The papers of Gass seemed immaculate, each box like a freshly dug pool. By comparison, the papers of Whitman and Woolf and David Foster Wallace are filled with scraps and sheets that bear the odor from yesterday’s hands. I had already done my due diligence with The Reader, weeks of close reading and margin scribbling through its nine hundred pages; I had read a good portion of the secondary scholarship; and now here was a chance to sight some of Gass’s unresolved thoughts written overleaf.
I began by casually picking over the correspondence—incoming letters and postcards and telegrams. In the sixties, following the publication of his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, there was Susan Sontag dishing up high praise (and slyly complimenting herself in the same stroke), Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books begging again and again for another tipple of his prose (remarkable considering how remote the Midwestern Gass was from the flame of literary New York), and Stanley Elkin prodding “Bill” to leave Indiana for an open philosophy professorship in Saint Louis (the job he would ultimately hold for the rest of his working life). There was also a small scrap of torn notebook paper, a request for an out-of-print edition of a book by Gass—a subtle sort of fan letter written tenderly by a twenty-three-year-old man, now a sexagenarian who presides over the books section of a major American publication. Gass’s silence, the lack of corresponding responses in the archive, was odd, like a refrigerator that stops humming one afternoon. Gass, the ever-voluble (the—how to avoid it—ever-gassy), is a quiet center in the letters, a silhouette whose contours are limned only in the words of others.
I extracted box 66 from a cart and dipped into the late late juvenilia—college essays and his 1954 philosophy dissertation at Cornell—waxen pages that amounted to an incidental encyclopedia of fields, concepts, and fascinations that held sway over Gass’s writing for the next sixty years. The subject of the dissertation, “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor,” was importantly not a grad-school penance but the idée fixe that Gass fitted on mantels and stashed under rugs and cushions of every story and essay. For Gass, the ultimate metaphor was the relationship between the world and written language. Just as chairs could be moved around a house, words could be arrayed and rearranged in the syntactic space of a sentence—untold combinations of selfsame units, accommodating varieties of mood and meaning.
Gass suggested that literary language, specifically, required an additional metaphor. Proustian prose had a more exalted status than the demotic word-stuff on the back of soup cans. It was not made of chairs; it was conscious. In a riff on Cartesian dualism, Gass argued that a book was a body and a literary text was a conscious mind. When great writers fashioned a world of words, they supplanted the consciousness of the reader with another one, a self-sustaining construction of rich sound and sense, a new mind “musiked deep with feeling.” This conceit, the book as a “container of consciousness,” was a metaphor—Gass wasn’t a paranoid animist—but nonetheless it was a metaphor underwritten by what Gass believed was a genuine ontological shift. From soup can to Proust, words were transmogrified into literature.
From Zachary Fine’s essay “In Search of William Gass.” Full essay at The Paris Review.