Earlier this week, continuing my audit of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recogntions, I felt a tingling sense of recognition in the following lines from which Basil Valentine reads from “a copy of Thoreau” (this is at the very end of Part I, on page 265):
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.
I attributed this tingling recognition to having read The Recognitions before (and to having read Part I once before that)—but then I realized that I’d read the line far, far more recently: It’s the epigraph to Gaddis’s fourth novel A Frolic of His Own, which I’d opened up again just a few weeks ago (and subsequently put back down).
This recognition is nothing special and certainly uninteresting to longtime Gaddis fans, but it motivated me enough to look more into the remark, so I plugged it into Google and quickly found J. M. Tyree’s essay “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph.” Tyree’s essay was originally published in New England Review but I found it, natch, on Steven Moore’s The Gaddis Annotations.
Tyree’s essay is a fascinating read, tracking the strange history of the line. Thoreau’s words, it turns out, are not exactly Thoreau’s words—rather, they are Emerson’s recollections of a conversation between the pair from a walk in the woods. Additionally, Emerson wrote and attributed these words after Thoreau’s death. The remark initially appeared in Emerson’s literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. As Tyree observes,
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?
While issues of originality and authenticity of authorship clearly correlate to the themes of The Recognitions, Tyree’s essay is most interesting to me in the ways by which it situates Gaddis’s work with/against the American Renaissance tradition. Tyree gives us some of the flavor of that tradition, recontextualizing Gaddis’s epigraph in a full paragraph of Emerson’s. Here’s Emerson eulogizing his friend 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 find it you become its prey.”
Tyree situates the passage within the contrasting (and quickly diverging) philosophies of the old friends: “Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature.”
Tyree’s essay becomes most interesting to me when he begins to interpret just what the hell the quote means. His analysis hovers around the word family, underlining an obsession of American literature: escape from domesticity. Here’s Tyree’s paraphrase of the Thoreau’s/Emerson’s line:
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.
Tyree then susses out Thoreau’s complicated relationship with Emerson’s family:
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….Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.”
That “dangerous prosperity” of domestic life echoes one of the grand themes of American literature—namely, civilization is a blockade to be surpassed on the trek into wild nature, individuality, and freedom. Domestic duty interferes with such adventures. Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Ishmael, or Huck Finn. (Or perhaps Hawthorne’s cautionary figure, Young Goodman Brown).
Tyree underlines the point (final emphasis mine):
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.
In The Recognitions, Wyatt circumvents the danger to his quest by not only removing himself from family (in the form of his wife Esther), but from removing himself from society in general. In J R (1975), most of Gaddis’s heroes find themselves unable to reconcile to Wyatt’s solution; their seeking fumbled out in half measures, neatly figured in the 96th Street apartment apartment shared by Gibbs, Eigen, and Bast. This hellhole is a transitory space, an inbetweeness of domesticity and city wilderness. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offers a more thorough critique of the impulse in American literature to send its (generally masculine) characters out into the wild spaces where they can transcend all the trappings of domesticity that bog them down. Carpenter’s Gothic confines its heroine to one haunted house, the men in her life flitting in and out if like silly birds on foiled quests. That domestic confinement reaches a kind of apotheosis in Gaddis’s posthumous novel Agapē Agape (2002), the stifling uninterrupted monologue of a man in a room, fighting against entropy.
And what about A Frolic of His Own (1994)? Well I haven’t read it yet.