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
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