Gass, William H. 1924–
Gass, William H. 1924–
PERSONAL: Born July 30, 1924, in Fargo, ND; son of William Bernard and Claire (Sorensen) Gass; married Mary Patricia O'Kelly, June 17, 1952; married Mary Alice Henderson, September 13, 1969; children: (first marriage) Richard G., Robert W., Susan H.; (second marriage) Elizabeth, Catherine. Education: Kenyon College, A.B., 1947; Cornell University, Ph.D., 1954.
ADDRESSES: Home—6304 Westminster Pl., St. Louis, MO 63130. Office—International Writers Center, Washington University, Campus Box 1071, 1 Brookings Dr., St. Louis, MO 63130-4899. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: College of Wooster, Wooster, OH, instructor in philosophy, 1950–54; Purdue University, Lafayette, IN, assistant professor, 1954–60, associate professor, 1960–66, professor of philosophy, 1966–69; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, professor of philosophy, 1969–79, David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, beginning 1979, now emeritus, director of International Writers Center, 1990–2000. Visiting lecturer in English and philosophy, University of Illinois, 1958–59. Member of Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities, 1978–80; member of literature panel, National Endowment for the Arts, 1979–82. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1943–46; served in China and Japan; became ensign.
MEMBER: PEN, American Philosophical Association, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (fellow, 1983–), American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow, 1982–).
AWARDS, HONORS: Longview Foundation Award in fiction, 1959, for "The Triumph of Israbestis Tott"; Rockefeller Foundation grant for fiction, 1965–66; Standard Oil Teaching Award, Purdue University, 1967; Sigma Delta Chi Best Teacher Award, Purdue University, 1967 and 1968; Chicago Tribune award for Big-Ten teachers, 1967; Indiana University Writers' Conference Award for Fiction, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969–70; Alumni Teaching Award, Washington University, 1974; National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature, 1975; Pushcart Prize, 1976, 1983, 1987, 1992; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters National Medal of Merit for fiction, 1979; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 1986, for The Habitations of the Word: Essays; Getty Scholar, 1993; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and American Book Award, both 1996, for The Tunnel; National Book Critics Circle criticism award, 1997, for Finding a Form; Lifetime Achievement Award, The Lannan Foundation Literary Awards, 1997; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, and PEN/Spielvogel Diamonstein Award for the art of the essay from the PEN American Center, both for Tests of Time: Essays, 2003. D.Litt., Kenyon College, 1974 and 1985; D.Litt., George Washington University, 1982; D.Litt., Purdue University, 1985.
Omensetter's Luck (novel), New American Library (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1997.
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (short stories), Harper (New York, NY), 1968, revised edition, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1981.
Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (novella; first published in TriQuarterly magazine, 1968), Knopf (New York, NY), 1971, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1998.
The First Winter of My Married Life (short stories), Lord John Press (Northridge, CA), 1979.
Culp (short stories), Grenfell Press (New York, NY), 1985.
The Tunnel (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1994.
Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
(Author of introduction) The Geographical History of America, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1975.
The World within the Word (essays), Knopf (New York, NY), 1978, Basic Books, 2000.
(With Peter Eisenman) The House VI Book, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1980.
The Habitations of the Word: Essays, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984.
Words about the Nature of Things, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), 1985.
A Temple of Texts, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), 1990.
Fifty Literary Pillars: A Temple of Texts: An Exhibition to Inaugurate the International Writers Center, Special Collections, Olin Library, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), 1991.
Finding a Form: Essays, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor, with Lorin Cuoco) The Writer in Politics, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1996.
(Contributor) Catherine Wagner: Art & Science, Investigating Matter, Washington University Gallery of Art, 1996.
Art and Science: Investigating Matter, Nazraeli Press (St. Louis, MO), 1996.
(With Johanna Drucker) The Dual Muse: The Writer as Artist, the Artist as Writer (essays), John Benjamins (Philadelphia, PA), 1997.
(Contributor) Sabina Ott: Everywhere There Is Somewhere, Forum for Contemporary Art (St. Louis, MO), 1997.
Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor, with Cuoco) Literary St. Louis: A Guide, Missouri Historical Society Press (St. Louis, MO), 2000.
(Editor, with Cuoco) The Writer and Religion, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 2000.
(Contributor) Three Essays, Missouri Historical Society Press, 2000.
(Editor) Robert Burton and Holbrook Jackson, The Anatomy of Melancholy, New York Review of Books, Inc., 2001.
Tests of Time (essays), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
(Author of afterword) Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly, translated by Clarence H. Miller, Yale University Press, 2003.
Interview with William Gass (sound recording), American Audio Prose Library, 1981.
Old Folks: William Gass Reading "The Tunnel" (sound recording), American Audio Prose Library, 1981.
Gerald Early and William H. Gass Reading from Their Work (sound recording), 1993.
Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003.
Contributor to numerous periodicals, including New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, New Republic, Nation, TriQuarterly, Salmagundi, and to philosophical journals. William Gass's manuscripts have been collected in the Washington University Library.
SIDELIGHTS: "Both as an essayist and as a writer of fiction, William Gass has earned the reputation of being one of the most accomplished stylists of his generation," wrote Arthur M. Saltzman in Contemporary Literature. Gass, who is the director of the International Writers Center at Washington University, is a principal advocate of the primacy of language in literature and of the self-referential integrity of literary texts. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Robert Boyers contended that Gass's fictions—consisting of novels, novellas, and short stories—"give heart to the structuralist enterprise," while his essays "may be said to promote the attack on realist aesthetics." Viewed as a whole, Boyers concluded, Gass's work constitutes "the most vigorous anti-realist literary 'programme' we have had in our time."
A philosopher by training, Gass "maintains an art-for-art's-sake 'ethic' of infinite aesthetic value, in a structure of the sublime grotesque, as his principle of creativity," to quote Criticism contributor Reed B. Merrill. Merrill added: "His interest lies in the pleasures of the imagination, in model making, and in aesthetic projections composed in the face of an all-pervasive determinism." Whatever his views, Gass remains one of the most respected creative literary minds in modern American letters. In the New York Times Book Review, Robert Kiely noted that the author "has written some of the freshest and most finely disciplined fictional prose to have appeared in America since World War II … The unlikely combination of criticism, philosophy and metaphorical inventiveness has resulted in a kind of poetry." New York Times correspondent Christopher Lehmann-Haupt perhaps best summarized Gass's sensibility by declaring: "For three decades now, he has been saying that the words in a worthwhile work of fiction do not describe a world outside that fiction; instead those words embody the fiction and the fiction embodies the words."
Although born in Fargo, North Dakota, Gass grew up primarily in Warren, Ohio, the son of an alcoholic mother and a father who was crippled by arthritis. His schooling at Kenyon College was interrupted by his service as an ensign in the Navy in World War II. He returned to Kenyon to receive a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1947. According to Larry McCaffery in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Gass was a voracious reader, his tastes focusing on such literary formalists as James, Faulkner, Joyce and—somewhat later—the three writers who would probably most directly influence his own writing career: [Rainer Maria] Rilke, Gertrude Stein, and [Paul] Valery." He also attended Cornell as a graduate student, later working with Max Black studying the philosophy of language and the theory of metaphor. He taught philosophy at the College of Wooster and eventually received his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954. At that point, he began teaching at Purdue University, remaining there for fifteen years.
Gass's training in the philosophy of language under Black manifests itself in his later work, principally in a sense of the musical and intellectual nature of words, sentences, and paragraphs. Los Angeles Times Book Review correspondent Jonathan Kirsch observed that the author "does not merely celebrate language; quite the contrary, he is gifted with the nagging intellectual curiosity that prompts a precocious child to take apart a pocket watch to see what makes it tick." In the Saturday Review, Brom Weber commented on the fusion of fiction and philosophy in Gass's view. "Gass holds that philosophy and fiction are alike in that both are fictional constructions, systems based on concepts expressed linguistically, worlds created by minds whose choice of language specifies the entities and conditions comprising those worlds," Weber explained. "The reality of these fictional worlds does not depend upon correspondence with or reflection of other worlds, such as the socio-physical one customarily regarded as the 'real' world. Consequently, such concepts as cause and effect—designed to explain the 'real' world—are not necessarily relevant to a fictional world if its creator's language does not encompass causality." Kiely put it more succinctly when he suggested Gass holds that "philosophy and fiction are both 'divine games,' that they do not so much interpret reality as contribute to it."
To call Gass's opinion on fiction a "theory" is perhaps to overstep the bounds of his intentions. He told the Southwest Review that especially in his own fiction, he is "not interested in trying to write according to some doctrine." He continued: "When I'm writing fiction, it's very intuitive, so that what happens, or what I do, or how it gets organized, is pretty much a process of discovery, not a process of using some doctrine that you can somehow fit everything into." Gass merely feels that fictions should constitute their own worlds of words and not necessarily attempt to represent some external reality—a position consistent with postmodernism. Weber noted that the author "is dissatisfied with 'character,' 'plot,' 'realism,' and similar conceptual terms that relate fiction to more than itself, and dislikes explication and paraphrase as analytic methods that superimpose 'meaning' upon fiction." Boyers elaborated: "We all know what Gass is writing against, including the tiresome use of novels for purposes of unitary moral uplift and penetrating 'world-view.' What he detests is the goody sweepstakes, in which works of art are judged not by their formal complexity or nuances of verbal texture but by their ability to satisfy easy moral imperatives." The critic declared that, as essayist and fiction writer, Gass "has had some hand in discrediting the kind of righteous moralism that so corrupts ordinary apprehension of the literary arts."
"The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such world, alive through every order of its Being," Gass declared in Fiction and the Figures of Life. "The artist's task is therefore twofold. He must show or exhibit his world, and to do this he must actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made." Gass is calling for a literature that makes demands on both its creator and its readers; reaching beyond reportage, it is its own reality unfolding on the page. In Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Richard J. Schneider claimed that Gass "suggests that any philosophic separation of spirit from body, reason from emotion, experience from innocence, and words from deeds is destructive of life. He reminds us (and we need reminding) that fiction, like poetry, should not merely mean but, above all, be." New York Times Book Review contributor Frederic Morton addressed the ways in which Gass's fictions reflect this concept. Gass, noted Morton, "chooses the small gray lulls in life: rural twilights, small-town still-lifes, shadowed backyards. From them he draws dolor and music and a resonance touching us all. Gass is, in fact, a virtuoso with homely textures. They are the perfect foils for the nightmare leaps of his language…. In brief, Gass engenders brand-new abrupt vulnerabilities. We read about the becalmed Midwest, about farmers mired in their dailiness, and realize too late that we've been exposed to a deadly poetry."
Omensetter's Luck, Gass's first novel, was "immediately recognized as a stunning achievement," according to Larry McCaffery in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Published in 1966 after numerous rejections, the book established the unique verbal qualities that would come to be associated with all of Gass's work. The novel resists summarization; set in an Ohio river town, it explores the relationship between Brackett Omensetter, a happily unself-conscious "prelapsarian Adam," to quote McCaffery, and two self-conscious and thoughtful men, Henry Pimber and Jethro Furber. A Newsweek correspondent called the book "a masterpiece of definition, a complex and intricate creation of level within level, where the theme of Omensetter's luck becomes an intense debate on the nature of life, love, good and evil, and finally, of death…. [It] is a story of life and death in the little countries of men's hearts." Richard Gilman offered a different interpretation in The Confusion of Realms. The novel, wrote Gilman, "is Gass's prose, his style, which is not committed to something beyond itself, not an instrument of an idea. In language of amazing range and resiliency, full of the most exact wit, learning and contemporary emblems, yet also full of lyric urgency and sensuous body, making the most extraordinary juxtapositions, inventing, coining, relaxing at the right moments and charging again when they are over, never settling for the rounded achievement or the finished product, he fashions his tale of the mind, which is the tale of his writing a novel."
Given the difficulty Gass endured trying to find a publisher for Omensetter's Luck, he must have been immensely gratified by the critical reception the work received once it found its way into print. Gilman has called it "the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation … marvelously original, a whole Olympic broad jump beyond what almost any other American has been writing, the first full replenishment of language we have had for a very long time, the first convincing fusion of speculative thought and hard, accurate sensuality that we have had, it is tempting to say, since [Herman] Melville." Nation reviewer Shaun O'Connell described Omensetter's Luck as "a difficult, dazzling first novel, important in its stylistic achievement and haunting in its dramatic evocation of the most essential human questions." Not every assessment was entirely favorable, however. In his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer, Alfred Kazin stated: "Everything was there in Omensetter's Luck to persuade the knowing reader of fiction that here was a great step forward: the verve, the bursting sense of possibility, the gravely significant atmosphere of contradiction, complexity of issue at every step. But it was all in the head, another hypothesis to dazzle the laity with. Gass had a way of dazzling himself under the storm of his style." Conversely, Harper's reviewer Earl Shorris praised Gass's stylistic achievement. Omensetter's Luck, Shorris concluded, is, "page after page, one of the most exciting, energetic, and beautiful novels we can ever hope to read. It is a rich fever, a parade of secrets, a novel as American as [Mark Twain's] Huckleberry Finn and as torturously comic as [James Joyce's] Ulysses."
Gass followed Omensetter's Luck with In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a short story collection "whose highly original form exactly suits its metafictional impulses," to quote McCaffery. McCaffery described the book as a development of the related themes of isolation and the difficulties of love, through the use of experimental literary forms. The characters "control their lives only to the extent that they can organize their thoughts and descriptions into meaningful patterns. Not surprisingly, then, we come to know them mainly as linguistic rather than psychological selves, with their actions usually less significant to our understanding of them than the way they project their inner selves through language." Critics once again praised the volume as a significant contribution to American letters. Hudson Review correspondent Robert Martin Adams noted that Gass's techniques, "which are various and imaginative, are always in the service of vision and feeling. Mr. Gass's stories are strict and beautiful pieces of writing without waste or falsity or indulgence." In the New Republic, Richard Howard wrote: "This is a volume of fictions which tell the truth, and speak even beyond the truth they tell; it is in that outspokenness, the risk of leaving something standing in his mind, that the authority of William Gass persists." Nation contributor Philip Stevick contended that In the Heart of the Heart of the Country "finally amounts to an eccentric and ingratiating book, like no other before it, full of grace and wit, displaying a mind in love with language, the human body, and the look of the world."
No Gass work reveals "a mind in love with language" more clearly than Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Merrill felt that the piece is "perhaps [Gass's] best work to date … Structurally, it is clear from the beginning that the subject of this book is the act of creation, and that [the narrator] Babs is William Gass's 'experimental structure' composed of language and imagination. The book is literally Babs. The book is a woman from beginning to end. The covers are the extrinsic flesh, the pages are the intrinsic contents of Babs's consciousness—her interior world. It would be difficult to find a better example of the use of structural principles than in Gass's stylistic combination of form and content in his book." In a Critique essay, McCaffery called the novella "a remarkably pure example of metafiction" and added: "As we watch 'imagination imagining itself imagine,' … we are witnessing a work self-consciously create itself out of the materials at hand—words. As the best metafiction does, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife forces us to examine the nature of fiction-making from new perspectives. If Babs (and Gass) have succeeded, our attention has been focused on the act of reading words in a way we probably have not experienced before. The steady concern with the stuff of fiction, words, makes Gass's work unique among metafictions which have appeared thus far." New York Review of Books contributor Michael Wood observed that the work reveals "a real urgency, a powerful vision of the loneliness inherent in writing … and of writing as a useful and articulate image for loneliness of other kinds."
Gass's magnum opus, The Tunnel, took him nearly 30 years to write. He began the novel in 1966, publishing portions of it in a number of literary journals such as the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and as "fine press books," according to Steven Moore in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. It is the story of William Frederick Kohler, "fat and fifty-something … a bitter man, but a literate one," according to Moore. Kohler has almost completed his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. All that remains is the introduction, but he is unable to write it. Instead, he begins to write his own life story, which is what readers of The Tunnel end up reading. At one point in the story, Kohler begins digging a tunnel (hence the title) in his basement. The act, though it seems to have no real purpose, consumes the historian, taking him ever farther from any hope of finishing the introduction. In an interview with Tobin Harshaw of the New York Times Book Review, Gass said of his protagonist, "Better to have him on the page than inside of you." According to Harshaw, Gass "describes The Tunnel as an exploration of 'the inside of history'—the ambiguity and confusion hidden beneath any intellectual attempt at understanding the past."
Gass's standing as a writer and the impact that his long-awaited novel had in the literary community is evident in the depth and passion of the critical response to it. A number of reviewers lauded Gass's continuing gift for language and creating a world within the text. Noted Moore, "The sheer beauty and bravura of Gass's sentences are overwhelming, breathtaking; the novel is a pharaoh's tomb of linguistic treasures." New Republic reviewer Robert Alter observed: "The line between reality and textuality blurs, and everything turns into text…. [We are] constantly reminded by Gass of the textual artifice of the words that we are reading. Much of this is done typographically. There are sketches, cartoons, diagrams, printer's symbols, a dozen varieties of typefaces." As for the structure that emerges from Gass's craft, Alter commented, " The Tunnel is loose, unimpeded, free-associative flow. The principle of artful selection is renounced. The basic rhetorical form of the novel is the run-on catalog." For this reason, Moore warned that readers who "prefer their prose straight are advised to look elsewhere." Michael Dirda in Washington Post Book World offered a similar evaluation. Calling The Tunnel "an extraordinary achievement, a literary treat," he continued: "For 650 pages one of the consummate magicians of English prose pulls rabbits out of sentences and creates shimmering metaphors before your very eyes. He dazzles and amazes. But be warned: He does so on his own terms and some readers may be confused, bored or repulsed."
These "repulsive" aspects of The Tunnel and its loose structure are the focus of a number of reviews that seek to calculate the balance of the novel's merits and faults. Sven Birkerts found that the work "is a vast bog of uneven surface and unmeasured depth in which lie embedded, fully preserved, perceptions, memories, breathtaking cadenzas of longing, and stunning detailings that have been rendered with the precision of a Nabokov." Yet, he added in an Atlantic Monthly article, "The Tunnel is at the same time a dyspeptic slugfest, a den of vituperation, a vast catalogue of hatreds, a place where innocence is defeated and turned upon itself." And, finally, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "In this endless ramble of a novel, Gass … though here, as always, possessed of a bewitching and spectacularly fluid and allusive style, fails to find a suitable home for his narrator's wickedly dyspeptic views of history, marriage and culture." Alter objected to what he believed to be Gass's attempts to examine Kohler's experience in light of the Holocaust. "Domestic rage, intimidation and resentment are terrible things," allowed the critic, "but they are not the moral or psychological equivalent of being herded into gas chambers and shoveled into furnaces…. The real obscenity of his novel is not its hideous language or its scatological imaginings, but its trivialization of the enormity of genocide by absorbing it into the nickel-and-dime nastiness that people perpetrate in everyday life."
Still, the outrage that it stirred up in the world it created with words seemed for other reviewers to be one of the essential features of The Tunnel, one which gives it its literary impact. Will Blythe explained in Esquire, "The Tunnel turns out to be the grand opus of entropy, the anti-epic, the super sulk, the anatomy of failure, the pseudonarrative that peters out in a snit." Blythe continued, "Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, Gass writes brilliantly: aphorisms, lists, curses, metaphors so baroque they have plots…. Out of these sentences emerges a ripe, overluscious, deliquescent world, rotten through and through, but so solid that you try to flick the flies off the page." For this reason, reviewers have compared Gass's work to that of a weighty group of literary giants, including Theodore Dreiser, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. James McCourt in The Yale Review maintained, "Reading Gass is like reading Thomas Mann: The Tunnel's moral seriousness matches The Magic Mountain's and Doctor Faustus's, but I find Gass the better writer." As Birkerts put it, "Fashions come and go, and readerships wax and wane, but if a writer has been able to stir syllables to life, he or she has done something permanent, something that goes beyond our judging."
Something so permanent may require time in order to be adequately judged. Although The Tunnel was judged worthy of both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the American Book Award in 1996, critics such as Moore noted that students will be reaping additional treasures from its pages for years to come. Concluded Moore, "It will take years of study to excavate fully the artistry of The Tunnel."
Whatever the subject at hand, Gass's essays are invariably artistic creations. Village Voice reviewer Sam Tanenhaus noted that each piece "is a performance or foray: [Gass] announces a topic, then descants with impressive erudition and unbuttoned ardor for the surprising phrase. The results often dazzle, and they're unfailingly original, in the root sense of the word—they work back toward some point of origin, generally a point where literature departs from the external world to invent a world of its own." Gass may serve as a spokesman for technical experimentation in fiction and for the value of innovative form, but his nonfiction also "asks us to yield ourselves in loving attentiveness to the being of language, poetic word, and concept, as it unfolds and speaks through us," according to Jeffrey Maitland in Modern Fiction Studies. V.S. Pritchett offered a similar view in the New Yorker: "Gass is a true essayist, who certainly prefers traveling to arriving, who treats wisdom as a game in which no one wins…. His personality, his wit and affectations are part of the game." Kiely, on the other hand, discovered a common core in Gass's meditations. The critic contended that "by means of startling metaphor and philosophical cajolery … [Gass] does the same thing in each essay: he calls our attention to art." The "art" to which attention is called is one that resists ease and proves imagination, beginning and ending with itself. "Gass is not 'ordering experience,' sending us on to higher morality," explained Shorris. "He is not documenting anything. The work is there, and the work is beautiful. The experience of it is a significant and exciting ordeal from which we cannot emerge unchanged."
The cumulative impression left by Gass's essays is, to quote Kiely, "that of a man thinking." Gass calls his whole imagination into play and then develops his obsessions stylistically with complicated flights of prose. New Republic essayist Robert Alter deemed Gass "clearly a writer willing to take chances" with a "freewheeling inventiveness." Alter suggested, however, that the "casting aside of inhibitions also means that unconscious materials are constantly popping through the surface of the writing, often in ways that subvert its effectiveness." New York Times Book Review correspondent Denis Donoghue also admitted a certain discomfort with some of Gass's assertions. Still, Donoghue claimed, "his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate." Boyers remarked: "Gass's books are wonderful books because they raise all of the important aesthetic issues in the starkest and most inventive way. The writing is informed by a moral passion and a love of beautiful things that are never compromised by the author's compulsive addiction to aesthecizing formulations." Wood put it another way: "The writer speaks tenderly to his paper, and, by caring for his words, constructs a world for his readers."
Gass's collection of essays, Finding a Form, is loosely grouped around the subject of writing. Essays on the Pulitzer Prize, the present tense, Ezra Pound, and the state of nature emphasize Gass's "belief in the autonomy of language in fiction," according to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Lehmann-Haupt found this particular volume of essays a mixed bag, noting: "Many in this volume are incisively to the point," while in a few, "the author labors the obvious … and wanders aimlessly straining at gnats." Jim Lewis in Artforum conceded some faults but believed this collection of essays to be even better than those that have gone before. "Now the paragraphs are modulated with utter confidence, and if the argument sometimes wanders, we know nonetheless that Gass is leading us someplace. Finding a Form is a grand peroration, from a man who has thought and studied and written with extraordinary diligence and love of his chosen art." Lewis characterized Finding a Form as "a beautiful book, a dignified and deeply ambitious book, a dazzling book, and in many regards a troubling book." The National Book Critics Circle recognized the book's merits and gave it the group's criticism award in 1997. The award was well-earned, according to Lewis, for in his opinion, "As a promoter of difficult pleasures, more precious for being hard won, Gass has no contemporary equal."
In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, Gass addresses a number of issues pertinent to a deep understanding of the work of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The book is a study of Rilke's Duino Elegies, and it ranges widely through biography, linguistic and thematic criticism, and a comparison of English translations. Himself a Rilke translator, Gass also includes an essay on the challenges of rendering poetry from one language to another, and the book ends with Gass's own translations of the Elegies. In a Boston Review piece on Reading Rilke, Nicole Krauss addressed the complexity of the project: "Gass, himself an extraordinary writer, is not the sort who can easily hide himself behind the curtain of translation. His lyrical gift is irrepressible, impossible to restrain behind the dam of another's—even Rilke's—stanzas, and the resulting torrent of words makes for an unorthodox initiation into the most elusive of Rilke's poems."
"Few contemporary writers are as well suited to the task of unraveling Rilke and his work as Gass," declared Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Times Book Review. For Mendelsohn, Reading Rilke succeeds on many levels, from the purely literary to the novelistic: "You've been given such profound access to the poet's life, and gained so many insights into his poetic language and mission, that the oscillations and conflicts that may once have made Rilke's work look too formidable seem to have resolved themselves into an organic harmony." The critic further praised the volume as "a work that does what the best poetry does: leaves you feeling more human."
As Candyce Dostert noted in the Wilson Library Bulletin, to read William Gass "is to accompany an extraordinary mind on a quest for perfection, an invigorating voyage for the strong of heart." Gass is acclaimed equally for his ground-breaking fiction and for the essays that defend the fiction's aesthetics. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, McCaffery stated: "Certainly no other writer in America has been able to combine his critical intelligence with a background as a student of both the literary and philosophical aspects of language and to make this synthesis vital." Edmund White came to a similar conclusion in the Washington Post Book World. Gass's "discursive prose always reminds us that he is an imaginative writer of the highest order," White contended. "Indeed, among contemporary American writers of fiction, he is matched as a stylist only by a very select group." Another Washington Post Book World contributor, Paul West, observed that Gass's world "is words, his way of being … Gass sings the flux, under this or that commercial pretext, and in the end renders what he calls 'the interplay of genres … skids of tone and decorum' into cantatas of appreciative excess. A rare gift that yields startling art."
Gass has given numerous interviews on his art to scholarly periodicals. In one for the Chicago Review, he said of his fiction: "What you want to do is create a work that can be read nonreferentially. There is nothing esoteric or mysterious about this. It simply means that you want the work to be self-contained. A reader can do with a work what he or she wants. You can't force interpretations and you can't prevent them." He added: "I'm interested in how the mind works—though not always well—by sliding off into sneakily connected pathways, parking the car at another level of discourse, arriving by parachute."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bassoff, Bruce, The Secret Sharers, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1983.
Bellamy, Joe David, editor, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1974.
Bruss, Elizabeth W., Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1982.
Contemporary Fiction in America and England, 1950–1970, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1973, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 11, 1979, Volume 15, 1980, Volume 39, 1986.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978.
Gass, William H., Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1970.
Gilman, Richard, The Confusion of Realms, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
Holloway, Watson L., William Gass, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1990.
Kaufmann, Michael, Textual Bodies: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Print, Bucknell University Press (Lewisburg, PA), 1994.
Kazin, Alfred, Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1973.
McCaffery, Lawrence, Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1982.
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