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Obituary: Author William Gass came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s as an experimental writer

Updated Dec.12  — On Tuesday's  St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh discussed the life and legacy of noted author and Washington University professor William Gass.

Joining him for the discussion were Lorin Cuoco, co-founder and former associate director of the International Writers Center at Washington University, Stephen Schenkenberg, creator and curator of the website Reading William Gassand author and publisher of  "The Ears Mouth Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass"and William Danforth, chancellor emeritus and member of the Board of Trustees at Washington University.

Gass died on Dec. 6 at his home in St. Louis. He was 93. The former Washington University professor was known for his contributions to fiction, criticism and philosophy. 

“Someone like [William] Gass had such a depth,” Schenkenberg said. “He brought more than just a literary person’s mind to the desk or to the book you’re reading.”

Listen below to hear reflections on Gass and to hear the author read excerpts of his literary work:


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Longtime friend and coworker Lorin Cuoco said Gass’ work flourished in St. Louis.

“We are incredibly lucky that he decided he wanted to be here,” Cuoco said. “He has even said he didn’t think he could have produced what he produced, had he lived in New York, say.”

Gass came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s as an experimental writer and continued writing throughout the following decades. Initially a philosophy professor at Wash U, he was later named professor emeritus, which allowed him to teach courses throughout the humanities department.

A longtime St. Louis resident, Gass helped found the International Writers Center at the university in 1990. He won the American Book Award, the PEN/Nabokov award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Cuoco compared the importance of his writing to English literature luminaries like James Joyce or Henry James.

“He was simply in a tradition of deep thought and, and just gorgeous sentences,” she said.    

Gass’ first book, "Omensetter’s Luck," chronicling the life of a small town in Ohio, was published in 1966.  His 652-page novel "The Tunnel," which tells the story of a university professor who takes to his basement and attempts to tunnel his way out, was published in 1995 to literary acclaim. 

Gass’ postmodern writing challenged many established writing conventions such as including traditional literary forms and the assumption that novels should be morally uplifting. 

Born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota, Gass grew up in Ohio, where he attended Kenyon College. 

His final published book was “Eyes: Novellas & Stories.”

The William Gass Papers reside at Washington University. A memorial will be held next year.

Gass' survivors include his wife, Mary Henderson Gass; daughters Susan, Catherine and Elizabeth; sons Richard and Robert, and his grandchildren.

Follow Willis on Twitter:  @WillisRArnold

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Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Willis Ryder Arnold is an arts and culture reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. He has contributed to NPR affiliates, community stations, and nationally distributed radio programs, as well as Aljazeera America, The New York Times blogs, La Journal de la Photographie, and LIT Magazine. He is a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a recipient of the Society of Professional Journalist’s award for Radio In-Depth Reporting.
Lara Hamdan joined St. Louis Public Radio as the news intern in 2017 and went on to become a producer for St. Louis on the Air before her latest role as the newsroom's Engagement Editor. A St. Louis native, Lara studied journalism and international relations at Webster University. She's fluent in English and Arabic – and in eating falafel sandwiches and veggie burgers. She enjoys discovering new people and gems in the city throughout her work at St. Louis Public Radio.
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