William Gaddis and American Satire

George Hunka explores the satiric impulse underlying the work of the twentieth-century writer
William Gaddis

That William Gaddis was first and foremost a satirist is suggested by Stephen Moore in his monograph on the novelist. “The Recognitions [1955] pioneered (among other things) the black humor of the 1950s and 1960s and the Menippean satire of the 1970s,” he writes. Moore also cites critic John Aldridge’s opinion:

… the novel of fabulation and Black Humor — of which The Recognitions was later to be identified as a distinguished pioneering example — had not yet come into vogue [in 1955]. […] [Critics’] work over the past 20 years has created a context in which it is possible to recognize Gaddis’s novel as having helped inaugurate a whole new movement in American fiction.

Any given novel may cut across genetic categories of tragedy, comedy, satire, romance, and others, and indeed Gaddis’s novels also do so. But it can also be said that there may be one primary genetic impulse to the creation of a given fiction, and for Moore, Aldridge, and the critics that Aldridge cites, it seems clearly to be the satiric impulse that drives Gaddis’s work. It is something of a mystery, then, that for all the secondary critical literature that Gaddis’s novels have produced in the years since the writer’s death, most concentrate on the novels’ narrative innovations, structural and linguistic challenges, and influence on “postmodern fiction” rather than their place in the American satire and black humor traditions from 1955 to 1975 and after.

This may be because there’s been little American satire and black humor fiction since then to equal the achievements in those forms in that time period. Much of it was the result of the disconnect between the values for which American troops were fighting during the Second World War and the corruption of those values in the culture that followed. This irony was first expressed non-satirically in war novels like Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead. But as the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 originated and grew in the years following the war, and the chasm between professed American values and actual American behavior widened in those years, American authors, like Juvenal in Ancient Rome, found it impossible not to write satire. The revelations of the concentration camps and the power of nuclear destruction revealed a grotesquerie to the human condition in the 20th century that fuelled the darker grotesqueries of the black humorists. [Read More]

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