One of the most often quoted excerpts from his Paris Review interview is William Gaddis’ brief dismissal of his recent contemporaries as influences on his work. “Speaking of influences, I think mine are more likely to be found going from Eliot back rather than forward to my contemporaries,” he told Zoltán Abádi-Nagy in 1986, and while many critics reference this they tend to ignore it in the attempt to draft Gaddis into the postmodern army. One more often finds references to Joyce’s work (with which Gaddis was largely unfamiliar, and which had little bearing on his own style and novels) than to any other novelist.
Gaddis admitted being most indebted to Eliot and Dostoevsky, and references to both writers are liberally strewn throughout all five novels. Both writers were obsessed by ideas of chaos, order, and finding redemption and individual integrity in a fallen world. While the style of all the novels has its origin in the polyglot allusiveness of The Waste Land, the quest for order and redemption in the Four Quartets and The Brothers Karamazov is just as important to the structure of these novels. Of course, Gaddis found himself fundamentally unable to accept organized religion as a passage towards redemption, a role that Anglo-Catholicism played for Eliot or Russian Orthodoxy for Dostoyevsky — instead, he looked to art, but an art crucially undermined by its secular divorce from religious origins.
Where this goes to the idea of accessibility is in our acceptance of The Waste Land as one of the integral literary works of the 20th century. Any poem or novel, it seems, is inaccessible until we spend a little time with it; we’ve now spent nearly a century with The Waste Land, and, like Ulysses and Waiting for Godot, it has made its way far enough into the culture that few readers may find it inaccessible today; phrases and situations from all three works are now common currency.
That we continue to have this problem with Gaddis’ novels may lie in the critics’ reluctance to admit that a third major influence on Gaddis’ work is all too ready to hand: American literature of the 19th century. The Recognitions, especially, is far more indebted to American writers like Hawthorne and Melville than Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway — especially Hawthorne. The first chapter of The Recognitions itself deploys most of Hawthorne’s concerns with art, originality, and the Puritan and Calvinistic cultures of early New England to set out the themes of the novel; and even Hawthorne’s narrative strategy (couching The Scarlet Letter, for example, within the satiric perspective of its opening chapter “The Custom-House” and establishing the baroque style of the novel) is a key ingredient in the composition of The Recognitions.  References to American Renaissance writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Twain — especially in Twain’s exploitation of American vernacular speech towards a dark satiric vision — are innumerable through Gaddis’ five novels, and if we see these writers as among Gaddis’ authentic antecedents, we may have an easier way into these books.
What Gaddis also shares with Melville and Hawthorne is a style which owes much to the “Loose Baroque,” a literary strategy defined in 1929 by Morris W. Croll. “The Loose Baroque sentence begins ‘without premeditation, stating its idea in the first form that occurs; the second member (clause) is determined by the situation in which the mind finds itself after the first has been spoken; and so on throughout the period (sentence), each member being an emergency of the situation (since each is suddenly called for by what preceded it). The period, in theory at least, is not made; it becomes. It completes itself and takes on form in the course of the motion of mind which it expresses.”  Most frequently found in the omniscient narration which ties together the sequences of dialogue, the Loose Baroque also permits the remarkable lyricism and music of these narrative periods in all five books, most obviously in Agape Agape.
I would go so far as to say that reading Hawthorne and Melville in the 21st century presents similar problems to reading Gaddis. We can’t expect to pick up Moby-Dick and find an easy path in, as we might a contemporary novel: the culture and aesthetic from which it emerged is far too distant from us for easy familiarity. It takes some time and some reading to enter into the narrative and linguistic worlds of these novels, and although so many of them are consigned now to high-school and college-freshman literature class syllabi, quick and facile readings of these books do them no justice. The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick will mean different things to a 48 year old reader than they would to an 18 year old: personal experience itself will inflect our reception of text, language, narrative, and style.
But they can still be read, and they are still magnificent works, as are Gaddis’ novels. What we need to do, in plunging into these novels, is to take that initial leap of faith: that despite their allusiveness and style, they may yet provide us with new perspectives on the world, once we permit them to do their work on us. A first reading of The Waste Land or Notes from Underground can be an alienating and dispiriting experience: much may seem like nonsense or conceit. But the poem or novel somehow affects us, and with each re-reading, and as we read more deeply, it reveals its power. Gaddis’ novels require that same leap of faith and, in the end, for the same reasons, reveal their power as well.
- The theology of American Calvinism and Puritanism, as it affected American culture, would continue to interest Gaddis — when I took his Bard College course on “The Literature of Failure” in 1979, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was on the reading list. [↩]
- Cited in Steven Moore, A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 23. [↩]