“Works of art,” William Gass, who died this week, at ninety-three, once wrote, “are governed by the question, ‘Why this, rather than that?’ ” Gass spent most of his life in the Midwest. He was born in North Dakota and taught philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, where he counted James Merrill and Stanley Elkin among his colleagues. He first got attention, in the nineteen-sixties, for his short stories, which were dreamlike, and formally challenging. He would go on to publish several novellas, a volume of Rilke translations, and three novels, one of which, “The Tunnel,” narrated by a cranky, eloquent historian of Nazi Germany, won the American Book Award.
But he was best known for his essays, a fact that he would occasionally acknowledge with sadness. “Fiction is what I really want to write,” he confessed in one interview, but, he knew, “people are less interested in it, they really prefer my essays.” Between 1970 and 2012, Gass published seven collections of them, including “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” “Habitations of the Word,” and “Finding a Form.” (He won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism three times.) As the titles suggest, the essays in these books probed the demands and delights of language, and articulated a highly original view of the novel, one that was not widely understood, or much credited. Though Gass was revered by many, he was also seen as a contrarian, and occasionally dismissed as such, regarded as the sort of person who will overstate things to make a point.
It’s true that he attacked the conventional critical citadels of plot and character with a certain glee. In “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” an essay from 1970, he discussed a figure in Henry James’s novel “The Awkward Age.” “Now the question is: what is Mr. Cashmore?” Gass wrote. “Here is the answer I shall give: Mr. Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling conception, (5) an instrument of verbal organization, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy.” Over the years, this comment followed Gass around. Irving Howe devoted a page to parsing it in a piece for The New Republic, and it became a stand-in for a new, more programmatic and skeptical mode of reading, one that sought to divest fiction of all human presences.
But Gass had not set out to deny character. What he wanted was to refocus attention on a book’s elemental matter. Mr. Cashmore is, after all, a series of words. There’s no portrait of him, no audio track of his voice. If he seems to possess a vivid reality—if he seems, to use a phrase Gass would have abhorred, to leap from the page—that is because James pulled off a trick. So what was the secret of the illusion? In essence, Gass wanted readers to ponder the same questions as writers. Which of these words is better, and what order should they go in? Why this, rather than that?
Works of prose, he insisted, were not mirrors; they did not show us life. He called sentences “containers of consciousness,” and the consciousness he meant was not mine, or yours, or even the author’s. It belonged to the book alone. “Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks them,” he said, in accepting the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, in 2007. Then he took up a passage from Emerson’s “Circles”:
And when he thought “the eye is the first circle,” I’ll bet he didn’t know what the second circle was. But writing notions down means building them up; it means to set forth on a word, only to turn back, erasing and replacing, choosing and refusing alternatives, listening to the language, and watching the idea take shape like solidifying fog.
Only by struggling with the demands of form, by revising until he found the right set of choices, could Emerson arrive at the ideas expressed in his essay. “For that is what fine writing does: it creates a unique verbal consciousness,” Gass said in the same speech.
This idea sounds natural enough when applied to an essayist like Emerson; it becomes harder to accept when applied to fiction, when words are being used not to explain but to dramatize. If prose has no referent, if it is unique and points only to itself, then we cannot say that the novel teaches us how we think, or that one of its primary virtues is the way it tracks the mind’s habits and irregularities. This was another sacred tenet that Gass punctured. The charge of a writer, he maintained, was not to relate a world but to create one—a world of sound, of the rhythm and melody made when syllables collide. “No prose can pretend to greatness if its music is not also great,” he wrote.
For many readers, these poetics will seem insular and narrow, and represent a last retreat into aestheticism. Seen another way, however, they are liberating, and inclusive—uniting books as disparate as, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” prose works with their own rich music that rises, as Gass demanded, to the level of a dynamic verbal consciousness. What sounded like contrarianism, in Gass’s essays, was really an unmatched reverence for language, a love that was inseparable from piety. To try and solve the mystery of a sentence, to wonder at the felicities of its construction, did not have to diminish awe but could replenish it.
Gass has published his essays and reviews in numerous journals and periodicals, perhaps most notably and often in Harper’s Magazine (where he has also served as a contributing editor) and New York Review of Books. Local publications like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Journalism Review, St. Louis Magazine and Gateway Heritage have published his essays, and he has served as an ambassador for his home city in the pages of Travel Holiday, TWA Ambassador, and elsewhere. Besides writing about literature, culture and the arts, Gass has written and lectured extensively on architecture.
The items included on this page are limited to those currently unpublished or uncollected elsewhere. See the Nonfiction Books section for drafts of essays later collected in those books.
Drafts and notes for “The Religion of Consciousness” - an essay on Katerine Anne Porter written while Gass was at Purdue
Published version of "St. Louis Bound" from Travel Holiday, September 1993
First ten pages of "Romancing the Mind" printout draft, published in Conjunctions, 2012
"My Memories of the Service" essay written for this digital exhibit