The Recognitions

The Recognitions

"The Recognitions" is a 1955 novel by American William Gaddis. It is widely praised, and also known for its complexity. 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; it is usually placed at least on a par with the later novel.

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

Plot summary

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, but he leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Out of frustration with his own career, a need for money, and a disregard for anything but perfecting his own skills, he takes on work as a forger, making copies of paintings that successfully pass for originals. This eventually develops into making "new" originals--paintings so perfectly in the style of known masters that they pass for newly discovered works.

Much of the story follows the lives of people around him, their own faithfulness to their ideals, and the roles of forgery or similar falsehoods in other parts of life. Wyatt's father gradually converts from Calvinism to Catholicism to Mithraism, taking his unsuspecting congregation with him until he is finally committed to an asylum. Otto is a playwright who romanticizes himself as a Byronic hero, and remembers things people say so that he can put them in his play, in the mouth of the character representing himself. He idolizes Wyatt, who tends not to notice him. He also feigns a broken arm, which he tells people he got when he was caught up in the South American revolution; later he is caught up in such a revolution, and does break his arm. He has never met his own father, and imagines him to be Albert, King of the Belgians. Wyatt's wife, Esther, is frustrated with his inattention to her, and they separate, after which she has an affair with Otto. Esme (inspired by Sheri Martinelli [ [] William Gaddis's Sheri Martinelli links] ) is a drug-addicted poet and model who has an affair with Otto, works for Wyatt and falls in love with him, and then travels to Europe to become a nun. Recktall Brown is the unscrupulous art dealer who, along with Basil Valentine, moves Wyatt's paintings onto the international market. Valentine is an art critic who steals original works to move them back to Europe, "where they belong", replacing them with forgeries. Stanley is an idealistic young Catholic man writing music that he hopes to play in Rome.


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". In this anthropological study, Frazer demonstrated how religions find their origins from earlier myths. It is possible that this inspired or broadened Gaddis’ view of the modern world as a counterfeit, a view which eventually found its way into "The Recognitions". Gaddis also 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. [Koenig, Peter William, 'Recognizing Gaddis' "Recognitions"', "Contemporary Literature", Vol. 16, No. 1, (Winter, 1975), pp. 61-72.]


External links

* [ Annotations to "The Recognitions" at]
* [ The Complete Review]
* [ Jack Green's "Fire the Bastards!", a response to the original critics of "The Recognitions"]

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