William Gass

Novelist, Essayist, Literary Critic, Philosopher and Professor

Washington University

William Gass, born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota, has lived in the Midwest most of his life. Over the course of nearly fifty years he has published five works of fiction, including his massive novel The Tunnel (1995). Gass has also distinguished himself as an essayist and literary critic—three of his previous collections of essays have won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But he refuses to be identified with one literary genre at the exclusion of the other. By his own account, he is “not a writer of short stories or novels or essays or whatever. I am a writer, in general. I am interested in how one writes anything.”

Gass is also a philosopher. He did his graduate work at Cornell after serving in the Navy for three years during World War II, and it was there, during a meeting of the Philosophy Club, that a shabby visitor who gave the impression of being an “atheistical, vegetarian nut” began speaking, and proceeded to offer the young William Gass what he would later cite as the most important intellectual experience of his life. With his conversation, this visitor, who happened to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, demonstrated for at least one receptive graduate student “the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem,” moving forward through his subject “without cant, without jargon, and in terms of examples.”

Gass has paid homage to Wittgenstein in interviews and essays, though the effects of his admiration are most evident in the nuts and bolts of his own prose style. He has made sure to weed out the cant and jargon from his sentences. But even more revealing is his handling of the evidence. It’s not just that every abstraction is matched to a concrete example; whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction, Gass will connect an initial example to a second one, and from the second will derive a third, as he does in this passage from his essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These”:

For Gass, freedom of expression is made meaningful by its collection of examples. If we’re truly free as writers—and readers—then we have to expect that some examples might be perplexing and others illuminating, that some will make us laugh and others will surely offend. Add the examples together, bundle them in a collection of essays that aims to give its readers the imaginative experience of being someone (or some thing, or idea) they’re not, and the effect is more than a little unsettling. What Gass offers throughout Life Sentences is a continuation, even a culmination, of the challenge he has presented in all his work. If we agree on the main principle—that expression must remain free—and if we follow his direction and imagine ourselves in other places, living other lives, we have to be prepared for an experience that, for all the beauty Gass creates out of his idiosyncratic assemblage of specificities, will have its fair share of danger.