William H. Gass 1924-
(Full name William Howard Gass) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Gass's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 8, 11, 15, and 39.
A precise and highly regarded literary stylist, William H. Gass prefers to be known as a “writer of prose” rather than a novelist, short story writer, postmodern theorist, or essayist, as his body of work attests to. Gass is distinguished for his preoccupation with the literary and the philosophical facets of language, particularly his view that a writer should not attempt to represent the world through mimesis, the imitation of nature, but should instead use language to create his or her own imaginary world. For his emphatic insistence on the purely aesthetic significance of the written text, Gass has become known as a literary figure who defies the restrictions of genre. His innovative works, including the novels Omensetter's Luck (1966) and The Tunnel, (1994), the novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, (1971), and several volumes of critical essays, have earned Gass a reputation as a brilliant and imaginative literary experimenter.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, early on Gass moved with his family to Warren, Ohio. His Depression-era childhood was complicated by his mother's alcoholism and his father's crippling arthritis. Gass's inability to deal with his family's problems influenced his decision during college to adopt a formalist aesthetic, which afforded him emotional detachment in his writing. Gass studied for a year at Kenyon College in Ohio, then spent a brief period at Ohio Wesleyan University. He entered World War II service in 1943. After the war, Gass returned to Kenyon, where he majored in philosophy and audited classes given by poet John Crowe Ransom. After graduating from Kenyon, Gass entered Cornell University, where he continued his study of philosophy. A lack of courses on aesthetic theory impelled him to study the philosophy of language. Having studied the theory of metaphor under Max Black, Gass produced a dissertation entitled “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor.” While at Cornell, Gass was influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his investigations into the language-mind-reality relationship and his conception of philosophy as an activity done for its own sake, divorced from content. Gass was also inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein and began experimenting with the sentence as the basic unit of writing. Gass joined the faculty of the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1950 as an instructor of philosophy and was awarded his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954. After leaving Wooster, Gass taught at Purdue University until 1969. In 1958 Gass had several stories published by the magazine Accent, which also published sections from the novel Omensetter's Luck. Gass spent a dozen years writing this novel; at one point the only manuscript copy was stolen, hampering his progress. Though Omensetter's Luck was rejected by several publishers, it was eventually printed and established Gass as a significant American literary figure. His next book, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a collection of five stories, solidified his popularity among critics and academics. In 1969 Gass began teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, where, since 1979, he has held the position of David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. Gass subsequently published several books, including Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, and On Being Blue (1975), before finishing his magnum opus, The Tunnel in 1994. Known as a slow, careful writer, Gass began The Tunnel nearly thirty years before its publication, in the meantime releasing portions in literary journals. The Tunnel won both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the American Book Award in 1996. Two of his essay collections, The Habitations of the Word (1984) and Finding a Form (1996), have won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. Gass won the National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature in 1975.
In both his experimental fiction and critical essays, Gass evinces his preoccupation with the importance of the word over content and form over plot. The novel Omensetter's Luck, for example, is divided into different sections and incorporates several narrative styles and the use of experimental techniques to subvert the conventions of realism. The protagonist, Brackett Omensetter, displays, like Adam before the Fall, a naturalness and lack of self-consciousness. Arriving with his family in a small Ohio town in the 1890s, Omensetter stands in direct contrast with the town's preacher, Jethro Furber, who is obsessed with death and sex. Furber, believing that Man's Fall necessitates a separation from nature, views Omensetter's lack of a sense of guilt as a personal threat. Isolated from other individuals, Furber attempts to find refuge in the rhetoric offered by his own mind. Despite the book's emphasis on language over narrative conventions, however, a dramatic conflict does exist between Omensetter and Furber, demonstrating a tension that exists in Gass's work between the use of language as an end in itself and language as a means to an end. Similar to the depiction of Furber in Omensetter's Luck, the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country focuses on lonely individuals. These characters retreat into fantasy and reveal their inner selves only through their patterned use of language. The title story considers an isolated narrator who attempts to create an aesthetic unity around his life by organizing descriptions of his town into blocks of prose poems, a process that only isolates him further.
Gass's own aesthetic principles are put forth in Fiction and the Figures of Life. Collecting together essays by the author on language, philosophy, and literature, the work argues for the virtues of art. Gass maintains that, as opposed to the functional use of words as signs in everyday language, words in novels are aesthetic signs that serve only an aesthetic design. The novelist, in turn, should not be concerned primarily with providing an accurate portrayal of the world; instead, according to Gass, the novelist should create his own aesthetic world based on language. In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Gass illustrated his belief that words in literature are not just vehicles with which to view the world, but are aesthetic objects in themselves. This “essay-novella,” as Gass termed it, calls attention to the physical aspects of language through its use of variously colored and textured paper, photographs, and its experiments with typefaces. The virtually plotless book presents sections that correspond to the stages of sexual intercourse that the narrator, Baby Babs Masters, is having with her lover. In so doing, the book invites readers to respond to the sensuousness of language. The extended essay On Being Blue continues Gass's exploration of the complex manner in which words relate to the world. Gass looks at the many meanings of the word “blue” and the attributes of “blueness.” While the essay collection The Habitations of the Word further delineates Gass's defense of art as a state not governed by moral conventions, a more personal argument for the autonomy of language in fiction is presented in Finding a Form. The Tunnel, Gass's long-awaited masterwork, eschews morality for the sake of art in unusually discomfiting terms. The novel centers upon the reprehensible narrator William Kohler, a history professor who has almost completed his own magnum opus, called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, a sympathetic treatment of the Third Reich. Instead of writing the remaining introduction, Kohler begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement, the act of digging carrying him further from finishing his book. Gass's insistence on the insignificance of plot in fiction finds its representation in Kohler's futile tunnel project. Much of the novel involves Kohler's reminiscences about his family, his Nazi sympathizing former professor in Germany, Kohler's debates with department colleagues, and his perceptions of his personal life. As The Tunnel's narrator makes correlations between his domestic life and the Holocaust, an event normally viewed as having such extreme moral implications that it prohibits comparisons to other circumstances, the novel reiterates Gass's stance that words in fiction are removed from moral responsibility.
Critics and scholars have praised Gass for his technical accomplishments, his discerning insight into how words are used and perceived, and his deft handling of words to create a remarkable array of inventive metaphors. Upon its publication, Omensetter's Luck was recognized as a startling achievement for its combination of trenchant thought and physical language. The work prompted comparisons with literary formalists James Joyce and William Faulkner, and the Symbolists in light of Gass's pursuit of technique for its own sake. However, for his relentless efforts to discredit and break free from conventional narrative forms, Gass is often referred to as a postmodern writer and grouped with contemporaries Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon. Gass's critical essays on the primacy of language and the written word, particularly in The Habitations of the Word and Finding a Form, are highly regarded. Commentators note that in On Being Blue Gass effectively combines philosophy and imaginative speculation to create a text that blurs the definition of the discursive essay. Critics immediately hailed The Tunnel as an important accomplishment, though many reviewers acknowledged that additional time would be required to study and adequately assess the complicated work's significance. While Gass's rejection of such conventions as character, plot, and realism has been seen as a desire to separate the novel from a smothering emphasis on moralizing, some critics have expressed impatience with his writing. Noting that not everyone is as dissatisfied as Gass with fiction's attempts at realism, such critics contend that Gass's word associations do not compensate for the elimination of conventional structure and that he has substituted literary gimmicks for characters. Nevertheless, Gass's imaginative and indefatigable defense of the aesthetic value of language within fiction has accorded him a unique status and critical renown among twentieth-century American writers.