William H. Gass, 1924–2017

December 8, 2017

William H. GassWilliam H. Gass, novelist, novellaist, story writer, and literary critic, passed away on December 6 at age ninety-three. The cause, according to his wife Mary Henderson Gass, was congestive heart failure.

The postmodernist was the author of six works of fiction: Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, The Tunnel, Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, Middle C, and Eyes: Novellas & Stories. His nonfiction included Habitations of the Word, Tests of Time, and Finding a Form, each of which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as Reading Rilke, On Being Blue, Fiction and the Figures of Life, and The World Within the Word.

In 1997, he received the lifetime achievement award from the Lannan Foundation. He also received the PEN/Nabokov award for lifetime achievement.

Gass was a longtime professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he founded the International Writers Center.

Novelist John Barth said of Gass, if history did not recognize him as one of the greatest writers in American letters, “it will be history’s fault.” David Foster Wallace called Omensetter’s Luck one of the most “direly underappreciated” works of American literature.

Gass contributed to one of 20th century’s great literary debates on the purpose of fiction. His discussion with John Gardner at the University of Cincinnati in 1978 was a major event in literary culture at the time. Gass commented:

There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is. I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness. John and others have values which they think more important. Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people. I think it is very important, in the cleanliness of the mind, to know why a particular thing is good. A lot of people judge, to use a crude example, the dinner good because of the amount of calories it has. Well, that is important if you don’t want to gain weight, but what has that got to do with the quality of the food? Moral judgements on art constantly confuse the quality of the food. I would also claim that my view is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers more than this other view will; John lets hardly anybody in the door.

The text of the debate, subsequently published in The New Republic, can be read online at Medium.

Read his Art of Fiction interview with The Paris Review.


Photo credit: Michael Lionstar

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