William H. Gass, an experimental writer who died this week in St. Louis and was known for his emphasis on form and language over traditional elements like story and character, was a staunch postmodernist whose work influenced many. He was 93. His wife, Mary Henderson Gass, reported that he died of congestive heart failure. He passed away in St. Louis, where he had been an emeritus professor at Washington University for 30 years.
Most people agree that Mr. Gass first used the word “metafiction” to characterize works in which the author plays a significant role. He was also considered a master of the art form. His writing demonstrated his philosophical understanding and his academic pedigree, but it also featured ribald and frequently obscene limericks. He made simple phrases sound profound, as in “a dab of the dizzies,” but it was his metaphors (which he said came to him in “squadrons”), rhythms, and the obvious effort he put into each line that earned him the respect of his fellow authors.
He wrote that if a sentence were excellent enough, “it would be a crime on the world’s part to let it die” since sentences had souls. As he put it, “the words choose to be there” in a perfect sentence. It was not uncommon for a Gass sentence to have more than 300 words, all of which were strung out like railroad cars between nested clauses and joined by semicolons.
He claimed that the plot was unimportant, however, it certainly wasn’t lacking in his works. His stories didn’t follow the typical formula. The law was breached in his books, and there was plenty of dread and brutality, but he never wrote a chase scene or a trial scene.
In addition to his time as a professor of philosophy and the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis (1969–1988), Gass spent four years teaching at The College of Wooster and sixteen years at Purdue University (1979–1999). Writers Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov (1988 U.S. Poet Laureate), and Mona Van Duyn were among his coworkers there (1992 Poet Laureate). Gass has held the position of David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities since 2000.
He married Mary Pat O’Kelly in 1952, prior to finishing his degree at Cornell. Separation and divorce followed the breakdown of the marriage. Richard, Robert, and Susan were his children from his first marriage.
Mary Henderson Gass, an architect and the writer behind “Parkview: A St. Louis Urban Oasis,” was Gass’s wife (2005). Catherine and Elizabeth Gass-Boshoven, their twin daughters. Photographer Catherine is also a professor at Chicago’s Newberry Library and an artist who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago
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Publishing and writing
Gass began publishing pieces that were included in The Best American Short Stories in 1959, 1961, 1962, 1968, and 1980 and Two Hundred Years of Great American Short Stories while he was still a university professor supporting his family. Omensetter’s Luck, his debut novel, was released in 1966 and is set in a little Ohio village in the 1890s. His linguistic brilliance won him critical acclaim and helped to cement his position as a major novelist. One critic, Richard Gilman of The New Republic, termed it “the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation.” In 1968, he released a collection of short stories titled In the Heart of the Country, in which he explored the themes of loneliness and romantic trouble. Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, an experimental novella with images and typographical structures, was released the same year. Its aim was to encourage readers to break out of traditional narrative norms. He has also written and published various collections of essays, such as Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970) and Finding a Form (1990). (1996). His novels Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998) and Middle C (2013) have both been published. In addition, his writing was featured in the 1986, 1992, and 2000 editions of The Best American Essays.
Gass said he wrote “to get even” for the anger he felt as a child, and that this anger played a significant role in his creative process. Even though he wrote a lot, he said that it was hard for him. Actually, it took Gass 26 years to write his epic masterpiece The Tunnel. It was released in 1995. Defending his deliberate and measured pace, he explained, “For this reason, my writing pace is slow. To get even halfway decent, I have to rework it several times.”
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William H. Gass Quotes
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