An Interview with William H. Gass

Fifty years ago, William H. Gass accomplished his doctorate in philosophy. His dissertation was titled “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” which foreshadowed the two components that would become prevalent in his later books: intellectual depth and a passion for language and symbolism.

His prose was captivating and whimsical while also being heavy in philosophy. In a 1978 literary dispute with John Gardner, Gass mentioned his desire for his writing to be immovable like a rock while being perceived as if it were airborne.

The oeuvre of Gass’s works of fiction includes Omensetter’s Luck (1966), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968).

His most recent and challenging novel is The Tunnel (1995), a book he worked on for almost three decades. The protagonist, an acrimonious university historian known as William Kohler, narrates it and its reception was one of stark contrasts, with both acclaim and derision.

Dalkey Archive Press, the publisher of the novel since the late 1990s, will soon be releasing an unabridged audio reading of it, recorded by Gass himself in the last year.

Gass is widely recognized for the learned and spirited compilation of his essays, including: On Being Blue: A Philosophical Investigation (1976), Habitations of the Word (1985), Finding a Form (1996), and Tests of Time (2002).

The latter two books garnered the National Book Critics Circle Awards for Criticism. Furthermore, for his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999), Gass was the recipient of the PEN/American Nabokov Award.

This past year I had the opportunity to visit William H. Gass in his St. Louis residence, which he shares with his spouse and an impressive library of 19,000 books.

He was a professor of philosophy at Washington University, where he also founded and led the International Writers Center, for thirty years, and at 80 years old, he is still an active writer. His new collection of essays,

A Temple of Texts, is due to be released by Knopf and he believes he is halfway through another novel. On the day of our conversation, he was preparing to depart for a mentoring assembly centred around the concept of “The Architecture of the Sentence”.

— According to Stephen Schenkenberg


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Question:When your debut book Omensetter ‘s Luck was released in 1966, what kind of writing career did you anticipate starting?

William H. Gass had no clear notion of what his career was going to be when he started out. All he wanted to do was write books, but he did not see it as having any particular shape or form.

He was hoping to have a career in philosophy, which would provide him the freedom and security to write without having to worry about making a living or needing to earn extra income.

As he knew many other writers who had to grapple with this same issue, such as William Gaddis, and had to take up jobs they didn’t like in order to make ends meet; although, teaching was a bit different in that it was quite alluring.

Ultimately, Gass wanted an academic career, which would enable him to do non-academic things while still surviving in the academy, but this was not fully clear yet.

BLVR asked if that behaviour was encouraged.

WG recounts his fortunate experience beginning his teaching career at a less-than-ideal school. Purdue University, although strong in engineering, had a very weak humanities program when he first arrived.

However, due to the influx of funds from Sputnik, the department of History, Government, and Philosophy was able to expand and begin offering a Ph.D. program. WG was lucky to be part of this growth.

The deans were uninterested in the specifics of what I was doing, as long as I was producing something — it could have been anything, even knitting. But had I been at Princeton, it would have been necessary to create philosophy or else I would have been terminated.

Furthermore, it would have had to be good, which would have been a real challenge since I did not want to do that. Fortunately, due to the publication requirement, I was able to progress and succeed without having to compromise.

BLVR: After your first book was published, was there a specific direction that you wanted to take with your writing? Did you have an idea of the sorts of books you wanted to create once two, three, or four had been released?

WG initially wanted to write fiction, but it was much easier to get short essays published. He found himself focusing more on criticism and publishing more essays because it was something he could complete quickly with a deadline.

Unfortunately, he still has difficulty placing his fiction anywhere except for some of the smaller publications that will take him.

In the book Reading Rilke, I mentioned that the Duino Elegies were not composed, but instead anticipated. How would I best explain my own creative writing process?

WG discusses his experience with The Tunnel, which took an unusually long time to write. The Getty grant allowed him to take a year off to focus solely on the manuscript, which he was able to double in size from 600 to 1,200 pages.

He then remarks that this is unusual compared to his other works and that the inspiration for The Tunnel came in a hurry, relatively speaking.


BLVR: The Review of Contemporary Fiction recently released an issue in honour of your work, and Michael Silverblatt revisited his past review of The Tunnel, which he had once declared to be “the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.”

A decade later, Silverblatt now claims that “our culture has regressed to the level of its narrator, William Kohler.”

He continues to say that “there is fascism in the hearts of many, racism that has been perpetuated by generations, and the effects of the Party of the Disappointed People everywhere.” I wanted to learn your opinion on his statements.

WG: At a recent reading for the Lannan Foundation, I was out West and Patrick Lannan joined me for a radio interview. He, along with others, seemed to think that the novel was becoming more realistic.

I jokingly maintained that I was a realist, and that this was the actual way of the world. However, I was being somewhat facetious. I don’t think so, it’s always seemed this way to me. [Laughs]

Having been raised during the period of the Great Depression, just before the start of the Second World War, a number of fascist organisations such as the Brown Shirts, the German Bundt, and Father Coughlin’s right-wing Catholic party were in existence.

Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan was much more active than it was today. Sinclair Lewis was writing It Can’t Happen Here, and if one were to look out upon the political atmosphere, it would be accurate to say that it was a gloomy period.

I don’t believe it is worse now though; I think Michael and Patrick were simply feeling the mood of the time. [ Laughs ]

BLVR: After dedicating a lot of your attention to the storyteller, William Kohler, was it hard for you to part ways with him when you were done writing the novel?

WG: I was well-prepared for the task of picking up where I left off in the novel because there had been so many interruptions in its writing. What was more difficult was getting back into the mind of the character, Kohler.

Fortunately, his extreme nature enabled me to do so. But long books like this present the challenge of staying in the same mindset as one was in when they began it. I was grateful to be able to ship the book off and put it behind me. [ Both laugh ]

BLVR: How has your work been viewed overseas? Specifically, I’m curious about the response of the German audience to The Tunnel since its protagonist has just completed a book about the Third Reich.

WG found that the German audience had received The Tunnel very well. Furthermore, many Europeans, including those in France and Italy, read the book in English. He has a more considerable reputation in Europe than in the States.

John Hawkes was famously popular in France and when WG went to the country with him, the press swarmed around them. WG noted that Jack did his best to include him in the frenzy and the whole thing was quite amusing.

Question:What are your ideas as to why?

WG commented that Europeans are better readers; the Germans especially. Writers are held in much higher regard, and they often take pride in knowing more about literature than the author of the work.

He noted that they sometimes make silly mistakes, like overvaluing Edgar Allen Poe, but their critics are generally quite good. This is true of other countries in Europe like Italy and Spain, where Americanists are incredibly well-read and very welcoming.

Lastly, WG mentioned that the French take their culture and their daily papers with their good critics very seriously.



Do you consciously strive to entertain your readers while writing? Even though The Tunnel deals with heavy topics and On Being Blue is a philosophical work, they both remain engaging and captivating. Is this something you are aware of while writing?

WG stated that he does not pay attention to readers and does not want to be academic. He expressed his dislike for jargon and pretentiousness, and mentioned that his mode of operation involves committing breaches of decorum.

Furthermore, WG suggested that being playful is a part of his nature and that, in order to take something seriously, one must not be too serious about it.

I do have to admit that I often think of my audience when I’m giving a lecture, as if I’m trying to please them. That being said, I like to stick to a certain level of decorum and avoid any jargon or ideologies.

I understand that sometimes specialised terms are required, such as when Kant or Aristotle comes up with new words that are necessary. But when other people start using language that is intentionally obscure, it really rubs me the wrong way.

BLVR: With a Ph.D. in philosophy, you were an educator in the field and also composed works of fiction and wrote essays on novelists and poets. What benefit do you believe that philosophy offers us that we can’t get from reading literature, even if consumed in large amounts?

WG spoke of concept art, noting that philosophy can offer an aesthetic arrangement of ideas. This can lead to some very intriguing writing, using an example of the German philosopher Gottlob Frege who wrote on the fundamentals of arithmetic. His work was described as “beautiful, beautiful stuff”.

The world of conceptualised ideas is a fantastic thing to explore, even if, like Aristotle’s Physics, it is outdated. Even though the physics is incorrect, the reasoning is still dazzling. When I read it for the first time, it was extraordinary.

He was so sensible in his thought process, given what he had to work with, and you can learn a lot about how someone’s mind works and should work.

Additionally, Plato, Kant, Spinoza, and particularly Hobbes, all wrote some of the best prose ever. Though it may not be the truth, the journey of exploration is still valuable.

Plotinus is one of my favourites, even though he can be a bit crazy. [ Both laugh ] But his language is magnificent. The same could be said for Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in German.

It’s important to recognize that when studying philosophy, it’s not just about getting the right answer. What they were able to do was explore and demonstrate how things work, and suggest how the world may look from a particular point of view.

That alone can tell you volumes about that perspective.

BLVR: In an interview from 1979, I remember you giving a striking comment regarding the separation between literature and philosophy.

You said: “Take Rilke as an example, who happens to be my favourite writer. His thoughts are really nonsensical when it comes to philosophical ideas, yet they are amazingly beautiful as poetic notions.”

WG: When I visited Florence and saw the Fra Angelicos painted on the monks’ cells, I recognized that the artist was devoted to religious subject matter. Although I do not share the same beliefs, I was still able to appreciate the painting for its technical merits.

It must be a powerful experience for someone who is able to merge the faith and the art together. No doubt, it must be quite overwhelming.

As a teacher, it can be very beneficial to teach philosophical systems that one does not believe in. In fact, leaving one’s own beliefs at the door can often lead to a better presentation.

I, personally, am not a fan of St. Paul’s ideas, but I find him to be remarkable. What he had to do and how he did it is truly remarkable. It’s like viewing something from a different perspective, one that is not shared, but it’s still a great view.

I think this is a very wise attitude and can help to avoid people from tearing down the religious symbols of others. [Laughs] First, one should ask if the dictator’s statue is any good before attempting to pull it down. [Laughs]


BLVR: What was your main objective as an educator? How did your approach to teaching evolve over the years? You’ve previously brought up the fact that M. H. Abrams and Wittgenstein were two of your mentors. Are there any students who recall their experiences in your classes?

WG articulated that their teaching ability was limited, mainly to lecturing. They were not adept with seminars or tutorials, and did not feel as confident in those areas. This could be due to the fact that, just like Pound as Stein said, they were “a village explainer”.

When I was in charge of teaching, I typically lectured and made sure the concepts were presented in an organised fashion. My focus was always on the texts and their ideas, puzzles, and qualities.

The size of the class didn’t matter to me. [ Laughs ] I wasn’t concerned with it. I admired certain teachers for their enthusiasm for the material. What I got from them was their enthusiasm for the subject.

Abrams was an amazing teacher – he could manage small groups as well as giving excellent lectures, and had a strong presence at Cornell. Wittgenstein, while limited in his teaching, was still so powerful that it didn’t matter.

My chairman Max Black was an astounding teacher in the classroom, but not so much elsewhere. When it came to discussing the philosophy of science and the foundations of mathematics, he was simply marvellous. He listened, answered questions and made sure everyone kept up. Outside of the class, however, he wasn’t as successful.

The teaching profession had a multitude of people who taught me different things. I believe I was capable and I never raised my voice at any student. The only time I was disappointed was when I felt I hadn’t done a good job.

I have found myself teaching literature on rare occasions. For instance, I took over Stanley Elkin’s fiction writing workshop after his passing. I was not particularly fond of it, nor the students, since they weren’t engaging with the material.

BLVR: Did they have Master of Fine Arts degrees?

WG recounted that their students had no interest in reading and did not know anything. To counter this, they insisted on making them read quality works. WG also promised to meet with the students individually regarding their own work instead of bringing it up in class.

Question:What task did you give out?

WG: As part of the class, I made them read a narrative poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. [ Laughs ] I wanted to demonstrate that narration could be found in all kinds of material, even though the class was focused on fiction.

It was in blank verse, and they really weren’t fans. I also made them read Henry James, and one student said he was good “in his time.” I was tempted to hit them.

When I taught philosophy, I didn’t experience that sentiment, but it was dissimilar with literature. It has alarmed me to see that often enough, the pupils of writing aren’t reading. They’re reading one another’s work.

Or they’re reading the person who was recently featured in the New Yorker and they want to be there as well. They are not taking it seriously. Stanley would be hard on them. I understand why he did that, yet I don’t like it either.

Question: Throughout your many years at university, have you noticed any major changes in aspects such as the curriculum, student life, or programs offered?

WG discussed the back-and-forth between departmental integrity and the failure of people to cross-fertilize, noting that there are pros and cons to both.

They then spoke of the new arts program at Washington University, which would involve mixed-media, although they were uncertain if it would be successful. They argued that the best way to mix disciplines is to find individuals who are already mixed in their minds.

They noted the slow movement in this direction, notably in the sciences and philosophy which have shifted due to money and philosophy being regarded as something of use.

They then discussed business ethics, the fragmentation of women’s studies, and similar courses, which they viewed gloomily.


BLVR: In the opening of The Writer in Politics, you mentioned: “Rather than idolise authors, it is better to imprison them. Bestowing power on a writer is like giving them toxic material. Not only do they produce erroneous works, they start to believe them themselves.”

Has living a seemingly tranquil Midwestern lifestyle been influenced by your apprehension of eminence and reputation?

WG expressed his scepticism of fame and renown, but noted that when it is thrust upon you, it is hard to resist the effects.

He posited that the Nobel Prize has even been known to ruin some careers, and made the point that money, fame, and power do not guarantee anything. He believes that second- and third-generation wealthy people have an easier time managing their money because they are used to it.

He made the observation that academics in political power can be dangerous because they do not understand how to handle it and that having influence can lead to a Hemingway-style competition which is not the right kind of competition at all.

In the past, writers were held in high regard and well-regarded in intellectual circles. This was not only due to their writing, however; it was a result of their placement in influential positions.

When a society’s values are as low as ours, having a marginalised group in such pivotal spots is something to be wary of.

The distance from literary scenes can be advantageous. It can provide a reprieve from the buzz of the local scene and the ubiquitous gossip that accompanies it. It is especially intense in New York, where the chatter is akin to a tempest.

Some people are incredibly well-suited to living in New York, such as Susan Sontag who flourished.

Gaddis, on the other hand, was able to cope with life in the city due to his irascible nature and the support of his like-minded close friends, such as Lukas Foss and Saul Steinberg.

However, while it is possible to live in New York and remain relatively anonymous, the danger of popular success in this country is that it is often a sign of poor quality, something which is a genuine shame.

BLVR: Due to your current standing, you have been able to help push certain authors that you are passionate about. For instance, William Gaddis and Flann O’Brien’s works. Is that something that has been meaningful to you?

WG commented that they have a great deal of enthusiasm for their work. They are currently gathering examples for a mentorship program at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

WG was particularly impressed by a sentence from Jane Austen, and also had a favourite from Thoreau. They found it enjoyable to observe the skill with which everything was done. WG expressed that it was a real treat for them to be able to share their enthusiasm with others.

BLVR: Is there a particular individual or two that have been particularly gratifying to have been able to assist?

WG commented, “I don’t think I have much influence on the literary world. It’s hard to tell for sure. There have been instances where a critic wrote about a particular writer and that writer became established.

For example, when The Portable Faulkner came out, there was a powerful essay written by a prominent critic that helped to make Faulkner’s name.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many critics in the U.S. that have that kind of power to establish another writer through their writing these days.”

Susan Sontag was very passionate and eager to share her discoveries with her friends. This ability to recognize excellent literature was her finest quality.

As an example, I remember a postcard from Mark Strand suggesting I read Invisible Cities and I am grateful for it to this day. [ Laughs ] It’s amazing how one person can have a positive impact on another.

BLVR: I recalled reading about Mark Strand sending you a postcard for the “A Temple of Texts” exhibition in the booklet, and then I read Invisible Cities.

When teaching, WG remarks that it is a great experience to assign books that one loves. Even if the authors are not the most pleasant people, their works are incredible and can be helpful for learning.

As an example, WG considers Thoreau’s use of the word “margins” in a sentence which follows. Here, Thoreau takes all the sounds in the word and intertwines them with the words that follow, providing a deep insight into life and its justification.

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