*Gass, William H.

William Howard Gass

William Howard Gass



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Gass, William H.

American, 1924–
William H.Gass is a philosopher and fiction writer as well as an essayist. In the preface to his first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), he acknowledged that in his essays “we observe an author trying to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither,” but that “in another sense” his essays are “the work of a novelist insufficiently off duty.” These several roles affect Gass’ essays, which always display both the rigorous abstract thinking of a philosopher and the richly figurative language of a novelist. They also determine his subject matter. Even his most personal essays— “Memory of a Master” (1970), “On Talking to Oneself” (1979), “On Reading to Oneself” (1984), for example—eventually come around to discussions of his theories of fiction and his philosophy of language.
Gass’ dual career as both fiction writer and essayist was launched when the editors of Accent devoted an issue to his work in 1958 in which they published examples of his fiction (“The Triumph of Israbestis Tott,” “Mrs. Mean”) as well as an essay on Henry James (“The High Brutality of Good Intentions”). In the 40 years since, his essays have appeared regularly in literary quarterlies such as Salmagundi and New American Review and reviews such as the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. The audience he finds in these periodicals is both well read and highly educated, learning that undoubtedly helps them as they encounter Gass’ sometimes dense, and always metaphoric and allusive prose.
Gass has long been labeled a “writers’ writer.” This is in part because he is a generous writer of blurbs for younger writers, a teacher of literature and writing as well as philosophy (since 1969, as David May Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis), a performer of his own work on the reading circuit, and a writer of introductions to new editions or collections of fiction by friends such as Stanley Elkin and John Hawkes. Principally, however, he has earned the title because other writers admire his work and his uncompromising devotion to literary language, especially rhetorical persuasiveness and individual style. His essays are, as Robert Kiely put it in the New York Times Book Review (1971), “in the best tradition of eloquence, wit and passion …a defense of ‘poesy’ in a time of need.”
Literature, Gass argues, finds itself in this time of need because it has allowed itself to be reduced to a commodity, to look for the quick sell and the bestseller. The threat to literary accomplishment, he says, comes mainly from those books that “trade in slogan and clichés, fads and whims, the slippery and easy, the smart and latest” (“A Letter to the Editor,” 1969). His countermove has been to argue for and practice a most uncompromising aestheticism. Surrounding every work of art, he says, is only “empty space and silence” (“The Concept of Character in Fiction,” 1970). His first novel, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), “was written,” he said, “to not have readers, while still deserving them” (“A Letter to the Editor”). His second, The Tunnel (1995), took him 30 years to complete.
This kind of deliberate and hermetic perfectionism would seem to be at odds with the contingencies of the essay, which, if not always engaged, is usually solicitous of its audience, occasioned by an event or issue, and, at least apparently, a kind of rendering of the mind’s rambles. Gass is not unaware of this contradiction nor of how it has worked itself out in his own career, which has seen him published perhaps more widely as an essayist than as a fiction writer. On the occasional nature of the essayist’s work, he has remarked that “it is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to invitations and requests” (preface to Fiction and the Figures of Life); in addition to his many review essays, Gass’ own prose pieces have been prompted by centennials (“Proust at 100,” 1971), retirements (‘The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words,” 1977), conference and symposium invitations (“Tropes of
the Text,” 1983; “‘And’,” 1984), new editions (“Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence,” 1973), and university commencement exercises (“On Reading to Oneself,” 1979; “On Talking to Oneself,” 1984).
Gass’ most extended examination of the tension inherent in the essay, the pull the essayist and the essay feel between occasion and permanence, journalism and literature, subject and self, and audience and author, appears in a long essay he wrote on Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Emerson and the Essay,” 1982). “Emerson is himself a man of occasions,” says Gass, and proceeds to examine the lecture tours from which Emerson’s essays emerged, “the talks” that he “gathers up in books.” As he writes of Emerson “essaying to be,” of Emerson’s “sacred fear of the superfluous,” of the essay sparring with its “opposite,” that “awful object, ‘the article’,” we hear Gass rehearsing again his own familiar concerns. The essay rises above the article, becomes literature and ceases to be journalism because it manifests the mind at work, tells the story of the imagination imagining, “an activity—the process, the working, the wondering.” An article “represents itself as the latest cleverness.” It is “footnoted and useful and certain,” but it is doubtful that it “has ever contained anything of lasting value.” The essay, on the other hand, is “unhurried,” born of digression, allusion, and “the narrative disclosure of a thought.” The essay is the site where Emerson “is giving definition to his Being.”
Finally, ironically, the recognition comes for Gass that the essay’s energy and its unity exist within, not apart from, the relationship between author and audience as they examine together the central concern that occasioned both the writing and the reading of the essay. He is, like Emerson, always a Platonist in search of a lasting form in a cheap and ephemeral world, and in the end he admits that “the unity of each essay is a unity achieved by the speaker for his audience as well as for himself, a kind of reassociation of his sensibility and theirs; so from its initiating center the mind moves out in widening rings the way it does in Emerson’s first great essay, ‘Circles,’ where the sentences surround their subject, and metaphors of form control the flow of feeling.” He described this mutuality more concretely and with a bit more irony early on in the essay on Emerson: “And what is the occasion for my writing, or your reading, other than some suggestion from a friend, a few fine books sent in the mail, an invitation to speak, an idle riffle through a few sheets of a stale review, the name Emerson, an essay, an open hour.”


William Howard Gass. Born 30 July 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota. Studied at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1942–43, 1946–47, A.B., 1947; Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, 1943; ensign in the U.S.Navy, 1943–46; studied at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1947–50, Ph.D., 1954. Married Mary Pat O’Kelly, 1952 (later divorced): two sons and one daughter. Taught philosophy at the College of Wooster, Ohio, 1950–54, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1954–69, and the University of Illinois, Urbana, 1958–59 (visiting); David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University, St. Louis, from 1969. Married Mary Alice Henderson, 1969: two daughters. Contributor to various journals and magazines, including Salmagundi, the New Republic, TriQuarterly, and the New York Review of Books. Awards: Longview Foundation Award, 1969; American Academy Award, 1975, and Award of Merit Medal, 1979; National Book Critics Circle Award, for criticism,
1986; honorary degrees from three universities and colleges. Member, American Academy, 1983.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970
On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, 1976
The World Within the Word, 1978
Habitations of the Word, 1985
Finding a Form, 1996
Other writings: two novels (Omensetter’s Luck, 1966; The Tunnel, 1995), short stories, and criticism.

Saltzman, Arthur M., “A William H.Gass Checklist,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (Fall 1991):150–58

Further Reading
Boyers, Robert, “Real Readers and Theoretical Critics,” in his After the Avant-Garde: Essays on Art and Culture, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988:81–90
Bruss, Elizabeth W., Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982:135–202
Dyck, Reginald, “William Gass: A ‘Purified Modernist’ in a Postmodern World,” Review of Contemporary Fiction II, no. 3 (Fall 1991):124–30
Eckford-Prossor, M., “Shattering Genre/Creating Self: William H. Gass’s On Being Blue” Style 23 (Summer 1989):280–99
French, Ned, “Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H.Gass,” Iowa Review 7 (Winter 1976): 96–106
Gilman, Richard, “William H.Gass,” in his The Confusion of Realtns, New York: Random House, 1969:69–81
Guttenplan, Donald, “The Wor(l)ds of William Gass,” Granta 1 (1979):147–60
Hassan, Ihab, “Wars of Desire, Politics of the Word,” Salmagundi 55 (Winter 1982):110– 18
Hix, Harvey, “Morte d’Author: An Autopsy,” Iowa Review 17 (Winter 1987):131–50
Holloway, Watson L., William Gass, Boston: Twayne, 1990
Rosenfeld, Alvin H., “The Virtuoso and the Gravity of History,” Salmagundi 55 (Winter 1982):103–09
Saltzman, Arthur M., The Fiction of William H.Gass: The Consolation of Language, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986
Schneider, Richard J., “Rejecting the Stone: William Gass and Emerson Transcendence,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, no. 3 (Fall 1991):115–23
Stevick, Philip, “William Gass and the Real World,” Review of Contemporary Fiction II, no. 3 (Fall 1991):71–77

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