Authors: William H. Gass

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and critic

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Omensetter’s Luck, 1966

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, 1968

The Tunnel, 1995

The Cartesian Sonata, and Other Novellas, 1998

Short Fiction:

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories, 1968

The First Winter of My Married Life, 1979


Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, 1976

The World Within the Word: Essays, 1978

The Habitations of the Word: Essays, 1985

Finding a Form, 1996

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, 1999

Three Essays: Reflections on the American Century, 2000 (with Naomi Lebowitz and Gerald Early)

Tests of Time: Essays, 2002

Conversations with William H. Gass, 2003 (Theodore G. Ammon, editor)

Edited Texts:

The Writer in Politics, 1996 (with Lorin Cuoco)

Literary St. Louis: A Guide, 2000 (with Cuoco)

The Writer and Religion, 2000 (with Cuoco)


William Howard Gass, whose sensuous, deeply textured prose made him one of the most celebrated American stylists, is at once a leading theorist and a practitioner of postrealist fiction. The tribulations of life in the Midwest during the Depression, which were intensified for Gass by his father’s crippling arthritis and his mother’s alcoholism, inform the blasted environments and “grayed in” attitudes that are so prevalent in his fiction. As a child, Gass escaped into books. At Kenyon College, which he entered in 1942, he majored in philosophy and took courses from John Crowe Ransom, the high priest of the New Criticism, whose tenets of textual integrity and aesthetic self-sufficiency proved compatible with Gass’s own persuasions. He completed his B.A. in 1947 and entered graduate school in philosophy at Cornell University, where he joined a seminar led by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose ideas about language and reality Gass credits as having had the most important impact on his own intellectual development. In 1969, Gass joined the philosophy department of Washington University in St. Louis. His many honors include the National Institute of Arts and Letters prize for literature in 1975, appointments to PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and National Book Award juries, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lannan Foundation Literary Awards in 1997, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism for The Habitations of the Word in 1986, Finding a Form in 1997, and Tests of Time in 2003.{$I[AN]9810001126}{$I[A]Gass, William H.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Gass, William H.}{$I[tim]1924;Gass, William H.}

Fostering Gass’s absorption with such issues as the autonomy of art, the physicality of the verbal artifact, and the fictive nature of conceptual models was his exposure to writers such as Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, Colette, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Paul Valéry, who appear prominently in Gass’s essays as precursors of his own preoccupation with the self-evident process of building sentences.

This theme is also evident in Gass’s fiction. Set in the 1890’s in the Ohio River town of Gilean, Omensetter’s Luck pits the self-conscious, repressed brooding of the Reverend Jethro Furber against Brackett Omensetter’s natural innocence and unselfconscious ease–the so-called luck that seems positively prelapsarian. The religious, metaphysical, and even linguistic consequences that Omensetter unwittingly provokes cause Furber to plot his downfall. The center of the novel is Furber himself, whom Gass deems its hero because it is he who is most thoroughly “worded,” whereas Omensetter is a blank wall, unassimilable by the decrepit town historian, Israbestis Tott, by the desperately envious Pimber, or by the scheming, ascetic Furber.

The tension between “beautiful barriers of words” and a reality of barren landscapes is seen in several of the stories collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. By choosing private fictions over social contacts, Gass’s characters exaggerate the aesthetic principles that dominate the essays in Fiction and the Figures of Life, The World Within the Word, and The Habitations of the Word, which extol the self-referential status of fiction and redefine conventions of character, plot, and setting as aspects of language. Instead of a realistic description of the Midwestern heartland, the narrator of the title story presents a bleak glimpse of his own detached consciousness–the heart at the heart of the country. Gass claims, “Language is . . . more powerful as an experience of things than the experience of things.”

Gass is credited with coining the term “metafiction” to refer to works that feature and feast on their own processes, and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is perhaps its purest manifestation. The novel is not only a stylistic experiment–replete with puns, mirrored pages, parodies, deformations of the physical text, and all manner of contrivance and whimsy–but also an elaborate metaphor between the act of lovemaking and the act of reading. Babs Masters is more than a sexually frustrated wife: She is the book itself complaining of impatience, passionlessness, and inexpert handling by her lover/reader. Gass’s devotion to the seductive pleasures of the text here receives its most elaborate expression.

Fragments from Gass’s The Tunnel were published between 1969 and 1995, when the complete edition of the monumental novel appeared. The work concerns William Frederick Kohler, a frustrated professor of Nazi history who has finished his life’s work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, but cannot write his introduction. The novel, Kohler’s attempt to write his preface, demonstrates his escape from the world and his passage through language and textual play to self-consciousness. It was honored with the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

Gass’s fiction, dense with metaphor and architectural elegance, has often proved too rich for the common taste. His main characters are seldom appealing, much less heroic. Yet as Gass himself has attested in his famous debates on moral fiction with John Gardner, he is as reluctant to have everyone love his books as he is to have everyone love his daughter. Disdainful of popular success, Gass has earned considerable critical respect as one of the most sinuous, uncompromising imaginations in contemporary American letters.

BibliographyBradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Places Gass in the company of postmodern writers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In discussing Gass’s fiction and critical writing, Bradbury notes Gass’s background in philosophy and that he is conscious of the “discrepancy between language and reality.”Busch, Frederick. “But This Is What It Is Like to Live in Hell: Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Modern Fiction Studies 20 (Autumn, 1974): 328-336. This essay provides one of the earliest, and still one of the best, analyses of theme and style in one of Gass’s most important short stories.Gardner, James. “Transgressive Fiction.” National Review 48 (June 17, 1996): 54-56. Agues that whereas fiction used to delight as well as edify, now it has split into different forms of fiction, with writers like Stephen King and Jackie Collins being read for entertainment value, while Thomas Pynchon and William Gass intentionally suppress the element of pleasure.Gass, William. “An Interview with William Gass.” Interview by Lorna H. Dormke. Mississippi Review 10, no. 3 (1987): 53-67. One of the most recent and most extensive interviews with Gass.Hadella, Charlotte Byrd. “The Winter Wasteland of William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 30 (Fall, 1988): 49-58. Hadella explores the wasteland theme and imagery in Gass’s story and compares them with T. S. Eliot’s use of the same themes in his great poem.Holloway, Watson L. William Gass. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1990. A good critical study of Gass’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and an index.Kaufmann, Michael. Textual Bodies: Modernism, Postmodernism, and Print. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994. A thorough study of works by Gass, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce. Includes a bibliography and an index.Kaufmann, Michael. “The Textual Body: William Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.” Critique 35 (Fall, 1993): 27-42. Argues that the voice of the work is not the voice of the protagonist, Willie Masters’ wife, but the voice of the text itself. Discusses Gass’s experiments with typography and the physical form of the text.Kellman, Steven G., and Irving Malin, eds. Into “The Tunnel”: Readings of Gass’s Novel. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998. Considers the psychological element in Gass’s novel; includes a discussion of historians and college teachers in literature, a bibliography, and an index.McCaffery, Larry. “A William Gass Bibliography.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 18, no. 1 (1976): 59-66. A useful bibliography of Gass scholarship.Saltzman, Arthur. The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. Saltzman’s book includes seven chapters on various aspects of Gass’s fiction. Saltzman claims that Gass’s short-fiction collection can best be read as a “series of variations on the theme of the pleasures and pitfalls of aesthetic isolation.” The last chapter contains an interesting interview with Gass.Stone, Robert. “The Reason for Stories: Toward a Moral Fiction.” Harper’s 276 (June, 1988): 71-76. Discusses Gass’s argument about the estrangement of art and moral goodness in his essay “Goodness Knows Nothing of Beauty.” Claims that Gass does not practice the ideas expressed in his essay, which are at odds with the imperatives of writing. Contends that in order to be independent of morality, fiction would have to be composed of something other than language, for the laws of language and art impose choices that are unavoidably moral.
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