The Recognitions

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The Recognitions
First edition
Author William Gaddis
Country United States
Language English
Genre Postmodern literature
Publisher Harcourt Brace & Company
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 956

The Recognitions, published in 1955, is American author William Gaddis's first novel. The novel was poorly received initially, but Gaddis's reputation grew, twenty years later, with the publication of his second novel J R (which won a National Book Award), and The Recognitions received belated fame as a masterpiece of American literature.[1]

Time magazine included The Recognitions in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon, a Calvinist minister's son from rural New England. He initially plans to follow his father into the ministry. However, he is inspired to become a painter by The Seven Deadly Sins, Bosch's painting in his father's possession. He leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Discouraged by a corrupt critic and frustrated with his career he moves to New York. He meets Recktall Brown, a capitalistic collector and dealer of art, who makes a Faustian deal with him. Wyatt creates paintings in the style of Flemish and Dutch masters (such as Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling), forges their signature, and Brown will sell them as newly discovered antique originals. Soon Wyatt is discouraged, and goes home only to find his father converted to Mithraism and losing his mind. Back in New York, he tries to expose his forgeries, then travels to Spain where he visits the monastery where his mother was buried, restores old paintings, and tries to find himself in his search for authenticity. At the end, he moves on to live his life "deliberately".

Interwoven are the stories of many other characters, among them Otto, a struggling writer, Esme, a muse, and Stanley, a musician. The epilogue follows their stories further. In the final scene Stanley achieves his goal by playing his work at the organ of the church of Fenestrula "pulling all the stops". The church collapses, killing him, yet "most of his work was recovered ..., and is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played."

The major part of the novel takes part in the late 1940s and early 1950s.


Gaddis spent seven years writing The Recognitions. The novel began as a much shorter work and as an explicit parody of Goethe’s Faust. During the period in which Gaddis was writing the novel, he travelled to Mexico, Central America and Europe. It was in Spain in 1948 that Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Gaddis found the title for the novel in The Golden Bough as Frazer noted how Goethe’s Faust originally came from the Clementine Recognitions, a third-century theological tract (See Clementine literature). It was from this point on that Gaddis began to expand the novel. The novel was completed in 1949,[3] although evidence from Gaddis' collected letters [4] indicates that he revised, expanded and worked to complete the draft almost continuously up to early 1954, when he submitted it to Harcourt Brace as a 480,000-word manuscript.


The complex book, full of characters whose ways intertwine, presents and is meant to be a challenging read; Gaddis said later "I do ask something of the reader and many reviewers say I ask too much . . . and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. . . . Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures."[5] Jonathan Franzen stated that it was "by a comfortable margin, the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read..."[6] With its three parts it is organized like a triptych, each part contains many larger and smaller scenes, all interconnected. The themes of forgery, falsification, plagiarism, and mistaken identity abound. There is extensive use of dialogues—Gaddis, like James Joyce, uses an em-dash to mark the beginning of speech, not standard quotation marks—and the reader may have to deduce who is talking by the speaking style, other behaviour or attributes of the speaker, or the context. Some characters change their name in the course of the novel; thus, Wyatt Gwyon is called so in the beginning of the novel, then loses his name, only to be given—fraudulently—at the end the name of Stephen Asche, a Swiss national. Gaddis is a master of cumulative syntax, enriching his sentences by literary, cultural and religious allusions.[citation needed]

Character inspirations[edit]

The character of Esme was inspired by Sheri Martinelli and Otto has been described as a self-deprecating portrait of the author.[7] "Dick", a minister, is a reference to Richard Nixon.


The book was poorly received upon publication. Years later, Jack Green (Christopher Carlisle Reid) examined the initial 55 reviews in his essay Fire the Bastards! critiquing those critics: "Two of 55 reviews were adequate, the others were amateurish and incompetent, failing to recognize the greatness of the book, failing to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are, counterfeiting this with stereotyped preconceptions — the standard cliches about a book that is "ambitious," "erudite", "long," "negative," etc., counterfeiting competence with inhuman jargon." Presciently, Gaddis had already taken critics to task in his book, thus one of them responds when asked if he is reading a book that has the size, price, and appearance of The Recognitions: "No. I'm just reviewing it... A lousy twenty-five bucks. It'll take me the whole evening tonight. You didn't buy it, did you? Christ, at that price? Who the hell do they think's going to pay that much just for a novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review."[8] Green showed that the blurb made it into the reviews, indeed.

Over time, the work received not popularity, but gradual recognition. David Madden[citation needed] observed that "(a)n underground reputation has kept it on the brink of oblivion."[9] Tony Tanner claimed that it inaugurated a new period in American fiction,[3] foreshadowing and sometimes directly influencing the work of later ambitious novelists such as Joseph McElroy,[10] Thomas Pynchon,[citation needed] Don DeLillo,[citation needed] and David Foster Wallace.[10] Franzen, who compared it to a "huge landscape painting of modern New York, peopled with hundreds of doomed but energetic little figures, executed on wood panels by Brueghel or Bosch...," believes that the disappointing reception negatively affected Gaddis's future development as a novelist.[6] Gaddis did not publish another novel for twenty years. Cynthia Ozick wrote that " The Recognitions is always spoken of as the most overlooked important work of the last several literary generations... Through the famous obscurity of The Recognitions, Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough."[9]


  1. ^ Stephen Burn. David Foster Wallace's Infinite jest: a reader's guide. The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. p. 72. ISBN 0-8264-1477-X. 
  2. ^ Lev Grossman, Richard Lacayo (October 16, 2005). "All Time 100 Novels.". Time Magazine. Retrieved February 2, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Koenig, Peter William, 'Recognizing Gaddis' "Recognitions"', Contemporary Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, (Winter, 1975), pp. 61-72.
  4. ^ Dalkey Archive Editions, 2013, Steven Moore, ed.
  5. ^ Lingan, John. "William Gaddis, the Last Protestant.". Quarterly Conversation. Retrieved February 3, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b Jonathan Franzen (September 30, 2002). "Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 2, 2011.  (Archived by WebCite® at
  7. ^ Moore, Steven (1998). "Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse". Retrieved February 2, 2011.  (Archived by WebCite® at
  8. ^ Gaddis W, The Recognitions, page 936
  9. ^ a b Ozick Cynthia (July 7, 1985). "Fakery and Stony Truth". The New York Times. Retrieved February 2, 2011.  (Archived by WebCite® at
  10. ^ a b "William Gaddis: A Portfolio," Conjunctions 41 (2003), 373-415.

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