In Search of William Gass


Arts & Culture

William Gass teaching at Washington University, 1974. Photo: Washington University Magazine.

In some late month of 1995, William H. Gass attempted a flight from New York to Saint Louis but was stalled by fog at the flight boards. He repaired to a small table at an airport bar, his socks pulped and moaning, and spent the night with a galley of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. Gass ordered a glass of rosé, began reading, and observed the ways that the characters in the novel seemed to come and go like people in an airport bar. Time passes, and eventually civil servants and industrialists of 1913 Vienna wander into the bar itself, right alongside the airport castaways—or so Gass tells us in the essay he went on to write about Musil.

After my plane lurched off the runway in New York, I took a folded copy of Gass’s essay out of my pocket and started reading. In September, I’d begun working on a review of The William H. Gass Reader, steeping myself in the life’s work, and now it was October, and I was uncertain about the direction of the piece. I declined the free snack mix and kept reading. I again tried to make sense of the beginning: there is a grounded flight in New York that occasions an essay in which an airport bar bleeds into an Austrian novel, and fiction into nonfiction, and then all sense of genre melts away as the review progressively constructs a lyrical world with its own logic and law. It struck me now that this was an uncanny echo of the most oft-repeated anecdote of Gass’s literary life.

In October 1978, Gass was at a fiction festival in Cincinnati with the novelist John Gardner, and Gardner observed about their respective prose styles, “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” Gass responded: “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there, solid as a rock, and have everybody think it is flying.” Asked decades later whether he would amend his words, Gass said, “I might put it differently, but the point would be the same. I would like my plane to be too beautiful to risk.”

Gardner was an inveterate realist, a believer in prose that served its stories, that disclosed the world with a window’s honesty­­­. Gass was an “antirealist” (like his fellow postmodernists John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis), an arch-formalist, an aspiring builder of lyrical language realms unfastened to the “real” world beyond them. Gardner’s plane was built with an eye to gravity and aerodynamics; Gass’s constituted a dazzling alternative physics.

I changed my mind and asked for the snack mix. In the margins of the printout, I started writing a version of what you’re reading. As I saw it, there was the metaphor of prose like a stalled plane; there was Gass’s plane destined for Saint Louis that was then stalled in New York; the stalled plane then occasioned a genre-bending essay of Gassian stalled-plane prose; and it was October, forty years after Cincinnati, and I was off the runway in New York, and Gass was dead, and I was on my way to Saint Louis, his home for nearly fifty years.

I didn’t know then that I wasn’t writing a review of The William H. Gass Reader but an essay about the research and writing of the review itself, and that this essay would ultimately be rejected by the commissioning editor (for good reasons) and would result in my writing a second essay about William H. Gass—an obedient book review, a more “objective” report—buried inside of which was the hope for another essay, an essay not entirely unlike this one here.

Gass believed that writing was an act of recovery, that writers trawled the wordless dark of the unconscious and tried to recover the fugitive self. I’ve recovered the first essay and expanded on it. I think I’ve developed that strange sense of fidelity we feel to the dead we’ve never met.


I landed in Saint Louis after lunchtime, with two days’ worth of autumn clothing and a wheezing suitcase filled with twelve of Gass’s books and a few of his favorite companions (Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Lowry). There was the light rail and then a bus and a brutally quick sandwich—and then a walk through the campus green to Olin Library, where I found the well-lit precinct of Special Collections, the repository of the Gass papers. I was greeted by the collection’s soft-spoken steward, a Mr. Minor, and assigned a cheerful desk near a wall of windows.

The papers of Gass seemed immaculate, each box like a freshly dug pool. By comparison, the papers of Whitman and Woolf and David Foster Wallace are filled with scraps and sheets that bear the odor from yesterday’s hands. I had already done my due diligence with The Reader, weeks of close reading and margin scribbling through its nine hundred pages; I had read a good portion of the secondary scholarship; and now here was a chance to sight some of Gass’s unresolved thoughts written overleaf.

I began by casually picking over the correspondence—incoming letters and postcards and telegrams. In the sixties, following the publication of his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, there was Susan Sontag dishing up high praise (and slyly complimenting herself in the same stroke), Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books begging again and again for another tipple of his prose (remarkable considering how remote the Midwestern Gass was from the flame of literary New York), and Stanley Elkin prodding “Bill” to leave Indiana for an open philosophy professorship in Saint Louis (the job he would ultimately hold for the rest of his working life). There was also a small scrap of torn notebook paper, a request for an out-of-print edition of a book by Gass—a subtle sort of fan letter written tenderly by a twenty-three-year-old man, now a sexagenarian who presides over the books section of a major American publication. Gass’s silence, the lack of corresponding responses in the archive, was odd, like a refrigerator that stops humming one afternoon. Gass, the ever-voluble (the—how to avoid it—ever-gassy), is a quiet center in the letters, a silhouette whose contours are limned only in the words of others.

I extracted box 66 from a cart and dipped into the late late juvenilia—college essays and his 1954 philosophy dissertation at Cornell—waxen pages that amounted to an incidental encyclopedia of fields, concepts, and fascinations that held sway over Gass’s writing for the next sixty years. The subject of the dissertation, “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” was importantly not a grad-school penance but the idée fixe that Gass fitted on mantels and stashed under rugs and cushions of every story and essay. For Gass, the ultimate metaphor was the relationship between the world and written language. Just as chairs could be moved around a house, words could be arrayed and rearranged in the syntactic space of a sentence—untold combinations of selfsame units, accommodating varieties of mood and meaning.

Gass suggested that literary language, specifically, required an additional metaphor. Proustian prose had a more exalted status than the demotic word-stuff on the back of soup cans. It was not made of chairs; it was conscious. In a riff on Cartesian dualism, Gass argued that a book was a body and a literary text was a conscious mind. When great writers fashioned a world of words, they supplanted the consciousness of the reader with another one, a self-sustaining construction of rich sound and sense, a new mind “musiked deep with feeling.” This conceit, the book as a “container of consciousness,” was a metaphor—Gass wasn’t a paranoid animist—but nonetheless it was a metaphor underwritten by what Gass believed was a genuine ontological shift. From soup can to Proust, words were transmogrified into literature.

I backtracked from the dissertation, flipping through a number of Gass’s undergraduate papers from Kenyon College, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom and was under the sway of New Criticism, and then his essays from graduate classes at Cornell. There was a term paper on refrain in Yeats and a lukewarm reception from a professor, who happened to pen the future refrain of every detractor and half-hearted admirer of Gass: “An ‘exquisite’ paper. But your aesthetic approach lets you down here because you remain too general.” Gass—the already-aesthete, the stylist, the formalist, the eventual philosophy professor who would moonlight as a writer—ditches scholarly distance for friendly first-person plurals, fails to sufficiently kneel before the altar of “textual evidence,” and chooses frolicsome verbs like scurries to describe a line of pencil moving across a page. But beyond the academic heresies, we see Gass already salivating at Stein, talking up the “musical” nature of repetition, name-dropping his favorite tricks: alliteration, assonance, rhyme, rhythm. His mark in the end: a B+, a tepid 87, an “exquisite” disappointment.


On my second and last full day in Saint Louis, I woke early and walked through the manicured, museum-studded sprawl of Forest Park. A thick morning steam was bearding off the lagoons, which had been scooped out for the 1904 World’s Fair and provided the dirt for the construction of the nearby artificial hill on which Washington University sits. The sky was cloudless, the light crisp, and it was the first morning of fall that required a warm jacket. I reached the Forest Park visitor’s center and met, in the café, a Mr. S, who requested anonymity. We had planned a meeting to talk Gass, Mr. S’s authority being that he superintends a Gass fan website. I’d had some reporterly hope about a slovenly epigone haunting the basements of the world, stashing slivers of Gassian quotation in his sock drawers, but I was mistaken. Mr. S was perfectly groomed, with his pressed shirt nicely tucked, and he was of a piece with the cleanly appointed visitor’s center. Perhaps, I thought, his devotion was the underside of a double life, part of some after-hours routine of prowling through Gassian prose while family slept, but no, I was mistaken again, because Mr. S assured me that he updated the site only from time to time, ten minutes here or there, and as a matter of fact he hadn’t really read much Gass as of recent, and was even listening on tape these days not to William Gass but to his contemporary William Gaddis (whose writing Gass championed and who people often confuse with Gass himself). Mr. S had collated most of the existing interviews with Gass on his website, so I tried to tap into his stores of relevant knowledge, and inevitably the conversation headed where all conversations on Gass do, as we began to discuss the way in which The Tunnel, that gargantuan novel, was structured in accord with the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg.

Music, more than a principle for structuring stories, is the hallmark of Gass’s work. Every capsule-size take on Gass fawns over the “poetry” of his prose, his “sonorous” sentences, his ear-sweetening “lyricism.” Some admirers are partial to the fiction (the focus of most of the scholarship on Gass), but the prose of his essays is perhaps more remarkable when considered alongside his American contemporaries from around 1960 onward. He has nothing of Sontag’s seriousness, and though he was addicted to paratactic pileups like Elizabeth Hardwick (a partial debt to Henry James) and had fierce habits of oxymoron and catachresis, also like Hardwick (a debt of theirs to the Metaphysical poets), the Gassian essay has an incomparable tune. His sentences are larded with metaphor, alliteration, repetition, and onomatopoeic squeaks, hums, and moans; clotted with anthropomorphism—hills have “brows” and beds are “embarrassed”—and speckled with vividly odd verbs and verbed nouns—a town is “fastened” to a field, a collar “obliterates” a throat, and words are “Englished” while lands are “vegetable[d]”—and driven by lists so endless that eyes cramp in puddled sockets.

With Gass, expanded are the reach of the senses, the hinterlands of words, the possibilities of the essay form itself; we taste the melt and not the ice cream, learn the various velocities of dying shrouded by the sameness of the word death, permit essays that are rigorously antiexpository. The tactic of a Gassian essay, in a word: combustion. There are no frank arguments, linear or logical, and books and ideas are not picked apart for the machinery behind their surfaces. Gass instead fills himself with the feeling of another idea or text and flames it exquisitely with a parallel prose performance.

Confronted with a flagrantly flashy sentence—“He scissored when he spotted superstitions singing like sirens, when he caught stupidity in action”—one can easily choke on the sibilants. But even when the eyes drive by what otherwise seems tame—“Both realms remained active aspects of Rilke’s personality, providing his poetry with an abundant stock of malleable symbols able to enter and contribute to new contexts”—quickly revealed are the doubling of liquid r’s, the pair of frictionless a’s, the triplet of plosive p’s; the consonance of malleable-symbols-able, of enter-contribute-contexts. There is no last call in Gass’s writing; the music is perpetual.

This is perhaps why reading Gass often entails a kind of surrender: you are all but forced to cede yourself to his exacting prose—its odd logics, its tremendous sounds. You encounter a written self so fully realized and abundant with style that, even if you loathe him, he can make your mind seem gray and cloistered by comparison.

Some readers complain about the muscular effort, a kind of scorched earth—plots and ideas obliterated by the prose. But this conception of Gass’s style loses sight of the crosscurrent of his work: a devotee of the Freudian unconscious, Gass believed that writing was a chance to fill the stores of a page or book with much more—ideas, feelings—than he could ever consciously understand or hold in thought. His archived typescripts show him reworking single sentences and paragraphs dozens of times and even scanning his sentences, marking their meter—muscularity in part, sure, but Gass did not want to subdue his chosen ideas with style. He wanted to be a “paragon of appreciation” for others’ words. He wrote to be carried past the limits of himself.


In the late afternoon, I walked north from the library into a tree-thick neighborhood and found the address I’d been given. The house was covered in a fresh coat, and painters were leaving. I approached the door and rang the bell and was greeted by Mary Gass.

It seemed impossible, her appearance: her hair short, straight and gray as iron, her dark folds of clothing, a beaded gray necklace, and the eyes, somehow sweet, knowing, and stern. I strained to reconcile her sober elegance with the excesses of Mr. Gass. I could not. We sat down at their breakfast table, and I silently scolded myself for thinking a person would ever look like their lover’s prose. There was a broad window that gave onto a covered pool and a gardened yard, and we talked for an indefinite amount of time about the three meals they shared daily, about his life and work—the cold simplicity of those words unfair—and occasionally Mrs. Gass clutched the gray beads and tugged them softly down like a bridle. She poured two glasses of white wine, at the time of day when they often shared a drink, she said, and we walked from room to room. My impression was of immaculacy, white and jade, the untold number of books neatly arranged.

We entered his study, its contents still in place, and a voice beneath her voice began to quaver as we approached the long desk and the great rows of reference. It was almost evening as I looked out the window and felt, with strange clarity, that I might never come to write about him, might never be able to. There was the large volume of prose, the indomitable lyricism, the endlessly self-studying mind like Valéry. But more, it was this very room where William Gass had worked, a room in which he’d written about death until it took him one day. It was a room full with the great songs he had sung, and it seemed that no other voice should sully their sweetness.


Zachary Fine is a writer from New Orleans.

Read William Gass’s Art of Fiction interview.