind of order and beauty for which Wyatt is looking.  His talent for forgery is exploited by a group of unscrupulous art critics and businessmen who hope to profit by passing his works off as original old masters.   As the novel develops, these art forgeries become a profound metaphor for all kinds of other frauds, counterfeits and fakery: the aesthetic, scientific, religious, sexual and personal.  Towards the end, Wyatt wrenches something authentic from what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”   The nature of his revelation, however is highly ambiguous and is hedged about by images of madness and hallucination, which disturbs simple distinctions between real and authentic, between faiths and fakes.

A strikingly original novel,
it gains a number of its effects from the dense web of literary allusions it employs, drawing upon the religious texts of American Calvinism and European Catholicism and to a wide range of literary and philosophical writings in the western tradition from Aristotle to Goethe and TS Eliot.  Ostensibly, the novel charts Wyatt’s career as he negotiates the snares of the fallen modern world, but on a further level we see how he is identified with a whole series of literary figures, from Orpheus to Faust.  While the novel is an immensely rewarding read at the level of realism, it gains in depth and resonance when the reader can see the allusions at work and the parallels being drawn.

 
  from William Gaddis:  Life & Work  by Peter Dempsey
(to complete essay)

A Readers Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions: the annotations

 
 
Time Magazine review/notice in 1955
 
About Hieronymus Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins Table
 
 
 
 
William Gaddis's friend Martin S. Dworkin:
"the self who could do more"
 
A Crisis of Fakes: the Getty Forgeries
 
Sheri Martinelli: a model for Esme
 
The 81 Recognitions: appearances of the word "recognition" in the novel.
 
Fire the Bastards! Jack Green on The Recognitions critical reception