A Free Gift for the William Gass Completist

Wash U in St. Louis archives the papers of several important American writers, including some who taught here. The William H. Gass collection gathers drafts, manuscripts, hand-corrected proofs, recordings, photos, art, correspondence, and other items of interest connected with Gass, the fiction writer, essayist, cultural/literary critic, and professor of philosophy who taught at Wash U for 30 years and died last year at this time.

A sample of these items can be found online in the digital companion to a library exhibit from 2013, called “William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence.” The site was created by Joel Minor, Manuscripts/Modern Literature Curator, and Sarah Schnuriger, Special Collections Assistant, with donations and loans from Gass and his wife Mary. Anyone who has been a fan of Gass’ work will enjoy browsing the online companion.

The site is easily navigable, given the range of materials, and is organized by chronology and subject, such as Gass’ formative years, Navy service, fiction, nonfiction, photography, teaching, and work for the International Writers Center (now The Center for the Humanities). Even a quick browse turns up items of interest.

A letter from Gass to his parents, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945: “Dear Folks, Since at least the outside of this letter will be claimed for posterity I assume that the inside should be properly profound and elated by turns. The signing of the Peace, which may be going on while I write, on the Missouri only 1,000 yards away, no longer signifies anything of prime importance to the men out here. They are not satisfied with the terms but are happy that it is all over. The important thing, now, to them all, is getting home and out of the Navy.” (Many had two to four years of service left.)

An essay, “My Memories of the Service,” written for the exhibit, begins: “A warship when first underway will shiver nervously. Everywhere its skin trembles; and the crew, from canvas shoe to chalky cap, will shiver too, as their bodies get used to the deck’s continuous rocking, the slow swell of the sea, the shake of laboring engines, and the sway of the horizon in the bowl of the eye.”

There is a large scrapbook that has been digitized, interesting for what Gass wanted to preserve about himself, with clippings from the decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s; a lexicon Gass compiled for Marianne’ Moore’s complete poems, used in Gass’ final semester of teaching, Spring 1999; a sketchbook that starts with his hand-drawn diagrams of how nerve impulses cause the muscles to move and moves quickly to an “Id Pump,” by which the id puts pressure on neuroses, the superego blocks them, and flareups of neurotic impulses result. There is ephemera, such as the Washington University Club of Houston’s invitation to a 1999 Gass lecture, “In Defense of the Book”: “$6.00 per person includes assorted desserts and coffee.” The notes for a literary tour of St. Louis start with a reminder that Wash U was founded by the grandfather of TS Eliot.

I met Gass only once, but he has been important in my reading and writing life, starting perhaps with his contagious adoration of books and language. In the online companion there are many reminders of this, such as his notes for “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars,” an exhibit to inaugurate the International Writers Center. In the entry for Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Gass says he was a desultory student to the third grade, but in the fourth found himself falling into some “cleaned-up” version of Malory.

“And I was lost,” he says. “The ordinary world was ordinary in a way it had never been before—ordinary to the googolplex power. I knew now what was real, and I would never forget it. I began to eat books like an alien worm. From three a week I rose to one a day. The page was peace. The page was purity. And, as I would begin to realize, some pages were perfection.”

His first published piece, circa 1942, is here too. In this little essay, called “On Reading,” he orders: “Do not scoff at new ideas. Be ready to weigh them in the light of future experience. Pause! Reflect!”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.