(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Most of the characters inhabiting William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions pretend to be intellectuals in order to attain fame and money. They do not seek the universe’s principles, God’s laws, like the novel’s few true intellectuals. These few, because they struggle to recognize the universe’s rules and to obey them, live moral lives. The impostors, on the other hand, do not.

Wyatt Gwyon is the novel’s main character and, because he seeks fame, its main dissembler. The book follows his journey from pretense to truth, illuminating the way to discover morality.

The novel begins with Wyatt’s childhood. His mother has died, so his father, the Reverend Gwyon, and his live-in relative Aunt May rear him. The two adults battle each other over whose philosophy Wyatt will follow. Gwyon tries to teach his son to think and learn. He lures him with mythology, tales of his travels, and the excitement of discovery. May tries to deaden the boy’s mind with blind, unquestioning faith in God. She berates him for being one of Adam’s descendants and therefore a sinner who will go to Hell unless he believes in Jesus.

May fears creativity more than anything else because man imitates God when he creates. He tries to become God, she reasons. Therefore, when Wyatt, still a child, shows her his first picture, that of a robin, she asks: “Don’t you love our Lord Jesus, after all?” He says that he does. “Then why do you try to take His place? Our Lord is the true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him.” She goes on to tell him that “to sin is to falsify something in the divine order, and that is what Lucifer did. . . . He...

(The entire section is 688 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Recognitions takes its title from a third century theological romance inscribed by Saint Clement, whose story concerned a neophyte’s search for true religious experience in the midst of a corrupted empire. Set in the 1950’s in the United States, and mainly in New York City, Gaddis’s novel nevertheless finds parallels (as one character notes) with “Caligula’s Rome, with a new circus of vulgar bestialized suffering in the newspapers.” Across 958 densely written pages, the text narrates the story of Wyatt Gwyon’s maturation, both aesthetic and spiritual.

Like most of Gaddis’s novels, this one begins with contested lines of descent. From the side of his mother, Camilla (who wanted to name him Stephen), Wyatt has inherited an artistic temperament. From his father, a Calvinist minister, he inherits a severe sense of the damnation of humankind and of his own guilt in particular. During a sojourn in Spain, Camilla dies mysteriously when Wyatt is three, and later the raging fevers of a mysterious childhood illness (drawn from memories of Gaddis’s bout with erythema grave) seem to confirm what he has been taught as a Calvinist.

It is Wyatt’s gift for drawing, however, that seems to pull his spirit back to health. Wyatt opts for divinity school, as had his father, but he paints in secret and eventually leaves the United States for Europe to study painting. There Wyatt is oblivious to styles of modernist art, and his best works are “recognitions” of the Flemish masters of the late middle ages. Disparaged by fashionable critics for this work, Wyatt gives it up, returns to the United States, and settles for draftsmen’s work and a mindless marriage.

Lapsing into cynical despair over his failures, Wyatt is discovered by an art dealer, Recktall Brown, who proposes to employ the young man’s talents in creating almost faultless forgeries of the Flemish masters, which he moreover proposes to have “authenticated” by his associate, a corrupted art critic named Basil Valentine. The circle of this plan closes when Wyatt’s canvases bring spectacular prices and, indeed, even a...

(The entire section is 871 words.)