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William Howard Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, on July 30, 1924, the son of William and Claire (Sorensen) Gass. With two brief exceptions, Gass has spent most of his life in the Midwest, the place most frequently evoked in his works of fiction. From 1943 to 1946, he served in the U.S. Navy, principally in China and Japan. He left the Navy in 1946 with the rank of ensign, and in 1947 he finished his undergraduate studies at Kenyon College in Ohio. He then enrolled in graduate studies in philosophy at Cornell University in New York, specializing in the philosophical analysis of language, a preoccupation that would become the central focus in his works of fiction.

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While working on his Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell, Gass supported himself by working as an instructor of philosophy at the College of Wooster (in Wooster, Ohio) from 1950 to 1954. On June 17, 1952, he married Mary Patricia O’Kelly, with whom he had two sons and one daughter. In 1954, he received the Ph.D. from Cornell and immediately took a new teaching position as a professor at Purdue University, where he taught until 1969. The period at Purdue was an especially productive one for Gass. During this time, he published his highly original first novel, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), and a critically acclaimed book of short stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories (1968). In 1968, Gass also published an important novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared in the pages of TriQuarterly magazine. In 1969, he married again, to Mary Alice Henderson, with whom he had two daughters.

In 1969, Gass also began a long and fruitful association with Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, a period marked by a flood of publications having to do with his philosophy of language and general theories of fiction. He also wrote a prodigious number of reviews and critical articles on contemporary and classic works of fiction. Gass was writing regularly for such influential publications as TriQuarterly, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and The New Republic. These scholarly articles and reviews became the basis for his important works of nonfiction and often served as chapters in such books as Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970); On Being Blue (1975), his most famous and frequently quoted work of nonfiction; The World Within the Word (1978); and The Habitations of the Word: Essays (1984).

The collective importance of these works of nonfiction for the student of Gass’s work cannot be overstated; in them, Gass created his own complex theory of fiction as an end in itself, thus establishing himself as one of the chief practitioners and theoreticians of the New Fiction, a style practiced by such writers as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and John Gardner, among others.

Gass’s work in all these arenas—teaching, literary creativity, and scholarly publication—began to attract more and more attention as well as many coveted awards, prizes, and honorary positions. In 1965, he won the Standard Oil Teaching Award at Purdue University, followed by Sigma Delta Chi Best Teacher Awards at Purdue in 1967 and 1968. The Chicago Tribune also recognized Gass in 1967, giving him an award for being one of the best Big Ten university teachers. In 1969, he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1974, he received the Alumni Teaching Award from Washington University.

The awards were not limited merely to Gass’s teachings skills, outstanding though they were. His fiction and essays began to receive more and more national recognition, as suggested by the following honors: The National Institute of Arts and Letters Prize for Literature (1975) and the National Medal of Merit for Fiction (1979). He won the National Book Critics Circle Award an unprecedented three times: in 1985 for Habitations of the Word; in 1996 for Finding Form; and in 2003 for Tests of Time. In 2000, Gass won the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award, which he called his “most prized prize.” Gass was asked to serve as a member of the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities from 1978 to 1980 and as a member of the literature panel of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1979 to 1982. Gass has also been awarded honorary degrees from Kenyon College (1974), George Washington University (1982), and Purdue University (1985).


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In a marvelous book called The Fabulators (1967), the distinguished critic Robert Scholes suggested that the best writers of the late twentieth century were not realistic storytellers so much as artists who were motivated by the embellishments and multiple possibilities in any story. He called this process “fabulation” and identified the work of Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth as prime examples.

Like such fabulators, Gass has entertained and edified his readers by showing them the story behind the story—and the unending possibilities of meaning contained in even the simplest of words. Like all true geniuses, he took an established form, narration, and made something new and beautiful with it, something that no one had yet anticipated.


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William Howard Gass attended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, for one year and Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, for a brief period of study. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in China and Japan. After the war he returned to Kenyon College and was graduated in 1947 with a B.A. degree in philosophy. He earned his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1954. Gass has taught philosophy at a number of colleges, including the College of Wooster in Ohio (1950-1955), Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana (1955-1969), and Washington University in St. Louis, where he began teaching in 1969 and where he held the title of David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. In 1990, Gass became the first director of the International Writers’ Center at Washington University. Gass married Mary Patricia O’Kelly in 1952; they had two children. In 1969, he married Mary Alice Henderson; they became the parents of twin daughters.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 227

While born in Fargo, North Dakota, on July 30, 1924, William Howard Gass was reared in Warren, Ohio. He attended Kenyon College and Ohio Wesleyan, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and returned to receive a degree from Kenyon in 1947. Gass came into contact with John Crowe Ransom there, but his chief interest as a student was philosophy. He went on to do graduate work at Cornell University, and after writing his dissertation “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” he received his doctorate in 1954. He taught at a number of colleges, beginning to publish fiction while teaching philosophy at Purdue University. Beginning in 1969, Gass was at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, first as distinguished university professor in humanities, then, beginning in 1990, as director of the International Writers Center. He received grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations.

In addition to his magnum opus, The Tunnel in 1995, Gass published his fourth collection of literary and philosophical essays, Finding a Form, in 1996 and a collection of novellas, The Cartesian Sonata, and Other Novellas, in 1998. In the essays, he censures the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the minimalists for lacking depth, and multicultural critics for ignoring the importance of form. In the stories, he continues to fly in the face of late twentieth century realism with stories that explore fictional figures caught in the web of language and thought.

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