Remembering William H. Gass 1924-2017

He grew up in the worst of times and died in end times. The Great Depression colored his mind’s eye and President Tweetledum and “The tweet is mightier than the truth” zeitgeist recently told him, Yes, the language can be more perverted and debased than anything heretofore. No matter, for William H. Gass, the world was within the word, the soul inside the sentence, the great texts together made a temple, and he added overly qualified artistry and highly poetic explication to the great chain connecting Joyce to Shakespeare to Homer.

Born in Fargo, he grew up in Ohio, before three and half years in the Navy during the Second World War. A PhD in philosophy at Cornell and then life at a lectern and life in a chair, sometimes as a chair, at the College of Wooster, Purdue, and then Washington University in St. Louis. From 1966’s Omensetter’s Luck on, the writing journey, though before that, a long apprenticeship. We who publish instantly shall be chagrined to hear he began the novella “The Pedersen Kid” around 1951. It was published in a journal in 1961 and finally followed in book form in 1968. He also suffered a writer’s greatest nightmare: at Purdue, a con-man colleague stole his only copy of that first book, forcing him to basically rewrite it from older drafts and notes. Undoubtedly, this tragedy made it better.

1995’s The Tunnel is much ballyhooed for it’s 29 years in the making, but the truth is Gass wrote many things in that time: a few of the best books of American essays ever written (Fiction and the Figures of Life, On Being Blue, Habitations of the Word), many introductions and reviews, and some novellas that would go into Cartesian Sonata. A good chunk of his tome was written when he was a research fellow at L.A.’s Getty Museum in the early nineties, as he told me, “I wrote half the book there in one year, because the circumstances were just marvelous. No distractions.” Fourteen hour days. The Oklahoma City Bombing occurred on the day of The Tunnel’s release, perhaps foreshadowing its seditious reception, though that had to be owed to the book’s narrator, William Kohler, a hard-hearted German history professor, seemingly with Nazi sympathies. A Third Reich specialist, Kohler has just finished a book on the period and tries to write its preface but is blocked and writes what is The Tunnel instead. He hates his life (wife) and kills her cat as he digs a tunnel under their house. Most critics were angered and conflated the character with Gass himself, as there are many similarities: teacher, tough Midwest childhood, and principally, the first name. The great Michael Silverblatt asked point blank why Gass “provoked” such an identification, to which he replied, “It’s a It Can’t Happen Here book…to say, “Well, that’s those people” is to cop out, it’s us…You praise even the most awful things, by trying to render them as eloquently, clearly, as perceptibly as you’re capable of doing…The whole world, which is constantly flowing, has to be perceived and saved and redeemed, even if it’s awful…because that’s what we want to forget.” Reviewer Robert Kelly wrote, “it will be years before we know what to make of it,” the truest sentiment there was, now embodied in the book’s oft-quoted line, “I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called coach.”

I came to Gass through my best writing professor. One on one, he gave me things to read and once handed me the eponymous novella “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” a Gertrude Steinish (one of his main lodestars) title if there ever was one. Then a decade without, though I saw him speak at the Housing Works Bookstore in 2006 on the release of his audio version of The Tunnel. Four years on, the writer John Madera re-piqued my interest as he read the entirety of Gass in preparation for interviewing him in St. Louis. When he told those in the know what he would be doing, they said, “Oh, you are going to see the Master.” I began to ingest it all, every line, over and over. There was beauty, erudition, cunning, and something unreconcilable. Here was a writer who dictated his own terms and saw into the schema of our most wordy art with a crystalized vision, taking apart words (there is a long essay on the word “And,”) and sentences like a surgeon (he made spindle diagrams of great sentences to map their structure and music), while also creating fiction where characters try to find their way amid inhumanity and where language honors the horror and the beauty of life equally — who else would compose a novella called, “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s”?

I met Gass a few times in New York, helping to get him a Bishop book at the Strand as he researched an article on her for Harper’s — uncollected at this time. What do you say to a Master? One should just listen. And though I went to see him in St. Louis in the fall of 2011 armed with thousands of questioning words, I asked only a third of them, as his high-calorie answers obliterated the need. That day Bill and his wife, Mary, showed me the greatest kindness. After a morning session in his home’s kitchen, we repaired James-style to the American fiction room for the afternoon. There were revealed things I had not espied in any printed matter pertaining to him. He had been ushered out of Purdue (and West Lafayette) in the late sixties due to his protesting stance and the nudity and language in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife. One question about animism garnered a head-spinning mini-lecture on Bachelard, leading to discussions of positivism and rationalism. It did dawn on me that I sat with a man who’d done the same with Wittgenstein, who had counted William Gaddis as a great friend. Even more so, I sat across from the man who wrote The Tunnel. He’d been tetchy about going through with the interview, saying, before the recorders recorded, “Being interviewed isn’t good for the soul.” I now know what he meant, or at least, I whole-heartedly agree with him. Don’t think about what you do, do it — reward enough. Afterward, we drank wine in the backyard, as the city was blessed with an Indian summer. He relaxed more, recalling the two greatest highlights of his writing life: seeing In the Heart of the Heart of the Country translated and for sale at the Sorbonne bookstore, and dancing with Severo Sarduy, the Cuban writer, on the continental divide in Colorado (they were been being driven around after a conference and Sarduy asked the driver to stop so he could dance with Gass). The St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series that year and after a fine dinner and more conversation (I filled them in about the doings at Occupy Wall Street — Zuccotti Park still being occupied at the time), we watched the ninth inning of game five.

We shared a few more emails over the years. I didn’t want to bother him, I knew his time was better spent on something we’d all be better for. Is it surprising that some people don’t realize someone on the order of Henry James and Virginia Woolf has passed? Out of two acclaimed novelist friends, one gushes about the fiction and hasn’t really read the non-, while the other is all about the essays and less enthusiastic about the three novels and three collections of novellas and stories. Why did Gass write and what of his passing? He said it best in an under heard interview: “I certainly don’t write for money, or for glory…all sorts of writers receive that, but they have written worthless books. I and any other writer who is serious shall die not knowing whether you’ve wasted that much of your life in a fruitless pursuit or whether you’ve achieved fame and actual immortality, but you’re dead for that.”

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