The Genius of William Gass

William H. Gass
William H. Gass; drawing by David Levine

As he enters into his tenth decade, his sixth of literary production, it seems safe—but also important—to nominate William Gass as our greatest living champion of the sentence. A scholar of its innumerable variations, he has devoted untold numbers of pages to pondering its metaphysics. And he has himself, of course, practiced everything he has preached. He writes, he says, for the ear, and does so contagiously, working the sources of rhythm and cadence as he rolls out his variegated verbal brocades. He is never unaware of his materials, and never afraid to go for effects that might, in W.H. Auden’s words, “bring down the house.” Try reading William Gass and then keeping him out of your own sentences.

Stylistically it has been this way from the start in his fiction—from Gass’s first published book, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), a portrait of a charismatic man in nineteenth-century Ohio, down through the subsequent works, like his vast and venting novel The Tunnel (1995), in which a Holocaust expert fears that his wife will discover his cruel descriptions of their life together and begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement, and the recent Middle C (2013), about a middle-aged man whose family fled Austria by pretending to be Jewish. This is no less true in the steady minting of his sui generis essays, which have now been gathered into seven collections. Though he has been taken to task in some critical quarters for linguistic overexuberance, these same works have won Gass honors too numerous to cite—three of the essay collections alone have won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award.

Trained as a philosopher (he studied with the analytic philosopher Max Black and—briefly—with Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cornell), Gass taught philosophy for many years at Washington University in St. Louis. His philosophical interest centered primarily on language, and one of his achievements has been the translation of aspects of that preoccupation into the literary. Gass credits his reading of Gertrude Stein as his awakening to the structural implications of literary expression. As he said in an interview with The Paris Review:

When I started to examine what she was up to, I realized that I had to begin to get a feel, the way a painter would, of what happens when you try a sentence this way or try it that. To write sentences out of context is a fool’s business, but I set about doing the fool’s business. You can’t really talk very sensibly about the content of a sentence out of the context of its use, but you can talk a lot about the form of the sentence and how the forms are interlaced and how they interact within a sentence.

Gass cannot say enough about the great sentence maximalists—about Stein, Henry James, Malcolm Lowry, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Marcel Proust—or about the core mysteries of sense making, how…

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