Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

The Recognitions by Steve Urkel

The Recognitions, published in 1955, is American author William Gaddis’s first novel. The novel was poorly received initially, but Gaddis’s reputation grew, twenty years later, with the publication of his second novel J R (which won a National Book Award), and The Recognitions received belated fame as a masterpiece of American literature.

Steve is the epitome of a geek/nerd, with large, thick eyeglasses, “high-water” or “flood” pants held up by suspenders, multi-colored cardigan sweaters, and a high-pitched voice.[6] He professes unrequited love for neighbor Laura Winslow, perpetually annoys her father, Carl, and tried to befriend her brother, Eddie. Amongst the rest of the family, Harriette, Rachel, and “Mother” Estelle Winslow are more accepting and caring of Urkel.

The story loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon, a Calvinist minister’s son from rural New England. He initially plans to follow his father into the ministry, however, he is inspired to become a painter by The Seven Deadly Sins, Bosch’s painting in his father’s possession. He leaves and travels to Europe to study painting. Discouraged by a corrupt critic and frustrated with his career he moves to New York. He meets Recktall Brown, a capitalistic collector and dealer of art, who makes a Faustian deal with him. Wyatt creates paintings in the style of Flemish and Dutch masters (such as Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling), forges their signature, and Brown will sell them as newly discovered antique originals. Soon Wyatt is discouraged, goes home only to find his father converted to Mithraism and losing his mind. Back in New York, he tries to expose his forgeries, then travels to Spain where he visits the monastery where his mother was buried, restores old paintings, and tries to find himself in his search for authenticity. At the end, he moves on to live his life “deliberately”.

Throughout the series’ run, Steve is central to many of its recurring gags, primarily gratuitous property damage and/or personal injury as a result of his inventions going awry or his outright clumsiness.[7] He becomes known for several catchphrases uttered after some humorous misfortune occurred, including “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” after he accidentally got drunk in one episode and fell off the edge of a building, “Did I do that?” (previously used by Curly in the 1934 Three Stooges short Punch Drunks), “Whoa, Mama!” and “Look what you did” (if, rarely, someone else caused the damage). Additionally, he frequently insinuates “You love me, don’t you?” to Laura Winslow, the usual object of his affection.

Interwoven are the stories of many other characters, among them Otto, a struggling writer, Esme, a muse, and Stanley, a musician. The epilogue follows their stories further. In the final scene Stanley achieves his goal by playing his work at the organ of the church of Fenestrula “pulling all the stops”. The church collapses, killing him, yet “most of his work was recovered …, and is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”

Steve Urkel first appeared on the twelfth episode of the first season, “Laura’s First Date”, as a nerdy young boy who took the character of Laura Winslow out on a date, where he appeared as being madly in love with her, but in an example of unrequited love, Laura did not return these feelings because of Steve’s nerdy, infuriating personality. Although intended to only appear once, White’s portrayal was very popular for his humorous, geeky antics. After appearing on other episodes, he joined the main cast.[8] All throughout the course of the series, Steve maintains his extreme infatuation with Laura and regularly invites himself over for unwanted visits to her house, much to the annoyance of the Winslows. Among Steve’s other famed character traits include his exceptional scientific skills, crafting devices that would be impossible to construct in reality, his absurdly destructive clumsiness, and his kind heart.

Gaddis spent seven years writing The Recognitions. The novel began as a much shorter work and as an explicit parody of Goethe’s Faust. During the period in which Gaddis was writing the novel, he travelled to Mexico, Central America and Europe. It was in Spain in 1948 that Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Gaddis found the title for the novel in The Golden Bough as Frazer noted how Goethe’s Faust originally came from the Clementine Recognitions, a third-century theological tract (See Clementine literature). It was from this point on that Gaddis began to expand the novel. The novel was completed in 1949.[3]

Steve is commonly known and respected by other characters for his kindness to others, his never-ending love and loyalty for those he holds dear, and, alongside with Harriette, his position as a voice of reason and source of wisdom for the often bickering members of the Winslow family, all of which are the redeeming qualities for his generally unwelcome or tolerated presence. He always cares for and means well for other people, but is often the misunderstood victim of the Winslows’ anger and rejection, especially of Carl, Eddie and Laura, who all struggle to see through his clumsiness and annoying behavior and to understand and appreciate him for his positive traits.

The character of Esme was inspired by Sheri Martinelli and Otto has been described as a self-deprecating portrait of the author.[6] “Dick,” a minister, is a reference to Richard Nixon.