One of the first things that I did when I became editor of North Dakota Quarterly (after putting about 20,000 back issues in boxes) was to chat with my old friend Crystal Alberts. I don’t remember which of us had the idea for a special section on the late William H. Gass, but we quickly decided that this should happen. In no time, Crystal went to work with her contacts to bring together a brilliant tribute to Gass. The tribute appears as a special section in issue 86.1/2.
While we can’t make as much available on the web as we’d like for various copyright issues, we can tempt you with Prof. Alberts’ introduction below and encourage you to buy the issue (or better still, subscribe!) from our fancy new website at the University of Nebraska Press.
Also check by Thursday for another (and one of the coolest) preview of the tribute to Gass!
The first time that I heard this word, I believe, was as a graduate student while attending a gathering for William H. Gass’s eightieth birthday. It wasn’t exactly in reference to the event, yet for whatever reason, the German term has stayed with me over the years. Although to my knowledge I’ve not used it before, if I were to give a name to the collection of pieces that follow, it is Festschrift.
William H. Gass (1924– 2017) has a star on St. Louis’ Walk of Fame, but Gass was born in Fargo; his parents were from Devils Lake and Larimore. He had his literal beginning in North Dakota. As such, it seems only fitting that the NDQ should look back and add to the tales, tributes, and testimonies that celebrate his life and legacy. This is just the tiniest fraction of a retrospective, but it is one that has been curated as carefully as I could within given constraints.(1) And so, Gass: friend, critic, scholar, novelist, teacher, translator, photographer, philosopher.
If space permitted, and if I were privy to the information, I would name all of the people that considered Gass a friend or colleague— Lorin Cuoco, Mark Rollins, John Biggs, Martin Riker, Jack Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, Walter Abish, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, etc., etc., etc., the denominating could go on. However, I’m only able to highlight a few. As such, this issue includes an abridged transcript of my interview with Gass in which he discusses, among other things, his friendship with William Gaddis, including times when they theorized at the kitchen table about whether there was anything “that human beings had done that could redeem them.” In their tributes, fellow authors Robert Coover and Joy Williams have graciously shared not only their memories of Gass, but also their thoughts on how he has influenced literature over the last five decades or so, as a critic, scholar, and novelist.
A philosopher of language and literature, Gass could write entire essays on a single word. “And,” he was more than capable of identifying the quirks of his own fiction, like his propensity to list, jingle, preach, and seek out the perfect metaphor (one only need read his study of cockroaches to gain a greater appreciation of “The Order of Insects”). Inspired by the work of Gass, Kathryn Davis, who has penned nine novels of her own, mimics Gass’s style and intermingles his texts in an untitled work, creating a piece of art that is both playful and serious, not unlike the “originals.”
Gass impacted more than just his contemporaries, whether as friend, critic, champion, or all of the above. As tributes included here attest, he also influenced multiple generations of writers as an official or unofficial teacher. Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City of Fire, as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, enrolled in the last course Professor Gass offered: “The Philosophy of Literature.” He recollects some of his interactions with Gass, along with a revelation about why Gass didn’t teach creative writing. Meanwhile, Matthias Göritz expresses his appreciation for Gass and his oeuvre, which helped Göritz “become the reader, writer and translator” that he is. And, as Patrick Henry’s essay, “To ‘Contemplate the World through Words’: On Teaching William H. Gass in the Fiction Workshop,” details, Gass’s work continues to shape young authors, as students still study “Th e Order of Insects” and the metaphor of the cockroach “very near the heart of the heart of the continent.”(2)
Michael Eastman— neighbor, friend, and fellow photographer— exposes another side of Gass in his tribute, namely his passion for photography. As Eastman states, “Bill strongly believed in the importance of beauty both in art and in the world.” Th is shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that his Biggs Lectures on the Classics focus on Platonic forms, among other subjects.
Unfortunately, it is simply not possible to document all of the moments worthy of note short of producing a work longer than The William H. Gass Reader (906 pages), which was compiled by Gass (and his wife Mary) before his death, published after, and reviewed here by Greg Gerke. But, here is our Festschrift from Grand Forks, where Gass participated in the 6th Annual UND Writers Conference and where, in Gass’s own words from “Retrospection,” reprinted in his Reader: “oddly enough, though what has been celebrated is over, and one’s own life, the life of the celebrant, may be over the celebration is not over. The celebration goes on” (18).
1. Many more materials can be found online at digital.undwritersconference.org or as a part of the William H. Gass Papers, Special Collections, Olin Libraries, Washington University in St. Louis, including a full version of the Alberts/Gass interview.
2. James McKenzie. “Introduction: Pole-Vaulting.” Modern Fiction Studies, 22:2, 1976, 131– 51, p. 132.
Crystal Alberts earned her PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in 2008. An associate professor of English at UND and the director of the UND Writers Conference, she has published work on William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, Diane Glancy, and others.