The Ear’s Mouth Must Move: Introduction

— Stephen Schenkenberg, May 2014


I have published this project for two kinds of readers: those who have been reading William H. Gass over his long and decorated career; and those now rightly catching up.

For both, the next 90,000-plus words provide a uniquely rich exploration of Gass’ oeuvre and synthesis of his philosophy. A lengthy essay-introduction here would not only cover that same ground prematurely, it would delay the playing of the voice you’ve come to hear. Instead, I offer this brief preface, with a thumbnail sketch of Gass’ career—the facts you should have straight before entering—and a few words about the interviews.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924 and raised in the steel town of Warren, Ohio. After three years as an Ensign in the Navy during World War II, he earned his undergraduate degree from Keynon College in 1947 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell University in 1954. His dissertation—“A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor”—has carried, ever since, a North Star’s glow.

A painting of Gass in the Navy

Gass taught philosophy at Purdue University from 1960 to 1969, then moved to Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a professor of philosophy until 1978 and the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities until his retirement in 1999. During his last decade at Washington University, Gass founded and directed the International Writers Center, which produced a series of books, readings, and conferences that drew the participation of writers such Mario Vargas Llosa, Lydia Davis, J.M. Coetzee, Derek Walcott, William Gaddis, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, and Susan Sontag. Gass retired in 2000 and was named Washington University’s David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities. He and his wife, the architect Mary Henderson Gass, continue to live in their book-lined home less than a mile from the university.

Gass’ publications are numerous and highly praised: the novels Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and The Tunnel (1995); the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968); the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968); the collection Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998); and the non-fiction works Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970); On Being Blue (1976); The World Within the Word (1978); The Habitations of the Word (1984); Finding a Form (1996); Reading Rilke (1999); Tests of Time (2002); and A Temple of Texts (2006); Life Sentences (2012); and Middle C (2013).

Just as Gass found time to write books between his classes, he found time between both to grant interviews, beginning with the Chicago Daily News in 1969 and continuing to the present day. Gass’ approach to these requests has been unguarded and agreeable — some might say Midwestern. While Gass recalls that his friend Gaddis was highly suspicious of the interview enterprise—indeed, Gaddis gave only a handful throughout his life—Gass considers it simply part of the writer’s life: “It was like a professor being asked some questions after class,” he told me.

That nonchalance masks the quality of the resulting conversations. Gass has more than fifty formal interviews on record—in daily papers, in literary journals, on cultural radio programs—and he’s been part of several hundred additional exchanges and Q&As tied to festivals, appearances, guest lectures, and residencies around the world. What makes Gass’ interviews so remarkable—so intellectually entertaining—is the breadth of his academic training and the range of his interests: He is a philosophy professor who writes fiction; a fiction writer who writes essays; an essayist who collaborates with architects, writes about painters, translates poetry, exhibits photographs. With such a background, Gass’ conversations move organically from his own fiction to the music of Schoenberg, from Joyce to Euclid, Hume to Barth, Spinoza to Frank Lloyd Wright. As one interviewer discovered, a question about metaphor might spark an answer that touches on Galileo, Descartes, the shadows of trees, the word “rose,” and lines recalled verbatim from Antony and Cleopatra.

In editing this collection, I considered a great number of Gass’ interviews from the last four decades, ultimately selecting about a dozen that together best capture his opinions about his own fiction—especially The Tunnel—as well as his views of humanity, his enthusiasms for other thinkers and artists, his commitment to craft, and his love of language. A few of these were included in Conversations With William H. Gass (2003), while the remaining have been collected for the first time. The interviews are being published nearly in their original state (including with their original introductions), with occasional tweaks for clarity and uniformity.

One final note: While these published interviews do not include parenthetics such as “(Gass laughs)” or “(interviewer chuckles)”, the reader is invited to imagine such interjections throughout this book whenever she senses them. Gass’ opinions can be sharp and his outlook grim, but he laughs often in conversation. Even when—perhaps especially when—the exasperating subject is human brutality or the end of the world.