Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the
Buried History of an Epigraph

by J. M. Tyree

"You cannot value him alone . . ."
-T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

Like influence itself, an epigraph comes prior to the first word. It starts before the beginning, or rather begins by diverting the reader's attention to another author's work. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot insisted that “the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.” The study of epigraphs would be one way of exploring how consciousness of the past becomes embedded in the textual fabric of an author's work.

In the novels of William Gaddis (1922–98), consciousness of the past appears so acute as to become forbidding. Gaddis's notorious difficulty, caused by a mixture of formal experimentation and dense allusiveness, has relegated his work to the kind of high regard reserved for the seldom read. In his 1989 study of the writer, however, Steven Moore establishes the rather surprising fact that, despite the daunting number of references in Gaddis's novels, the author was far from an encyclopedic reader, and derived much of his material from newspaper clippings. Moore also rejects the common assumption that Gaddis was following Joyce's lead into the hinterland of hyper-allusiveness. In the course of his analysis, Moore recounts an amusing episode in which a letter from a Joyce scholar named Grace Eckley provoked this stinging response from Gaddis: “anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespear[e].” In fact, it was actually from the poetry of Eliot that Gaddis derived much of the style of The Recognitions (1955), particularly its method of incorporating fragments of other texts directly into the prose. According to Moore , at one stage Gaddis even planned to include every line of Four Quartets in The Recognitions .

Part of Moore 's purpose in detaching Gaddis from Joyce is to reclaim his essentially American outlook: “Gaddis is first and foremost an American writer working with traditional American themes.” It was Moore, indeed, who first established Gaddis's abiding interest in Thoreau. Throughout The Recognitions, for example, one finds Gaddis repeatedly using a curious and obscure saying of Thoreau's, with smaller fragments of the passage tucked away in the novel more than six hundred pages after it is first cited. Thoreau's remark runs as follows: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” In The Recognitions, the saying is first encountered by the character Valentine, who reads it in a cab as a scrap of underlined text in a book identified as a “copy of Thoreau.” Later, only the phrases “all the family” and “all the family at dinner” are dimly remembered. (Note 1)

The Recognitions is a book about art forgery, among other things, in which the word “copy” cannot be regarded as neutral. The novel's main character, Wyatt Gwyon, is a painter who produces “new” works by Old Masters. Rather than mere copies, these paintings are so perfectly executed that they can be mistaken for “lost” works by classic painters, transcending stylistic copying to become something else entirely, instances of totally original fraud. One possible explanation for Gaddis's placement of the passage from Thoreau in The Recognitions is that it, like Wyatt's painting, is not what it appears to be. More precisely, it is not from whom it appears to be from. For one thing, the saying is not from Thoreau's works, even if it appears in a “copy of Thoreau.” If one is speaking very strictly, the words are not from Thoreau at all, as Moore discovers, but from Emerson. That is, the saying is reported speech, an off-the-cuff remark Thoreau once made to Emerson during a nature walk in search of an elusive bird. Emerson copied down the saying in his literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly . Moore 's intriguing suggestion is that Valentine may be reading an often-reprinted 1910 edition of Walden edited by Byron Rees, whose introduction cites Emerson's quotation of Thoreau's remark. This detail, which seems highly trivial at first, in fact slyly reinforces the theme of original and copy supersaturating Gaddis's novel. The very nature of authorship falls into question here, in a manner similar to the problem of Socrates and Plato: is Thoreau's saying from Emerson or from Thoreau, or is it from both?


Nearly forty years after The Recognitions, Gaddis published a brilliant comic novel entitled A Frolic of His Own, which won the National Book Award in 1994. Remarkably, its epigraph was the very same passage as that cited in The Recognitions, this time dressed with a hint about its origins:

What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.
-Thoreau, to Emerson

Here, the question of the source is left open and deliberately ambiguous, perhaps generating the impression that the quotation has been drawn from Thoreau's correspondence.

Most of Gaddis's other references to Thoreau throughout his novels follow the tracks laid out by standard clichés: characters in The Recognitions, JR (1975), and Carpenter's Gothic (1985) talk about “living deliberately,” admonish each other to “simplify,” or remark that someone marches to the beat of a “different drummer.” The epigraph to A Frolic of His Own feels quite different. Gaddis obviously worried over the saying, incorporating it into novels separated by nearly four decades. And although it is not possible to know how much Gaddis studied the passage's provenance, one can say with reasonable certainty that the passage stayed with him and continued to haunt him. To ask the obvious question—“Why?”—is to open up a surprising wormhole in the world of American letters. This aesthetic conduit not only links together the preoccupations of two writers divided by time and sensibility, but also hints at a binding thread or repeated pattern in the tradition, a confluence as well as an influence, a constellation of American ideas.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that Thoreau and Gaddis seem like an odd couple, an unexpected pairing. After all, Gaddis is an urban novelist at heart, the harsh satirist of New York City and environs. The locales of his fiction include the Greenwich Village parties of The Recognitions, the Long Island of A Frolic of His Own, the Hudson River Valley of Carpenter's Gothic, and the combination of metropolis and suburbs in Gaddis's masterpiece, JR. Gaddis was formally experimental, dedicated to capturing the broken patter of post–World War II American speech in midstream, especially the jarring impact of advertising lingo and corporate patois on American character.

The main difficulty of Gaddis's novels is that they are almost entirely composed of dialogue; they attempt to represent real speech in all its fragmentary pathos, stupidity, and glory. These conversations are stunningly mimetic, often approaching the feel of transcribed sound recording. This makes Gaddis hard to read, particularly since most of his dialogue is unattributed. In the most extreme cases, the reader is left to ferret out the speaker's identity, and the possibility of following the action of the plot depends on one's attentiveness in listening to people talk. As Moore notes, speech, rendered accurately, is hard to understand. People do not always (or even often) speak grammatically. They make mistakes of diction and change their sentence structure midway through statements. Speech, in Gaddis, is lazy and sloppy, as poorly constructed as the blueprints for worldly success that his characters are tracing out. The astonishing thing is that we spend so much of our time talking, and do it so badly. But it did not seem astonishing until Gaddis made it the center of his art, and that is part of what remains astonishing about Gaddis.

A Frolic of His Own is a delicious send-up of the American legal system, a kind of late twentieth-century Bleak House about interminable, senseless lawsuits and their corrosive effect on people enmeshed in them. The litigious protagonist, Oscar Crease, is an alcoholic playwright living on a crumbling estate in a moneyed corner of Long Island . Crease becomes convinced that his Civil War play, Once at Antietam, has been plagiarized in a lurid Hollywood blockbuster called The Blood in the Red White and Blue . Oscar decides to sue Erebus Entertainment, the company he believes is responsible for stealing his play, despite the fact that he hasn't actually seen the movie, but only a few reviews that summarize the plot.

During the course of the lawsuit, four things become apparent:

(1) Oscar's play is itself largely drawn from other sources—incorporating, for example, large chunks of Plato's dialogues.

(2) Oscar's play is not very good, and is arguably less entertaining than the legal decisions rendered by his stepfather, a prominent judge (large sections of both are contained within the novel).

(3) The film company may well have lifted sections of Oscar's work, but the resulting movie is so atrocious that the accusation of plagiarism is hardly complimentary to the author, only serving to call attention to the deficiencies of his play.

(4) The legal wrangling of the case, after every twist and turn, decision and appeal, is an utter waste of time that ultimately benefits Oscar spiritually not at all.

The paradoxes of Oscar's position are hilariously absurd. He despises a movie he has not seen while maintaining that it is based on his own work. He wants distribution of the movie shut down, but then is awarded a portion of the film's profits, which he cannot collect if his legal action blocks its release. When he finally watches the movie on television, he is ultimately bedazzled by the accuracy of its depiction of the battle of Antietam , and winds up enjoying the parts of the movie that least resemble his own work.

Oscar's time is portioned out horribly into episodes of denouncing the debasement of art by commerce, neglecting his basic duties as a property owner and human being, and blaming other people when things fall apart. When we first meet him, he has had a car accident of sorts, the comic dimensions of which only become clear later on. His sister Christina describes him as “being run over by a car.” It turns out, however, that the car belongs to Oscar himself, and nobody had been driving it when it hit him. How is this possible? When Oscar's car breaks down, prior to the action of the book, a mechanic rigs up a temporary system by which it can be started by manipulating the engine itself, rather than sitting at the steering wheel. Oscar is too cheap to repair the car properly, and winds up in the hospital when his car runs him over while he is starting it. He promptly launches a lawsuit, one absurdity of which involves the fact that responsibility for the unfortunate event initially falls to the owner of the vehicle, meaning that at one point Oscar nearly manages to sue himself.


All this seems so thoroughly contemporary that one is left initially baffled by Gaddis's longstanding general interest in Thoreau, and by his repeated use of the passage from Emerson's eulogy in particular. What has Gaddis to do with Thoreau, the compulsive woods-walker of the American Renaissance, Concord 's self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and waterer of wild trees, the naturalist of Walden and Walden ? One may begin to answer the question by placing Gaddis's epigraph back into its original setting. It turns out that Thoreau's saying, read in the wider context of Emerson's Atlantic essay, was part of an argument. Emerson is recalling the experience of walking with Thoreau:

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great . . . Presently he heard a note which he called that of the night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you .nd it you become its prey.”

Emerson's ambiguous feelings about Thoreau at this stage are very much in evidence here. This exchange, in particular, represents a misunderstanding of tone characteristic of the two men. Emerson's remarks are jovial but paternal, arguably coming from the direction of Montaigne's religious skepticism about the limits of human knowledge. Beware of “booking” the unknown bird, or else face the possibility that the unknown itself will dry up, along with its mystery. Thoreau's response, as Emerson presents it, feels rather more severe, but no less brilliant for all that. It smacks of what Emerson, elsewhere in the same essay, called “the satire of his presence.” But his saying also manages to capture something of their intellectual differences as well as the increasing strain of their friendship. To simplify greatly the division between them, Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature. It did not matter to Emerson whether the night-warbler was booked, and this struck Thoreau as a little foolish. Above the exchange hovers Emerson's decision to air it publicly in an article about the deceased, and, it is worth noting, to give Thoreau the last word. Although Emerson gave some readers a bad impression of Thoreau—Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, concluded that Thoreau was a “prig”—his purpose here is to celebrate Thoreau's cranky razor-sharp thought while revealing how it could be turned very quickly against his friends.

But what exactly did Thoreau mean? The observation recorded by Emerson, it must be admitted, is not an easy one to decipher. One finds the object of a long quest, quite suddenly, at the family dinner table. But in the moment of discovery, something seems to go wrong; rather than capturing the truth, one becomes its prey. Clearly, the conversation here has expanded beyond night-warblers. Thoreau is now speaking of truth and its relationship to the family dinner table. That Thoreau should be talking this way to Emerson is really not as surprising as it seems, given what we know of the biographical relationship between the two men. Thoreau lived intermittently with the Emersons, had strong affections for Emerson's second wife, Lidian (also known as Lydia ), and lived on land owned by Emerson while undertaking his experiment at Walden Pond .

It is possible to make too much of the fact that Thoreau's intellectual life, as both a thinker and a man, developed in Emerson's shade, in the shelter of Emerson's house and family. But it is clear that Thoreau was often of two minds about living with or near Emerson. In a September 1841 letter noted in Robert D. Richardson Jr.'s intellectual biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.” Richardson suggests that the “danger was to his independence.” Prosperity could be dangerous—specifically, the prosperity of Emerson's household. In the exchange over the night-warbler, the family is again identified in terms of danger; the quest is a danger to the family, or the family is a danger to the quest. One might read this as Thoreau's critique of what would now be called Emerson's “lifestyle.” A man who is the prey to truth must leave the dinner table to find it, but Emerson, in the comfort of his household, among his family, will never book the night-warbler. Thoreau does not say that having “all the family at dinner” stops one's seeking, only that one becomes the prey of a protracted, half-conscious quest at mealtime. Then, one must decide what to do about it—whether to search out the night-warbler or not, and how to do it. The question seems to be whether the truth can be found through the life of the family, or whether one must leave it behind in some sense. If one is left saying that truth is experienced in a categorically different way inside and outside of the house, the family, the library, society, and so on, then that is not such a bad summation of the fundamental differences between Emerson and Thoreau, at least from Thoreau's perspective.

Much has been made of Thoreau's relationship with one member of Emerson's family in particular, Lidian. Carl Bode, in his introduction to The Portable Thoreau, urges an explicitly psychological reading of Thoreau's feelings for Lidian. Six months after Ellen Sewall rejected Thoreau's marriage proposal, acquiescing to her father's demands, Thoreau moved into Emerson's house. Bode finds him becoming emotionally attached to Lidian. When Lidian withdrew, Thoreau was greatly hurt. Bode's assessment of the situation is emphatic: “For Thoreau no woman ever replaced Lidian.” Richardson , however, takes a less explicit view of their affections, making a distinction between Thoreau's clear “adoration” of Lidian and any notion that he was literally in love with her, an idea Richardson simply rejects. Both Bode and Richardson base their readings on a letter Thoreau wrote to Lidian in 1843, during his miserable stint in Staten Island as tutor to William Emerson's son Haven. In the letter, Thoreau describes Emerson's wife as “some elder sister of mine,” and compares her to the Evening Star, which, Richardson notes, Thoreau “knew was Venus.” Whether one is more sympathetic to the reading of Bode or to that of Richardson , it seems clear that Thoreau's remarks to Emerson about vain seeking and the family at dinner would carry some extra baggage in their train. The word “family” was a loaded one between the two men.

At first glance, we would seem to be very far afield from Gaddis's epigraph, but in fact, family, property, and authorship lie at the heart of the matter in A Frolic of His Own . In The Recognitions the author appears to make use of the same passage as a subtle comment on Wyatt's peculiar forgeries; Wyatt creates new paintings by the Old Masters, just as Emerson adds a new gem to “Thoreau's” body of work by setting down his off-the-cuff remark. In Frolic, the larger question at issue is that of plagiarism and the nature of intellectual property. Crease sues Erebus Entertainment because he thinks this production company has adapted his play to .lm and debased it in the process; but his play itself adapts Platonic dialogues to his own Civil War setting. Particular words reveal different meanings according to the context in which they are embedded. Whose words are they, finally? Who owns the ideas? And how can one be certain that one's words are unequivocally one's own? Is there an end to this regressive chain of influences, and, if not, is there a sense in which works of art, like Wyatt's paintings, can be both original and “plagiarized” at the same time?

But these questions represent only the beginning of the work that Thoreau is doing in Gaddis's novel. Both Thoreau and Gaddis share an obsession with time and property; above all, how much of the former is wasted on the pursuit and management of the latter. Thoreau takes pity on his townsmen “whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns” and other possessions “more easily acquired than gotten rid of.” This is something more complicated than a denunciation of avarice, as it implies that property itself strangles its owner, regardless of how one comes by it. Thoreau rounds out his attack with his facile pun, “as if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Time lies at the heart of Thoreau's project in creating a new “Economy” at Walden and in Walden . As Stanley Cavell puts it in The Senses of Walden, “to discover how to earn and spend our most wakeful hours—whatever we are doing—is the task of Walden as a whole.” This, in turn, can be related back to the concerns of the epigraph: what does one seek in vain for half one's life, how does one find it, and how is one supposed to pursue it? One gives up or seeks to refine civilization in order to free time itself from the constraints that society places on it.

At the beginning of Agape Agape, a monologue-novel published posthumously in 2002, Gaddis's narrator, confined to a hospital bed, confronts a similar problem:

I'm being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I've got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it's all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that's what it's about, that's what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, and art…

All this might seem rather empty and pretentious, but it would be a mistake to assume that Gaddis himself is this narrator. For one thing, the narrator is explaining why he is too distracted to complete his task; Gaddis, by contrast, succeeded in preparing his final book before his death. To be sure, there is an element of self-satire here, one that can be wryly reinforced by comparing the narrator's “houses, cottages, stables orchards” to Thoreau's account of preoccupation with “farms, houses, barns” and the like. In Thoreau's view, the mistake will be confronted in death: “It is a fool's life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.” Gaddis's narrator, despite sharing many of the author's own major preoccupations, has not yet “found out,” even though the evidence of his own sickness is omnipresent. This is a dramatic monologue that partially unravels its own seriousness through a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. The narrator, unlike Gaddis, has failed to finish his work. Is it because he talks too much about it?

William Faulkner remarked in a 1958 interview on the difference between people “who want to be writers” and people “who want to write”—the former read reviews, and the latter do not. Lillian Hellman, similarly, advised young writers not to “listen to writers talk about writing.” In both cases, the issue is talking about writing or reading about writing, rather than simply doing it. Gaddis wrote, and the narrator of Agape Agape, like Oscar Crease and JR 's Jack Gibbs, wants to talk about writing. All these characters bear a striking, deliberate resemblance to their creator, yet the distance separating them is also vital. Perhaps because it forms a reversal of Gaddis's way of identifying targets in JR, many critics have a tin ear when it comes to Gaddis's mockery—which is really self-mockery—of the pretentious playwright Oscar. Hence, regarding Agape Agape, Steven Moore asserts, with an absolute confidence that is difficult to explain, that the narrator is “not some fictional persona but the man himself.” But there is room for a more probing interpretation, particularly since Moore 's comments are contained in “The Secret History of Agape Agape, ” a lecture that was delivered before he had been able to read the entire book. The narrator of this posthumous work, like Gaddis, is obsessed with a line from Michelangelo's poetry about “the self who could do more.” (Note 2) In his postscript to Agape Agape, Joseph Tabbi notes that this phrase appears in every major work Gaddis wrote. But Gaddis's narrator spends his time talking, even when his time appears terribly finite. He is, perhaps, the self who did less—the self that fails, which all artists, and probably all of us, recognize in our own worst hours, or, more distressingly, in the middle of our best ideas. Gaddis's citation of Thoreau in the epigraph of Frolic works a similar effect by undercutting the protagonist's pretentiousness. Gaddis himself, like Oscar, was the author of an unpublished play about the Civil War, also called “Once at Antietam .” In JR, the alcoholic would-be writer Jack Gibbs is working on a manuscript about the player piano and the mechanization of art entitled Agape Agape . Are these all yet more examples of the self who could do less?

Oscar's living situation, a reclusive existence in a decaying stately home in Long Island , also reveals aspects of confusion and neglect. The matter of property is tangled up in family drama. Oscar's stepfather, a federal judge, wants the place sold, as Oscar's half-sister Christina explains to her husband in the novel's opening pages:

I mean we used to talk about one of us buying the other one out when we grew up, but if something happened to him and the whole place would come to me he'd get violent because it had belonged to his mother when Father married her and he'd say he'd come back and haunt me, he'd jump out from behind doors to show me what he'd do, grabbing me and tickling me till I screamed, till I couldn't breathe till, till somebody came, until my mother came and pulled him off, or Father. That's all he was afraid of. Father.
-Sounds a little unhealthy, if you ask me.
-Well I didn't. I mean we were just children, after all.

The psychological dimensions of this situation are hardly hidden. But the Freudian overtones, or, indeed, the Shakespearean complexes of family inheritance and half-sibling attraction/repulsion, are not the only suggestive references in play here. The issue of house ownership also has a basic resonance with Thoreau's distaste for the suffering that he perceives that property itself inflicts on those caught in its grasp.

For him, property is to be understood as a form of “penance”:

What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward over flames . . . even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness. The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor. They have no friend Iolaus to burn with a hot iron the root of the hydra's head, but as soon as one head is crushed, two spring up.

This might serve as a perfectly adequate description of the course of Oscar Crease's interminable intellectual property lawsuit, an unfinished, unfinishable labor in pursuit of a pointless end, where the “monster” to be slain is a hydra-headed media conglomerate, Erebus Entertainment. What, though, is preventing Oscar from bringing his play to fruition in publication or production? Is it really Erebus, or is it the fact that he has wasted time, and time has wasted him, as he chases after money and recognition? As Christina puts it on the novel's first page, “money's just a yardstick . . . It's the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves.” In A Frolic of His Own, Oscar Crease is certainly injuring eternity by killing time. The crushing absurdity, of course, is that he is wasting his own time most of all by pouring his energy into his lawsuit instead of into his writing. There is even a sense in which he is killing himself. Since one's time is one's only true possession, he is effectively emptying his life every time he decides to spend his day obsessed with what he perceives other people have stolen from him. Folly, Blake observed, is an endless maze. But while Thoreau offers an escape in Walden —or at least the representation of one—Gaddis is content to document the endless turnings of the maze itself. Both accounts, however, remain fixated on the concept of time and how one chooses to spend it.


There may be another biographical dimension to Gaddis's connection with Thoreau. It is a curious and lesser-known fact that Thoreau spent a dismal period in New York , tutoring in Staten Island and attempting to sell his writing to city magazines during 1843. Thoreau quickly recoiled from an urban scene he did not wish to understand. In a June 8 letter to Emerson, he remarked:

I don't like the city better, the more I see it, but worse. I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It will be something to hate,—that's the advantage it will be to me—, and even the best people in it are a part of it and talk coolly about it.

During the twenty-year hiatus between the publication of his first and second novels, Gaddis chose to remain in New York , manacled to jobs in corporate PR, working on campaigns for IBM and Pfizer, among other companies. How much he detested that world is obvious from the autobiographical character Eigen in JR, the author of a cult classic very much like The Recognitions . As it had done for Thoreau , New York gave Gaddis “something to hate,” and, like Thoreau, Gaddis was determined to use that hate to his advantage. JR, among other things, is perhaps the most devastating assessment of the shabbiness and slapdash cons of corporate America ever written. One is tempted to say: it is as if an author with some of the temperament of Thoreau had decided to stay in the desperate city and document the things he hated, rather than withdrawing into the woods to speak of what he loved. Any such analogy is bound to be inadequate, but the idea does give direction to Gaddis's enduring interest in Thoreau, despite his super-saturation in an urban milieu. In a sense, Thoreau was trying to convince his fellow citizens to abandon their fruitless searches for transitory happiness and instead invest their time in a more authentic “economy.” Gaddis stayed on in the city and remained mostly content to describe the foolishness of those same fruitless searches, rather than trying to save people from themselves. Thus Gaddis became a comic novelist, a satirist at heart, rather than the saint, prophet, or ascetic that is made of Thoreau in the woods. He was modern, perhaps, because he disbelieved in an idealized bucolic withdrawal from the fragmentation of urban life. Authenticity—the impossible notion of remaining “inviolable,” as one character in JR puts it—might be out of reach. The horror of the new had to be faced head-on, the abyss laughed at, or into.


In a passage from the “ Reading ” section of Walden, Thoreau puts forward a capsule theory of the difference between speech and writing. The argument is set within a wider claim that applying oneself to the classics is as rewarding as studying nature itself. Stating that great books must be read “deliberately”—the word echoes his larger plan of living deliberately at Walden—Thoreau asserts that there is

a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like brutes, from our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak.

It was, Emerson suggests in his Atlantic essay, the nature of the conversation that Thoreau hated most about dining out. It wasn't that Thoreau hated people, just that he preferred to talk one-on-one. Viewed through the lens of the epigraph, “all the family at dinner” might be said to scatter, water down, and trivialize talk, to keep one from thinking, perhaps, of the night-warbler. Whatever one makes of these ideas—particularly the concept that one must be “born again,” and through a figure of fatherhood, in order to speak the “reserved and select expression” properly—they offer an indirect way in to Gaddis's obsession with American speech. As noted earlier, this is the very aspect of Gaddis's novels that many readers find resistant and unpalatable. In JR, for example, the entire narrative unfolds in unattributed dialogue, with only short bursts of prose to shift the scenery, and dialogue dashes separating the speaking voices from one another. The reader has to puzzle out who is speaking and what is happening from inside what might be called “the stream of speech.” Vast swathes of The Recognitions and Carpenter's Gothic, almost all of Frolic, and all of Agape Agape, present us with unmediated speech, whether dialogue or monologue. (Note 3) In JR, where the technique is most effective, speech is plot and character as well as form and theme.

In Agape Agape, the decisive difference between the author himself and the speaker of the extended monologue also reflects something like Thoreau's theory of speech and writing. The talker in Agape Agape recounts his failure to finish his research; the book Agape Agape is the last sustained piece of writing Gaddis brought to realization before his death. This may be a signpost indicating the heart of Gaddis's overall aesthetic project. The self who could do more writes, paints, or makes music; the self who could do less, talks. This distinction, reminiscent of Kierkegaard's concept of “idle chatter,” also underlines the sense of the epigraph of Frolic . (Note 4) What happens, the epigraph seems to ask, when one becomes the “prey” of the thing one had been seeking for in vain for half of one's life? Is it the thing one has been seeking that is wrong, or is it the seeking itself, or is it the seeker? However one answers the question, the sense of the passage feeds the preoccupation with the passage of time in both Thoreau and Gaddis. For if one has been seeking wrongly, the quest has been, if not a waste of time, then at the very least a danger, a pitfall, a trap: something to fall prey to.

It has often been remarked that the first words of JR and Frolic —“Money” and “Justice,” respectively—set the tone for the rest of each novel. These are the things we seek for in vain; these are the things that prey on us. What is worse, life is not only vacated by fruitless seeking after money and justice (at least the kind offered by such “frolics” as a lawsuit, which is really just a money-quest in disguise), but is also drained away inexorably by talk about getting them. The link between killing time and engaging in speech manifests itself in Thoreau's concept of speech and in Gaddis's dialogue-novels. In the view of both these authors, life is filled up with something that simultaneously empties it: talk.


What is so bad about talk? Speech seems like an odd thing to degrade; to do so would be to assume that few people are worth listening to. All the family is at dinner, so to speak, but is the conversation really drowning out the quest for truth? Or does the quest require more acute listening? Listening is something different from talking. For his part, Thoreau delights in having visitors at Walden, particularly the Canadian woodchopper, who would sometimes exclaim, “How I love to talk! By George, I could talk all day.” Similarly, Thoreau describes himself as a “bloodsucker” ready to fasten himself to any “full-blooded man who comes in my way.” And this author insists that he was eager to share the woods with “all honest pilgrims,” children, railroad men, fishers, hunters, poets, and philosophers who, at least for a day, had “left the village behind.”

With these, Thoreau had what he calls “communication,” something more like communion, perhaps, than idle chatter. Taking this cue from Thoreau, it is important to remember that speech is not worthless because it is speech. Human conversation is ultimately indispensable, and one should never mistake Thoreau or Gaddis for monks who want to enforce a vow of silence on the entire human race. What is at issue in both writers is how speech relates to authenticity, not whether one should speak at all. This sense is captured by the title of Gaddis's Agape Agape . As Josaph Tabbi notes, the first word is the Hellenistic Greek term for the early Christian love-communion. The participants were to greet one another, according to St. Paul , with “an holy kiss.” Originally, this was an open-mouthed mutual breathing, in which one “inspired” the Holy Spirit from the lips of another believer. Communion, community, communication: the Spirit was as communicable as the common cold. But in the fallen state that Gaddis links to modern life, one is often merely “agape” when one opens one's mouth, whether in sexual kissing, talking, or, as Tabbi suggests, the slack-jawed response to mass-entertainment culture and mechanized art. The mouth becomes a void, the source of absence and inauthenticity. One might qualify this line of thought not by asserting that “authentic” and “inauthentic” expression are separate categories, but rather by observing that the hopeless blurring between the two is inescapable and endemic to contemporary existence. So little, after all—a mere Greek accent—separates the false cognates agape and agape. But the main drift here is undeniably nostalgic, in a way that can be traced once again back to Thoreau. Modern humanity has lost something vital, and has fallen away from a true way of living; communication has been shattered into babble by commerce. In short, “the world”—a code-word for the realm of sin and fallenness in early Christian writers like Tertullian—is too much with us. Describing the world as “agape” makes speech itself, an opening of the mouth, a primary culprit in the emptiness of the world.


Talking is a problem in Gaddis, but listening to people talking appears to be the main source of his art. If one remembers the distinction between those who write and those who talk about writing, one defining dimension of Gaddis's entire body of work comes to focus. Talk can replace art while simultaneously stealing away the time one has to make it, just as the chattering family can keep Emerson inside, away from finding the night-warbler. And just as the speaker of Agape Agape spends his time talking about writing a book he cannot complete, so too, in JR, Edward Bast fails to compose the music he has in mind because of an endless deluge of phone calls, meetings, advertisements, and so forth, connected with the business ventures of the child-tycoon JR Vansant. In his monograph on Gaddis, Steven Moore hits on this sense when he describes JR as a depiction of “people talking themselves to death in a country running down from cultural entropy.”

In what is perhaps Gaddis's least-appreciated novel, Carpenter's Gothic, the protagonist, Liz Booth, is a frustrated amateur writer who fails to fight off an endless series of interruptions, mostly from various men who each succeed in stealing a little of her privacy. The prime offender, Liz's husband, Paul, is sapping away her strength as a human being by undermining her, while simultaneously forcing her into the de facto role of secretary by turning their house phone into his business line. Paul has a refrain that he regularly invokes to explain his succession of hare-brained schemes as the PR agent of a sleazy evangelical preacher: “I am trying to build something here.” But his business is a house of cards, and the theme of building echoes in the title of the novel. “Carpenter's gothic” is slang for an American kind of architectural fakery in which the surface effects of old European stone buildings are attempted in wood. The result is a “patchwork of conceits, borrowings, and deceptions” that Steven Moore has suggested could be a description of the novel itself. It is also a representation of Paul's mental life. The thing that this character is attempting to build is largely a front to mask his own failures as a human being. This carpentry project, the assembling of a self made to resemble castles in the air, makes use of the available materials: words, words, words.

By contrast, McCandless, the geologist from whom Liz and Paul are renting, has written a novel in which one character pledges that “from now on he's going to live deliberately.” This further echo from Thoreau plays underneath the meaning of the book's title, placing the clutter of carpenter's gothic, whether taken literally or more metaphorically, alongside the deliberate living of Thoreau in his self-made simple cabin. The allusion also juxtaposes the indispensable role of isolation and solitude in Thoreau's project at Walden, over and against the lack of those two ingredients in the artistic failure of Liz Booth (as well as of Edward Bast). Thoreau reveals himself in Gaddis's work in more than one guise, and at more than one critical moment.

The case of Oscar Crease in Frolic is particularly acute in that the situation in which he is enmeshed is largely his own creation. The lawsuit devouring his days is self-inflicted, and, in that sense, serves to dramatize Thoreau's epigraph about becoming the prey of one's quest. For Thoreau, the problem with property, as with most human endeavor, is that it takes up more time than it is worth. That is why his townsmen are worse off than Hercules, whose twelve labors “had an end.” It is, therefore, humanity's fundamental relationship to time that is at stake; the getting and spending that erodes life by wasting it in hot pursuit of ends that are, for Thoreau, usually worthless. Thoreau, by contrast, is searching for a truer relationship to the only thing one ever really has to spend, one's own time. He does not need, as he puts it in “Life Without Principle,” the “police of meaningless labor” to regulate his hours. He requires independence above all things, which means leaving the family dinners, if not the family itself.

Gaddis also concerned himself with the police of meaningless labor, and the mirages we spend our time chasing, but rather than giving any positive example of how to live, he seems bound to document delusive quests as they unfold. In fact Gaddis's novels might be viewed as a series of experiments in how not to live, a kind of ongoing Inferno that depicts various hells from the perspective of the damned, but with no Virgil to guide the reader through, in the direction of redemption. Instead, authorial intention operates almost entirely through dramatic irony, with the reader “listening over the shoulder” of the characters as they speak. As Joyce remarked in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the author is (apparently, but only apparently) off to one side, paring his fingernails.

The experimental formal dimension of most of Gaddis's work, in other words, is inseparable from the heart of his aesthetic or philosophical project. Gaddis's novels are notorious for both their length and their apparent obscurity, the main difficulties being the lack of dialogue markers and the overwhelming plenitude of realistic speech. But speech is finally what the work is all about. By creating an art based almost entirely upon the representation of speech, Gaddis creates an illusion of action unfolding in real time. Considering Gaddis's earlier novels, Moore emphasizes this effect, which, borrowing from film criticism of High Noon, might be called “durational time.” Equally, in Frolic, the time that it takes Oscar Crease to explain the injustices being visited upon him is, roughly, the same time that it takes the reader to read the dialogue being “spoken.” There is, in other words, no alternative to present time. The process of reading Frolic, as well as JR, is a process of listening to people wasting their time talking. Since the characters never really “get anywhere,” there is a sense of stasis or circularity in both novels—very little has been accomplished by the characters between the first and the last pages. In fact, what happens in these novels is that the reader is relentlessly exposed to those times in life in which little or nothing happens except conversation. Although things do happen in both novels—Oscar's lawsuit evolves and doubles back upon itself, JR establishes a business empire which then implodes—much of the plot is relayed secondhand, through dialogue. For the most part, one is listening—or rather, experiencing the illusion of listening.

One fascinating aspect of reading Gaddis is that one is listening to people make mistakes—grammatically, morally, and spiritually—but without any power to stop them from talking or living so badly. So that, even though Gaddis, unlike Thoreau, never offers any corrective path of escape, the effect remains fundamentally diagnostic, if not curative. If this makes Gaddis sound too negative, it is important to remember Moore 's insistence on the possibly “constructive” role of satire. Comparing Gaddis to Pope and Juvenal, Moore suggests that Gaddis's approach implies a kind of idealism, since the exposure of society's faults implies an overwhelming desire to see them corrected. Listening to people waste their time talking—“overhearing” human speech—is very far from being a waste of time itself. If one can attune oneself to what is wrong, then at the very least a process of elimination can begin.

Gaddis is filling in the shadows of that negative space occupied by most speech. Speech, of course, can't be all bad, but the overall impression one takes away from Gaddis's novels is that it takes up far too much of life, cluttering mental space, soaking up time like an endlessly thirsty sponge. It might even be said that the illusion of real time elapsing through speech in Gaddis, particularly in JR and Frolic, is also an inescapable depiction of time being removed, voided out, cancelled. If this is true, then the precise length of Gaddis's dialogue-novels is a record of the time that the characters have cut out of their own lives by talking. This sense of wasted experience provides a parallel with the sense of vain search and the process of falling prey to quests (now viewed as delusive) that is described by Thoreau in the epigraph of Frolic .

Gaddis's view of speech is more than a gesture to Thoreau's preoccupation with how people spend their time. It is more like what Eliot meant by “consciousness of the past” resurfacing in an unusual place far downstream in the tradition. That Thoreau would have so much to say to Gaddis is surprising, and that the debt would bear on the most experimental and modern aspect of Gaddis's work is more surprising still. But the relationship of speech and time binds Thoreau and Gaddis together in a common experience of mass communication. As Thoreau puts it in “Life Without Principle”:

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor, and, for the most part, the only difference between ourselves and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, and we have not . . . We may be well ashamed to tell what things we have heard or read in our own day.

Fortunately, Gaddis, an obsessive compiler of newspaper clippings, was not ashamed to tell what news he heard and read in his own day. His depiction of Mr. Pivner reading the newspaper in The Recognitions is more than an update of Thoreau's complaint about the degradation of communication and its disturbing ability to interrupt life and waste one's time. This passage, like the “typist home at tea” episode of The Waste Land, describes a misapprehension from within its own perspective. Mr. Pivner's reading habits, however, bring to mind above all Thoreau's remark, in “Slavery in Massachussetts,” that the newspaper was the only book America had ever produced.

Between the lines, you can hear that Gaddis agrees:

Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded), he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous. Man fights lion in zoo, barefisted. Cow kills woman. Rooster kills woman. Dogs eat Eskimo. As he turned the pages, folding them smartly back over the bulk of the newspaper, he relaxed a little at his comparative safety away from the news, drew comfort from the train wreck (he was not in it), the bus accident in Chile (nor in that), the meat-ax slaying (he had not done it), the headless corpse (not his), and so the newspaper served him . . .

As he makes his way through the daily text, Mr. Pivner's time is not so much beguiled as slowly leached away, the possibility for conversation with himself or more pertinent matter gradually but inexorably lost.


1. The Gaddis Annotations Project, an online resource for Gaddis allusions, was invaluable in sorting through the author's references to Thoreau. The project, at www.williamgaddis.org , is edited by Ron Dulin and Victoria Harding, and includes Steven Moore's Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's The Recognitions , as well as his informal notes (and those of other readers) on Gaddis's other novels.

2. The phrase is taken from one of Michelangelo's madrigals. Moore notes that the poem is available in The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation (Yale, 1991), but that it is apparently not known where exactly Gaddis discovered this work. The phrase has also been translated as “I become the one who could do more than I could,” and “he might be closer to me [than myself].” Michelangelo is referring to God.

3. A self-referential scrap of dialogue in The Recognitions indicates the source of Gaddis's title is the work of an early Christian writer: “The what? The Recognitions ? No, it's Clement of Rome . Mostly talk, talk, talk.”

4. Kierkegaard called chatter “the annulment of the passionate disjunction between being silent and speaking.” If one has nothing to say, the logic runs, one had better close one's mouth, rather than let it hang agape.

This essay originally appeared in New England Review (Vol. 25, No. 4),
and appears here with permission of the author. © 2004 by J. M. Tyree.

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