An Interview with William H. Gass

Things that interfere with writing well:
Earning a living, especially by teaching
Not reading Henry James
Winning the Nobel Prize
Living in New York, especially if you are friendly

An Interview with William H. Gass

Things that interfere with writing well:
Earning a living, especially by teaching
Not reading Henry James
Winning the Nobel Prize
Living in New York, especially if you are friendly

An Interview with William H. Gass

Stephen Schenkenberg
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A half century ago, William H. Gass completed his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. Its title, “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” seems prophetic, announcing the two constants that would fill the many books he’d eventually write: intellectual might, and a consuming relationship with language and imagery. The combination produced writing that could win readers over via its energy and sparkle, then move them via its substance. Rarely had prose that so shimmered and soared been, at heart, so heavy with ideas. (In a 1978 public debate about fiction, John Gardner said, of his writing versus Gass’s: “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” Gass replied, “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”)

Gass’s works of fiction include Omensetter’s Luck (1966), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), and the long and challenging novel The Tunnel (1995), on which he labored for nearly thirty years. Narrated by a despicable university historian named William Kohler, whose bitterness is often seductively lyrical, The Tunnel was met with both high praise and thorough disdain. Dalkey Archive Press, which has published the novel since the late 1990s, will soon release an unabridged audio reading by the author, recorded during the past year.

Gass is perhaps best known for his erudite and lively books of essays, which include On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (1976), Habitations of the Word (1985), Finding a Form (1996), and Tests of Time (2002), the last two of which earned him National Book Critics Circle Awards for Criticism. For his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999), he was awarded the PEN/American Nabokov Award.

I met William H. Gass earlier this year at his St. Louis home, which he shares with his architect-wife and 19,000 books. Washington University, where he taught philosophy for thirty years and founded and directed the International Writers Center, is just down the block. At eighty years of age, Gass is still very much a working writer. His next book of essays, A Temple of Texts, is forthcoming from Knopf, and he is, he thinks, halfway through another novel. At the time of our talk, the author was preparing to leave town for a mentoring conference on a very Gassian theme: “The Architecture of the Sentence.”

—Stephen Schenkenberg


THE BELIEVER: When your first book, Omensetter’s Luck, was published in 1966, what sort of writing career were you hoping to launch?

WILLIAM H. GASS: Well, I didn’t have much of a notion of a career. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to continue writing books—that’s all I wanted to do, really. But I didn’t see it as having any shape. What I did see—or was hoping for—was a career in philosophy, which would allow me to write as much as possible and allow me the freedom, security, so that I didn’t have to worry about earning my living or needing to supplement my income by writing. And that was a great help. It took up an enormous amount of time. But it did provide security that one needs, that I need at any rate, so I don’t feel any inclination to do anything but what I want to do in that area. I know a number of people in various fields who have had to struggle with that problem—[William] Gaddis, of course, particularly. And they all have to end up doing jobs of various sorts, because if they’re any good, they’re just not going to get any monetary success. The problem then is that they end up doing jobs they detest. It has an advantage—you don’t spend any more time on it than you have to. [Laughs] Teaching’s quite different—it’s very seductive. I think what I had in mind as a career was basically an academic one—to try to still survive in the academy while doing things that weren’t academic at all. And that was not altogether clear. [Laughs]

BLVR: Was that encouraged?

WG: Yes, but I was lucky. It wouldn’t have been had I started my teaching career at good schools. But when I started to publish, finally—it took a long time—I was at Purdue, which was a good school if you were in engineering or things of that sort. It had a really weak humanities group. But by the time I left Purdue, there was tons of money, because of Sputnik, coming into the university for a period of time. We had a graduate program, but when I came to Purdue it was just two other guys, and the department was called “History, Government, and Philosophy.” I mean, it was just nothing. And when I left, it was a Ph.D. program. So it was lucky that it was an expanding program.

And the deans didn’t know [what you were working on]—as long as you published something, that was good. It could’ve been on knitting. So I had the freedom. But had I been at Princeton, I would have had to turn out philosophy, or I’d have been out on my ear. And it would’ve had to have been good. And that would’ve been a real problem because I didn’t want to do that. So publishing allowed me to advance, and in that sense, prosper, without sacrifice.

BLVR: So you didn’t have a clear notion of your career as a writer after that first book. But after two or three or four had come out, did you have a sense of the types of books you wanted to be writing?

WG: Well, I sort of fell into that. I wanted to write fiction. I didn’t think much of writing criticism. But for years, that was all I could really publish, all anybody wanted. Also, something could be squeezed in during shorter periods of time. The novels took… I was so slow. If I had an essay, and it had a deadline, I could get something done. And so I ended up publishing a lot more essays—still do. If I have a piece of fiction, if I want to place it in anywhere other than little favorite places who will take me, I can’t do it, anywhere, still.

BLVR: I remember in your book Reading Rilke, you wrote, “The Duino Elegies were not written; they were awaited.” How would you describe your own process of writing?

WG: Something gets on paper, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised. And then I’m finally at the end. [Laughs] With The Tunnel, which did take so very long, I got this lucky break, and I got the Getty grant. I was out there for a year, and I had nothing to do but write. In a manuscript that was, when I went out there, 600 pages. When I left it was 1,200. So I doubled the book in one year after fooling around with it for so long. That’s sort of as close as I come to inspiration or “awaiting anything.” [Laughs] It came in a hurry, relatively speaking, finally. But that’s unusual, and most of my books were nothing like that.


BLVR: In a recent issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that was a celebration of your work, Michael Silverblatt revisited his review of The Tunnel, which he had called “the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.” Nearly ten years after his review, Silverblatt now writes that “our culture has descended to the level of its narrator, William Kohler.” Silverblatt goes on: “Wherever you look you see the fascism of the heart, ingrained racism perpetuated by childhood habits; everywhere the consequences of the activities of the Party of the Disappointed People.” I was interested in your thoughts on his comments.

WG: Yeah, when I was out West for a recent Lannan Foundation reading, he came up from California, and we did a radio interview. It is Patrick Lannan’s view, too, who was in on some of these conversations, that the novel looks more realistic all the time. I always maintain, sort of jokingly, that I was a realist writer, actually, and this was the way the world was. But I was somewhat facetious. But they were thinking that indeed it was looking more that way. I don’t think so. I think it’s always looked this way to me. [Laughs]

I grew up in the Depression time, just before the Second World War. And there were organized fascist bodies, like the Brown Shirts, the German Bundt, Fr. Coughlin’s right-wing Catholic party. The Ku Klux Klan was much more active. Sinclair Lewis was writing It Can’t Happen Here. So if you were to look out over the scene, I think it was the time. It looked worse, I think. I think Michael and Patrick were just in the gloom of the political moment. [Laughs] I don’t think it’s worse now.

BLVR: You spent so much time with that narrator, William Kohler. Were you able to just leave him when you finally finished the book?

WG: Well, I had a lot of practice dropping him because there’d been so many breaks in the writing of the book. So it wasn’t really that hard. What was hard was getting back into him when you were going back to work. Fortunately, his nature was extreme enough that it was possible to work back in. But the problem of a long book like this is always being the same person who completes the book as who started it. You have to become the original author. It was easier with a character like Kohler than it might have been with a more decent, saner, or less extreme person. But I was happy to drop the thing into the mail and forget about it. [Both laugh]

BLVR: What’s been the international reception of your work? I guess I’m particularly curious of the German reading public’s reception of The Tunnel, since the novel’s narrator has just finished writing a book about Hitler’s Germany.

WG: The German reception of pieces of The Tunnel that they’ve seen has been very favorable. And many people read it in English—same in France and Italy and Europe in general; the serious people just read the books in English. I have a much better reputation in Europe than I have here. That’s common. John Hawkes was a big shot in France. [Laughs] I remember going to France with John, and the press was crowding around, you know? And they did big spreads in the papers. And poor—Jack was such a nice guy, and he was trying to get me included. [Laughs] It was so funny.

BLVR: Do you have any thoughts on why?

WG: Well, they’re better readers in Europe. They read more, the Germans particularly. And writers are more esteemed. And they also take certain pride—it’s chauvinistic; the French are terrible about this—in knowing more about your literature than you will ever know. They make some absurd mistakes, I think. Overvalued John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell and [laughs] Edgar Allan Poe and so forth. But, by and large, their critics are very good. That’s true when you visit Italy, too, or Spain. The Americanists, and the people who are interested in American literature, are extraordinarily good and well read. And they’re welcoming, too. It’s all very nice to go over there; it’s very pleasant. [Laughs] The French take their culture really seriously. And their regular daily papers carry very good critics.


BLVR: How much, if at all, do you concern yourself with entertaining the reader? It seems to me that even when The Tunnel is in tremendously dark territory, or when On Being Blue is entering a heady philosophical patch, the texts are still enormously entertaining—lively, daring, playful. Is entertaining the reader something you address consciously?

WG: No. The reader is somebody I don’t pay much attention to. But I do have a very conscious desire not to be academic. I’m anti-academic. I hate jargon. I hate that sort of pretension. I am a person who [commits] breaches of decorum—not in private life, but in my work. They are part of my mode of operation. That kind of playfulness is part of my nature in general. The paradox that, in a way, to take something very seriously, you can’t always be serious about it.

It is true—I have to take it back—I do think of my reader, or listener, really, more often, if I give a lecture, for example, and I know that I’m talking to these people; I enjoy sort of preening them a bit. But it’s a matter of decorum, basically. And I hate ideologies of all kinds, so I avoid jargon. I’ve done enough philosophy to know that some specialized terms are really needed. I don’t complain when Kant does it. Or when Aristotle introduces all kinds of new words; he needed them. But these other people are just obfuscating. It just makes me annoyed.

BLVR: Your Ph.D. is in philosophy, and you spent many years teaching the subject while at the same time writing books of fiction and essays on novelists and poets. What do you think philosophy gives us that literature, even consumed in massive doses, can’t give us?

WG: Well, it’s a conceptual art. Philosophy has a great sort of appeal in terms of an artistic or aesthetic organization of concepts. It also leads, in some cases, to writing which is exceptionally interesting. I’m thinking, say, of somebody who’s very technical in a way, like [German philosopher Gottlob] Frege. And he’s writing on the foundations of arithmetic. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

So there’s that part of it. But the world of conceptualized ideas is quite wonderful, even when it’s—like Aristotle’s Physics—an outmoded book. The physics is not true. But the reasoning is dazzling. You can learn so much from a book like that about the way a mind might work and should work. I remember reading it for the first time, and it was just extraordinary. When Aristotle is wrong because science has outstripped him, he is so sane given what he has in front of him to work with, that you think, Well. You leave somebody like Plato, whose mind is breathtaking, and you go to Aristotle, who has a very completely different kind of thing, and hasn’t got the style or the panache. And yet, oh, boy, some of the performances are devastatingly wonderful. Same thing with someone like Kant, or Spinoza. And of course one of my favorites, Hobbes. He writes some of the best prose ever. And it isn’t that when one’s appreciating this, you’re just throwing out the aim that they were trying to achieve—to get at the truth. The fact is that even if it isn’t the truth, it’s worth the journey.

One of my favorites is Plotinus, and, you know, I think he’s nuts. [Both laugh] But it’s always gorgeous, and the language is just spectacular. And the same is true of the Tractatus [Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein]. The German is exquisite. So what you’re dealing with is a certain quality of mind. I think it is important to realize when you’re studying philosophy that what you’re getting is not simply that they got it right. What they got right was the going after it and showing you how it works, and imagining this and that. Usually, doing what Emerson suggested: capturing the world as it might seem from one point of view. That tells you a whole lot about that point of view.

BLVR: I read an interview you did in 1979 in which you made a compelling comment about the split between literature and philosophy. You said: “For example, Rilke, I suppose my favorite writer really, and in the best sense a profound writer, is full of shit. I mean, his ideas are nonsensical. As philosophical notions I have no respect for them at all, but as poetic notions they are absolutely beautiful.”

WG: Well, that’s similar to my experience with Plotinus or sacred texts—you may not share the worship side or belief side. I remember the first time I was visiting Florence, in the monastery buildings where the Fra Angelicos are on the monks’ cells. And looking at these paintings, which are so incredible, and knowing that you recognize that the painter who painted these was, unlike many of the painters, totally devout. Totally presenting a religious matter in the most serious possible way. And I’m not, so I’m freed in a way also from the subject matter. And what I see is painting—and, my golly, you know? I miss the power of the two together; there’s no doubt about that. It must be overwhelming for someone who can get both of them—and many people have, in one sort of blow.

As a teacher, it’s a great help to be teaching philosophical systems you don’t believe. You can actually do a better job of presenting them if you leave your beliefs at the door. I particularly dislike the ideas of St. Paul, [yet] I think he’s incredibly wonderful. I mean, what he had to do, and how he did it, it’s just amazing. So it’s like looking at something and seeing a view of the world you don’t share—but what a view. I think it’s a very healthy attitude, actually. It would certainly prevent people from tearing down other people’s religious icons. [Laughs] First: Is the dictator’s statue any good before you pull it down? [Laughs]


BLVR: You’ve mentioned being taught by M. H. Abrams and Wittgenstein, and I know there are writers now who recall their own class time with you. What were your primary goals as a teacher? And as the years continued, what did you learn about the practice of teaching?

WG: Well, I was very limited. I was basically a classroom lecturer. And I wasn’t terribly good at seminars or with tutorials. I certainly didn’t feel as comfortable, and that may be because, as Stein said of Pound, I’m a village explainer.

What I tended to do when I was teaching was lecture and concentrate on the clearest possible orderly presentation of the ideas. And I was always really interested in the texts and the ideas or the problems, or the qualities of things. I didn’t care what the class size was. [Laughs] I wasn’t interested. Some of the teachers I admired most were like that. And I admired them mainly because they were really interested in their material. And what you learned from them was basically that relationship.

But that’s only one element of the teaching business. A person like Abrams, who was good with small groups as well as a brilliant lecturer, was a much more rounded teacher than I ever managed. He was really good. And he left a hole; if you go to Cornell, you can just sort of feel him around. And he still is around. And then you have a teacher like Wittgenstein, whose limitations were incredible. But he was so overpoweringly marvelous at what he did, it didn’t matter. He was in one sense a terrible teacher because he produced disciples. I think that’s a very bad thing. [Laughs] And I had a good person, Max Black, my chairman. Brilliant in the classroom. Horrible every other place. But when he got in teaching the philosophy of science, the foundations of mathematics, he was absolutely marvelous. For someone like myself, who had to run to keep up with those subjects particularly, he was clear, and he answered people’s questions and responded correctly, listened. Outside the classroom, he was just awful.

So you had different types of people. I learned different things about the teaching business from them. I think I was adequate, maybe. I also showed a certain amount of indifference to the student, in the fact that I never yelled at anybody, I was never upset when they didn’t get it right. I was upset if I thought I didn’t get it right.

That was true of philosophy. In a few occasions I’ve had to teach literature directly. For example, after Stanley Elkin died, I took over his fiction writing workshop. I really didn’t like it, didn’t like the students. They weren’t reading.

BLVR: Were they M.F.A.s?

WG: Yeah. And I mean they weren’t reading at all. They didn’t know anything, didn’t care. And I outraged them by making them read. I said, I’m not going to bring up your stuff in class; I’ll meet with you separately about that. I am going to make you read really good stuff.

BLVR: What did you assign?

WG: One thing I did was make them read a narrative poem of Edwin Arlington Robinson. [Laughs] I said, There’s narration all over the place. This class was on fiction, and this wasn’t fiction, but it just happened to be in blank verse. Horrible. They hated it. And I made them read Henry James. And some kid said, Well, he must’ve been all right in his time. I wanted to hit him.

I didn’t have that feeling when I taught philosophy. But with literature, it was different. It has disturbed me to find that very often the writing students are not reading. Or they’re reading one another. Or they’re reading the guy or the girl who got into the New Yorker lately, and they want to be there too. They’re not serious. Stanley would bully them. And I can see why. But I don’t like doing that either.

BLVR: Over the decades that you spent on campus, have you noticed any big shifts in the university—for instance, in curriculum, university life, departments?

WG: It’s been a struggle back and forth, always between departmental integrity and the failure of people to cross-fertilize. That has always been going on. And there are pros and cons to both sides. But that’s a difficulty—the new arts program here [at Washington University] is going to be one of these mixed-media things. Well, on paper it sounds good, but I don’t know. I’ve taught courses with people from different disciplines. It usually doesn’t work very well. If you want to mix the disciplines, which one favors, I think, it’s to find people who are already mixed in one mind. But there’s still a slow movement in the direction of the integration. The sciences are doing that in a good, natural way. In philosophy, there’s been a big shift. Philosophers say that it’s because that’s the way philosophy should be going. But I think it’s because that’s where the money is. Our philosophy department was pretty strong, what was called PNP—philosophy, neurophysiology, psychology. Working again on all kinds of things that interested biologists: artificial intelligence, genetics. And there’s been a shift, generally, in that direction. But also at the same time, a shift in the direction of service courses, in a way. Business ethics, and the fragmentation of women’s studies, and so forth and so forth. Those I look gloomily at, I’m afraid. But it might be because when I was trained, when I was going to school myself, those things were regarded as beneath contempt. Philosophers were quite proud of being of no use to anybody. [Both laugh]


BLVR: In the introduction to the book The Writer in Politics, you wrote: “Putting writers in prison is preferable to putting them upon a pedestal. Giving an author influence is like giving him poison. His pen begins to froth at the nib. He not only continues to manufacture baloney, he begins to eat it himself.” Has the life you’ve led here—what seems like a fairly low-key Midwestern life—been connected to your concern for pedestals or status?

WG: Yeah. You can have skepticism of popularity, renown, fame, as I have, yet if you find yourself in that position suddenly, it’s hard to ward off the result. You can be quite reclusive. Faulkner was. But winning the Nobel Prize, for instance, has destroyed many a career. [Laughs] And it certainly didn’t help his. And the sense of “I’ve got it made,” or “My life has been justified; it is now verified”—it isn’t. We all know Aristotle was right: money, fame, and so forth are external goods; they guarantee nothing. But it’s very hard, nevertheless, to resist them, if you’re surrounded with this. I think one reason why second- and third-generation rich people have a better chance of handling their money is that they get used to it. Academics in political power are dangerous. Because they don’t understand handling power. They can talk about it [laughs], but that’s so completely different. Or if you get in the mind-set of being important, having influence, not only does it affect your work, it can lead this to Hemingway competition, as if it were a boxing tournament. And it isn’t that sort of competition at all.

In the old days, when writers were more integrated into the intellectual communities, writers were in powerful places. Naturally, they didn’t get there just because they were writers. That worked out. When you have a bunch of people who are really marginal, and they’re shoved to central positions, that usually is very bad for everybody around. And in a society whose values are as cheap, I think, as ours [laughs], it’s something to fear.

Being away from the literary centers is a great help. And it’s a great help because you’re away from the local gossip, the chitchat; there’s enough in any university as it is. And any little community will have it, but in New York it is just a storm.

There are some people who love it, who can handle it. Susan Sontag—that was her element. Fine, she prospered. Gaddis could live in New York because he was so irascible nobody could get close to him. Well, he had very distinguished close friends. Lukas Foss, the radical composer, Saul Steinberg, people like that who were around him and had a similar temperament. And that, of course, is something you can do in New York, which is great. But it’s much better to be out of that. Or you’re in New York, and nobody pays attention to you anyway. So you’re gnawing your knuckles about that. Popularity in this country is the kiss of death. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain that a book that sells well is not any good. [Laughs] It isn’t any iron rule, but it’s a likelihood. And it’s a shame.

BLVR: I suppose one thing your status, such as it is, has allowed you to do is attempt to increase the readership of writers you feel passionate about, whether through introductions or the like. William Gaddis. Flann O’Brien’s book. Has that been important to you?

WG: Yeah, well, I just have enthusiasm. Actually, it’s the most fun about the whole business. I’ve been doing a little collecting of examples for this mentoring I’m going to be doing at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. And I hit some passages—well, there’s one sentence out of Jane Austen, it was just so good. It was wonderful. And similarly, I had one from Thoreau, who’s one of my favorites. Watching the skill with which everything is done is such a pleasure. To have the chance to convey that somehow, to talk about your enthusiasms, that’s a real indulgence.

BLVR: Have there been one or two whom you’ve been most pleased to have helped?

WG: Well, I don’t think I make much difference, really. It’s hard to tell. I don’t think I do. There have been moments when critics have written about a writer—that happened with Faulkner. When The Portable Faulkner came out: bingo. There was the right essay at the right time by the right person. There aren’t many critics in this country anymore who have that kind of clout to establish a writer just by turning to them.

Susan Sontag had that same enthusiasm. She was constantly reading and finding people, and she would press them upon her friends. And I always paid attention; she was almost always right. I think that was her greatest virtue, actually: she could spot good stuff. She would maneuver it around. And I remember Mark Strand writing me a little postcard years ago, years and years ago, saying, “Read Invisible Cities.” That’s all it was. I did. And, you know, I’m grateful ever since. [Laughs] So it’s that kind of thing. So you may influence this or that person.

BLVR: Yeah, I read about Mark Strand sending you the postcard in your exhibition booklet, “A Temple of Texts,” and then I went and read Invisible Cities.

WG: It’s great when that happens. And that was one of the nice things about teaching. You get to assign books you love. It’s hard to beat, that kind of life. You’re reading philosophers who are just incredible—they may be creeps [laughs], but it’s wonderful stuff. It’s helpful to you. You learn. It forces you to pay attention to the texts in a way that I think is helpful. In the Thoreau, for example, he uses the word “margins.” He says, “In my life I like to have wide margins.” Then there’s a sentence about enjoying the sunshine, and meditating, and so forth. Well, he takes all the sounds in the word “margin,” and they just dominate the words that follow. This whole description—from the ms to the ns. And I’m just thinking, My God!, you know. And so: Life is justified.

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