Nothing as He Thought It Would Be: William Gaddis and American Postwar Fiction
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Nothing as He Thought It Would Be:
William Gaddis and American Postwar Fiction

Modern mphht attitudes, don’t you know, modern art and all that sort of thing, eh? They try to say their paintings are the spirit of the times, don’t you know, but good heavens aren’t the times bad enough without having pictures of it hanging all over the place?

William Gaddis, The Recognitions

It was once the case that William Gaddis’s 1955 debut novel, The Recognitions, was spoken of, when it was noted, with high regard, though seldom read. While such neglect is no longer the rule, it would be a stretch to call Gaddis and his book central characters in most of the stories we tell ourselves about American postwar fiction. This marginal status is a shame, and not just because The Recognitions is a book that deserves, in spite of its intimidating bulk, to find its way onto more bookshelves and syllabi. It also represents a missed opportunity to tell better stories about late modernism—the vital period spanning the 1950s and early 1960s that included work by Samuel Beckett, Ralph Ellison, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Doris Lessing, Vladimir Nabokov, and Sylvia Plath—and about the intriguing literary-historical dynamic linking the two halves of the twentieth century.

The Recognitions is a rare and valuable model through which to evaluate the mechanics of the move away from modernism after the Second World War, which is to say that the book shows us how such a transition could have taken place, even as it [End Page 596] refuses (or fails) explicitly to embody or schematize the shift. Revisiting Gaddis’s novel is thus important in part to correct the mistaken critical notion that The Recognitions can be profitably read as a manifestation of its protagonist’s (the painter Wyatt Gwyon’s) straightforwardly antimodernist aesthetic. While it is true that the text is deeply involved with the contradictions of the postwar period, its development is entirely contrary to Wyatt’s program of “disciplined nostalgia,” and indeed to the idea of any oppositional program with respect to modernism. To read the novel as essentially analogous to Wyatt’s project—that is, as devoted to articulating a cohesive pre- or postmodern rejoinder to modernism—is thus to misapprehend its technique and effect alike. Rather than presenting a muddled dissertation on art, the text, like many of its contemporaries, is an allegorical response to precisely the difficulty of such a project and is therefore illustrative both of the specific crisis of literary modernism in the postwar years and of the technical and epistemic demands imposed by any such moment of transformation. If we can come to grips with how The Recognitions understands, presents, and intervenes in late-modern literary culture, we will also have identified many of the outlines and mechanisms of “eventful” or revolutionary transitions in general and late-modernist fiction in particular.

Confronting Modernism

It has long been clear to readers of The Recognitions that the novel, like many of those published during the early postwar boom, occupies an ambiguous position with respect to literary modernism. The book makes obvious use of modernist devices and problems, but it seems to be built around a crisis in their underlying assumptions and to be devoted to illustrating modernism’s unsuitability as a cultural dominant under the social and artistic conditions of the time. Thus we find in The Recognitions a significant inventory of concerns and techniques tied to the earlier period, almost all of which are undermined both in their specific individual functions and in their collective coherence as elements [End Page 597] of a unifiable aesthetic ideology.1 The result is a work that presents the once-defamiliarizing techniques of canonical modernist texts, from those of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein to William Faulkner and T. S. Eliot, as codified and enumerable. In so doing, The Recognitions suggests that those texts indeed function (or once functioned) paradigmatically, that is, that they can be appropriated, applied, and potentially extended in conservatively recognizable ways in new contexts. There is of course nothing inherently suspicious about such stability, which is the basis of language in general...