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William H(oward) Gass Biography

William H. Gass comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Fargo, North Dakota, 1924. Education: Schools in Warren, Ohio; Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1942-43, 1946-47, A.B. 1947; Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, 1943; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1947-50, Ph.D. 1954. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1943-46: Ensign. Career: Instructor in Philosophy, College of Wooster, Ohio, 1950-54; assistant professor, 1954-60, associate professor, 1960-65, and professor of philosophy, 1966-69, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana. Since 1969 professor of philosophy, now David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities and director, International Writers Center, both Washington University, St. Louis. Visiting lecturer in English and philosophy, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1958-59. Awards: Longview Foundation award, 1969; Rockefeller fellowship, 1965; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969; American Academy award, 1975; Award of Merit medal, 1979; National Book Critics Circle award, for criticism, 1986. L.H.D.: Kenyon College, 1973; George Washington University, Washington, D.C., 1982; Purdue University, 1985. Member: American Academy, 1983. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.



Omensetter's Luck. New York, New American Library, 1966; London, Collins, 1967.

Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (essay-novella). New York, Knopf, 1971.

The Tunnel. New York, Knopf, 1995.

Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Short Stories

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1968; London, Cape, 1969.

The First Winter of My Married Life. Northridge, California, LordJohn Press, 1979.

Culp. New York, Grenfell Press, 1985.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Clairvoyant," in Location 2 (New York), 1964.

"The Sugar Crock," in Art and Literature 9 (Paris), 1966.

"We Have Not Lived the Right Life," in New American Review 6, edited by Theodore Solotaroff. New York, New American Library, 1969.

"The Cost of Everything," in Fiction (New York), vol. 1, no. 3, 1972.

;'Mad Meg," in Iowa Review (Iowa City), Winter 1976.

"Koh Whistles Up a Wind," in Tri-Quarterly 38 (Evanston, Illinois), 1977.

"Susu, I Approach You in My Dreams," in Tri-Quarterly 42(Evanston, Illinois), 1978.

"August Bees," in Delta 8 (Montpellier, France), May 1979.

"The Old Folks," in The Best American Short Stories 1980, edited byStanley Elkin and Shannon Ravenel. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

"Why Windows Are Important to Me," in The Best of Tri-Quarterly, edited by Jonathan Brent. New York, Washington Square Press, 1982.

"Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being," in The Pushcart Prize 7, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1982.

"Family Album," in River Styx. St. Louis, Big River Association, 1986.


Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York, Knopf, 1970. On Being Blue. Boston, Godine, 1976; Manchester, Carcanet, 1979. The World Within the Word: Essays. New York, Knopf, 1978. The House VI Book, with Peter Eisenman. Boston, Godine, 1980. Habitations of the Word: Essays. New York, Simon and Schuster,


Words about the Nature of Things. St. Louis, Washington University, 1985.

A Temple of Texts. St. Louis, Washington University, 1990. Finding a Form: Essays. New York, Knopf, 1996. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. New

York, Knopf, 1999. Editor, with Lorin Cuoco, The Writer in Politics. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Editor, with Lorin Cuoco, The Writer and Religion. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.



"A William H. Gass Bibliography" by Larry McCaffery, in Critique (Atlanta), August 1976.

Manuscript Collection:

Washington University Library, St. Louis.

Critical Studies:

"Omensetter's Luck" by Richard Gilman, in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 7 May 1966; "The Stone and the Sermon" by Saun O'Connell, in Nation (New York), 9 May 1966; "Nothing But the Truth" by Richard Howard, in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 18 May 1968; interview with Thomas Haas in the Chicago Daily News, 1 February 1969; City of Words by Tony Tanner, London, Cape, and New York, Harper, 1971; "The Well Spoken Passions of William H. Gass" by Earl Shorris, in Harper's (New York), May 1972; "But This Is What It Is Like to Live in Hell," in Modern Fiction Studies (Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn 1974; "Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H. Gass" by Ned French, in Iowa Review (Iowa City), Winter 1976; The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass by Larry McCaffery, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

I think of myself as a writer of prose rather than a novelist, critic, or storyteller, and I am principally interested in the problems of style. My fictions are, by and large, experimental constructions; that is, I try to make things out of words the way a sculptor might make a statue out of stone. Readers will therefore find very little in the way of character or story in my stories. Working in the tradition of the Symbolist poets, I regard the techniques of fiction (for the contemporary artist) as in no way distinct from the strategies of the long poem.

* * *

William H. Gass, a philosopher and literary critic as well as a fiction writer, derives from and is closely allied to the symbolistes, Gertrude Stein, Ortega y Gasset, John Crowe Ransom and the New Critics generally, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and the structuralists. He believes that language is all in all; that words are not agents to instruct or direct us in fiction but that they exist there for their own sake; that the novelist must keep us imprisoned in his language, because there is nothing beyond it; and that the only events in novels are linguistic events. Metaphor is the means by which concepts are expressed in fiction. The writer, furthermore, does not simply render a world; he makes one out of language, creating imaginary objects and imaginary lives. He works toward the purity of prose fiction and the autonomy of art. He works against the concept of mimesis, that is the imitation of "reality," partly because it is futile for the artist to strive for the illusion of life, and partly because he has no obligation to life. His commitment is to aesthetic satisfaction achieved through metaphorical language; it is to writing as process.

Omensetter's Luck, is accordingly, an exercise in the use of language, which in this instance is a prose that strives constantly to be like poetry or music. The words are better than experience, are, indeed, the experience, and the book is intended to be about language and writing. To give himself ample opportunity to exercise his writing capabilities, Gass designed the novel in three sections, each written in a different mode: the first in the narrative, the second in the lyric, and the third in the rhetorical and dramatic modes. The rhythms and images of the Bible, the baroque qualities of Sir Thomas Browne, the technical virtuosity of Flaubert, the stream of consciousness of Joyce all contribute to the writing of the novel in full freedom from the conventional principles of realism and the traditional values of humanism. Nevertheless, lurking behind this dedication to process are narrative and theme, those Gass-identified enemies to the purity of art. The novel dramatizes a conflict between Omensetter, a natural force who represents being-in-nature, and Jethro Furber, a man of religion and thought, obsessed with death and sex. Attractive as he is, Omensetter demonstrates the inadequacies of mindless and spiritless being, while Furber shows us the failure to fuse successfully word, belief, and action in such a way as to elevate the spirit. In short, Gass has drawn, perhaps despite himself, upon the mythological dimensions of Christianity.

While the title story in Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is confessedly modeled on reality, the collection as a whole is experimental. "The Pedersen Kid" is deliberately designed to call into question the nature of reality and the possibility of truth, matters that must live side by side with Gass's concern for the shape of his sentences and the relation of sentence to sentence in the paragraph. In the stories generally, the narrative voice struggles to get inside the characters and with words, magic words, steal their souls away and play with them.

But even more thoroughly committed to experimentalism is Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, in which conventional narrative is largely discarded. The book offers instead a pastiche of various materials: reminiscences of the narrator, little essays on words and the imagination by the author, a variety of typographical play, authorial abuse of the reader, a parody of pornography, and footnotes. All this is designed to destroy the character and form of traditional fiction and to offer opportunities, once the old patterns of linear and logical thought, linear time, and linear print are broken up, for free-wheeling use of the imagination. The book is an experience in art, as Gass tells us at the end, where he inserts a motto: You have fallen into art—return to life. In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife Gass gives himself to self-indulgent play, maximizing the freedom that the author, a god-like figure in Gass's view, justifiably claims in his dedication to the autonomy of art.

Cartesian Sonata, which contains four novellas written over the course of three decades, is, in typical Gassian form, long on style and short on emotion. To an even greater degree, this can be said for The Tunnel, promoted as a magnum opus that was, like Cartesian Sonata, three decades in coming. But whereas at least the earlier narratives possessed a recognizable shape, The Tunnel is so weighted by narrator William Kohler's world-weary observations that a plot is only barely discernible.

—Chester E. Eisinger

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