Habitations of the Word

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

For William H. Gass, language ensures authorial presence, and language lovingly wrought is the writer’s stay against oblivion. In his criticism and his fiction alike, Gass contends that words do not merely replicate reality; they constitute worlds. When they are entered by readers with sympathetic imaginations, they are living worlds: Sentences are not fleeting, dispensable events but are, as the title of one of the essays presented here contends, graced with souls.

This preoccupation with the self-sufficient elegance and integrity of textual reality is familiar enough to readers of Gass’s two previous essay collections, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970) and The World Within the Word (1978), as well as his philosophical lyric and commemoration of a color, On Being Blue (1976). (That so much dazzle is available in so unprepossessing a topic is again demonstrated in the volume under review in a remarkable analysis solely devoted to the word “and.”) The heroes of Habitations of the Word are writers who share Gass’s passion for sentences that sound in the mind, readers of patient intelligence who are available to the pleasures of such sentences, and the crafted passages themselves, which are granted worshipful attention.

Gass displays his philosophy even as he defends his allegiances, as though every expository subject were important primarily as an occasion for the release of Gass’s own luxuriant language. Critical response calls for lavish rhythms, strikingly original metaphors, and witty alliterations. As the title of the collection promises, each essay constructs and celebrates a hospitable environment for language.

In “Emerson and the Essay,” for example, Gass depicts a word-drunk writer at war with the ordinary, watchful of his own mind’s makings; Ralph Waldo Emerson, who tries to accomplish Nature’s careful processes in prose and whose insistent voice echoes as it operates, is Gass’s ancestor. So, too, surprisingly, is Ford Madox Ford, whose historical romance The Fifth Queen (1906) is rescued from neglect because Gass recognizes a kindred prose in the ornate, ruminative style of a novel rudely dismissed by an age that was dedicated to utilitarianism, scientific regularity, and “the thick and callused grip of Protestant ideals.” The treatments of these two writers are representative: Jean-Paul Sartre, Henry James, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gertrude Stein are also prominent figures in this volume, and each is discussed and, finally, evaluated according to the same criterion: Does he or she effect a memorable presence on the page?

At least half of the essays in Habitations of the Word specifically address questions of language—its status as printed artifact, in the imagination, and as a part of, or as competitor with, reality. “On Talking to Oneself” addresses “the subversive murmur” that goes on perpetually inside each of us, insisting that we identify ourselves through internalized speech; what Gass advocates is speaking well within, lest, unrehearsed and unrevised, “your soul falls out of your mouth like a can of corn from a shelf.” “On Reading to Oneself” is something of a companion piece. In this essay, Gass repudiates his own youthful proficiency at speed-reading, preferring a reading style that savors the page instead of one that skates over its surface. One is reminded in this essay of Gass’s audaciously experimental novella, Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), in which inattentive, hurried reading is compared to the same sort of lovemaking, through which neither text nor reader, neither lover nor beloved, can be fulfilled.

“The Soul Inside the Sentence” also covers familiar territory for readers of William Gass. It heralds...

(The entire section is 1585 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Book World. XV, March 3, 1985, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, December 15, 1984, p. 1185.

Library Journal. CX, April 1, 1985, p. 143.

The New Republic. CXC, March 11, 1985, p. 32.

Newsweek. CV, March 25, 1985, p. 80.

New York. XVIII, February 4, 1985, p. 53.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 10, 1985, p. 12.