Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


William H. Gass

By Robert Coover

William Gass was one of the greatest crafters of English-language prose of his time, an anatomist of the sentence and philosopher of the word. It was his stated desire to make written language pierce the soul and, with all the passion of a Platonist enraged by sophistry, he loathed language that merely sought to sell itself. In his essay, “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” he wrote that “superlative writing is love lavished on the word in order to repair a world which revengeful fantasy has destroyed…” It possesses the qualities “all the finest writing strives for: energy, perception, passion, thought, music, movement, and imagination.” During one of my frequent working visits to Washington University in St. Louis where Bill taught, I sat in on his seminar on “The Sentence,” in which his students read all the major contemporary linguists, semioticians, and philosophers and worked on particular sentences. At the time, as I vividly recall, the sentence of the day was “The beggar ate the sandwich.”

In his own writing, Bill aspired to something like consanguinity between reader and writer, a common flow, words the magical conduit. “What counts,” he said in an Iowa Review discussion with his friend Stanley Elkin, “is words. They always count. That’s all that counts.” Subject, genre, plot, argument certainly didn’t count, or counted much less. Fiction does not reveal to us the world or revel in gossip or anecdote, it makes music. No prose can pretend to greatness, he has written, if its music is not also great; if it does not construct a surround of sound to house its meaning the way flesh was once felt to embody the soul. Bill knew how to play his instrument. As he wrote about Paul Valéry, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent; and because he was so widely reflective, because he looked upon the arbitrary as a gift to form, he turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances…, shaping subtle elusive lines of thought like the silvered paths of fish, and with his calm, poetic style, robbing the reader of his breath.”

I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s, fresh out of the Navy and newly wed, and my bride and I occasionally drove down to the University of Illinois to visit a grad student friend, an old high school pal, and his wife. One night at a dinner party, they introduced us to fellow grad student Stanley Elkin and his wife Joan. Stanley was a very funny man, kept us falling out of our chairs, snorting with laughter all night. At least I was falling, snorting. Stanley loved me. I was his perfect audience. I never let him down. Even when he was in a wheelchair and dying of MS, he could still crack me up. My buddy and Stanley were both on the staff of the department’s literary magazine, Accent, and they were trying to persuade the reluctant faculty on the magazine to devote an entire issue to the writing of one particular author, something that had never happened before. This author, a young unknown and unpublished philosophy professor over at Purdue, had sent in a story called “At Horseshoes,” which they had rejected, while adding in a note that they liked the writing and wondered if there were others. The author had replied with a ninety-pound package wrapped in brown paper, and had said if they didn’t like any of this lot, he could send others. Stanley read it all and was convinced this was a great writer, but he needed my friend’s help in convincing the others, and as I tended even then to stay up until dawn, I agreed to pass the night poring through the ninety-pounder. It contained in effect all there was at that time of The Heart of the Heart of the Country and Omensetter’s Luck. It was, as we said in those grad student days, fucking beautiful. I passed on my enthusiasm, and in time they succeeded, made a selection, adding in a terrific essay on Henry James, and that issue of Accent is now the most valued of all.

Stanley, upon receiving his doctorate, was hired as a young tenure-track English professor by Washington University in St. Louis, and, when a position opened up in the philosophy department, he managed to convince the search committee to invite Bill as a candidate. Stanley had a knack for the salesman’s pitch. Bill won the position, and a lifelong friendship between the two men ensued, a friendship I was lucky enough to share. I invited both men often to Brown and was invited by them to St. Louis, in time became a board member of Bill’s International Writing Center, tried to link it to my International Writers Project at Brown.

In the spring of 1989, Bill and I were both invited to Colombia. The original plan had us going to Bogotá, but it was a violent city at the time, riddled with drug wars. So, instead, we found ourselves in Cali, home of one of the two major coca gangs, and awoke the first morning to find murdered bodies dumped at the hotel doorway. Money for the event came from a presumably legitimate pharmaceutical company. We read to a fairly large audience, including a class of high school students, obliged to attend. One of our duties of the night was to present graduating seniors with essay awards, and Bill somehow managed to toss his into the orchestra pit. A scramble ensued that highlighted the occasion. The organizers of the festival invited us to the pharmaceutical company president’s house for a party after the readings and handoffs. On arrival, we found the premises heavily guarded by armed guards. Bill stepped out of the car and—literally—slipped on a banana peel and fell, banging the hood of the car, found himself, where he sat, staring up the barrels of a circle of drawn weapons. Our visit was written up by the local newspaper. In it, not surprisingly, Bill was described, not as a writer, but as the lead dancer in an entertaining dance troupe.

Bill’s most original achievement as a writer was probably his fusing of the forms of the essay and fiction. “My work is almost all anti-genre,” he said in that Iowa Review conversation, “breaking down the divisions that used to exist between essays, stories, etc. I’ve always been interested in writing as writing.” It is not merely that there are profound philosophical layers in all his fiction, not merely that in his essays his ideas are launched forth like living characters into a sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile world, abstract as thought yet visible as landscape, but that one can often not say just what a Gass work is, except that it is his own. In all his anti-genre writing, Gass presents us with an exquisitely beautiful fiction of a thinking mind, enmeshed in body and betrayed by appetite and dread and distraction, yet never faltering in its heroic quest of the completed thought. He was meditation’s chief living biographer.

“The purpose of a literary work,” he wrote in his essay “The Medium of Fiction,” is:
“the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so—senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment—yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling. While listening to such symbols sounding, the blind perceive; thought seems to grow a body; and the will is at rest amid that moving like a gull asleep on the sea…. It is not a refusal to please. There’s no willfulness, disdain, exile… no anger. Because a consciousness electrified by beauty—is that not the aim and emblem and the ending of all finely made love?

Then he pauses and asks: “Are you afraid?”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2018.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters