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#OccupyGaddis: Joyce and Influence

June 26, 2012 5 comments

Over on Twitter, Roman Tsivkin noted that Gaddis “was notoriously crotchety about admitting influences.” It was denying Jame Joyce’s influence that got Gaddis his reputation for defensive denial. To give you an idea of where that reputation came from, there’s this:

I’ve about reached the end of the line on questions about what I did or didn’t read of Joyce’s 30 years ago. All I read of Ulysses was Molly Bloom at the end which was being circulated for salacious rather than literary merits; No I did not read Finnegans Wake though I think a phrase about “psychoanaloosing” one’s self from it is in The Recognitions; Yes I read some of Dubliners but don’t recall how many & remember only a story called “Counterparts”; Yes I read a play called Exiles which at the time I found highly unsuccessful; Yes I believe I read Portrait of an Artist but also think I may not have finished it; No I did not read commentary on Joyce’s work & absorb details without reading the original. I also read, & believe with a good deal more absorbtion [sic], Eliot, Dostoevski, Forster, Rolfe, Waugh, why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespeare, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot & all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.
(Letter to Grace Eckley, June 1975)

Is Gaddis is telling the truth here? The man doth protest too much, perhaps, and how could a serious writer of this time manage to miss Joyce? Then, too, Gaddis stands to gain by denying Joyce’s influence. As a writer “influenced” by Joyce, Gaddis would be a second-rate imitator of genius. Out of Joyce’s shadow, Gaddis can set himself up as a sui generis genius. Gaddis, we might suspect, wanted to be Joyce, not merely Joycean.

I used to be a skeptic, but when I saw a couple of fellow Gaddis occupiers talk about seeing Joyce’s influence in J R I was surprised to find myself fighting the urge to pedantically correct them on Gaddis’s behalf. This conversion happened, as best I can work out, over the last year or so as I’ve been researching the reception history of Gaddis’s novels.  Learning about that history has helped me to understand Gaddis’s frustrations and even to share them. This post, then, is about that history. It’s also, more importantly, about how much that history should matter for us now.

The Recognitions, Gaddis’s first novel, was, as Lee Konstantinou discussed last week, a monumental, colossal flop when it came out in 1955. Gaddis blamed the failure of his book largely on the failure of the reviewers to give it a fair reading. In the early 1960s, Jack Green, a Greenwich Village eccentric, self-published an exacting and fiery account of every corner cut by reviewers from cribbing from the book’s cover to plagiarizing other reviews (now collected into print as Fire the Bastards!) A whole section is devoted to cataloging all the other author’s named by various reviewers. Green felt it was laziness: easier to throw in another name than describe what Gaddis is doing, especially since the latter would mean actually reading the novel. I’ve read those reviews and I find Green’s claims pretty convincing (although his belief that newspaper reviewers should have read a 1000+ page novel at least twice is highly debatable). Joyce, in particular, comes up over and over in the reviews as a way to dismiss The Recognitions. If it’s just another knock-off Ulysses, why bother with it?

I can only imagine how crushing it would be to see your first novel (and one that took so much work to write) crash and burn because it’s supposedly derivative of something you haven’t read more than a few pages of – sales of The Recognitions were so bad that it took nearly thirty years to make back Gaddis’s advance.  This was only compounded when Gaddis started to get academic attention. The first essay published on The Recognitions in 1964 was a careful, scholarly explanation of Joyce’s influence on Gaddis. Bad enough that the reviewers use Joyce as an excuse to not read him in 1955, but then to think that his academic legacy would just be more of the same. The letter to Grace Eckley above is in response to queries for an essay about Joyce and Gaddis that she eventually published in 1977. Knowing his history with Joycean influence, that notorious crotchetiness becomes more of an understandable response and less of a character flaw.

What obligation, if any, do we have to continue Gaddis’s fight against the Joycean shadow though? For a lot of those reviewers, throwing “Joycean” in was cutting corners. However, for many it was also  a way to help their readers identify what kind of book they were dealing with. Then, too, the #OccupyGaddis folks who mentioned Joyce obviously weren’t trying to get out of really reading J R. “Influence” is one of the ways that we make sense of what we read. It places authors and texts into bigger histories and helps us to know how to read them. It’s almost certainly factually incorrect to say that Joyce “influenced” Gaddis if we think that means Gaddis copied Joyce. On the other hand, it’s undeniably valid to use your own history of reading Joyce to negotiate the difficulties of Gaddis’s prose.

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