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Remembering William H. Gass: Resources for Exploring a Life in Sentences – Part 3

Action photo of William H. Gass speaking during a lecture.

The April 6 activities celebrating the life and legacy of William H. Gass are starting to take shape. We will have photographs, manuscripts and other materials on view, his friends, colleagues and fellow writers speaking about Gass and reading his work, and a reception. Please save the afternoon of Friday, April 6 to join us! The festivities will start in Special Collections in Olin Library then move to Holmes Lounge, both on the Danforth Campus of Washington University. More details to come soon!

A cover of Accent's Winter 1958 issue. William H. Gass is featured by name.
The cover of the Winter 1958 issue of Accent

When the Modern Literature Collection (MLC) first started collecting the papers of William H. Gass he had yet to publish his first book. In 1964, when he was included in the initial group of authors solicited to establish the MLC, Gass was known publicly—to the extent that he was known at all—for a handful of short fictions that had appeared in literary magazines.

It’s a testament to Gass’ talents that his first appearance in print, the Winter 1958 issue of Accent, features no prose not written by Gass. Though sprinkled throughout with a few poems by various authors, the bulk of the issue is comprised of two Gass stories and one of his essays.

Table of Contents, Winter 1958 issue of Accent

This issue is also a testament to the long and often circuitous route Gass’ fiction often took before finding itself between hardcovers. “Mrs. Mean” and “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott”, the two “long stories” featured in Accent, would later appear, respectively, in the 1968 story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and, in modified form, as the opening section of Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck, in 1966. The essay, “The High Brutality of Good Intentions”, on the work of Henry James, would appear in Gass’ first essay collection Fiction and Figures of Life, in 1970.

So how did an author with a handful of published stories and essays to his name come to the attention of the founders of the Modern Literature Collection in 1964? The key may lie with Stanley Elkin, who, before becoming a professor at Washington University in St. Louis in 1960, worked as a reader for Accent, and later become an editor for Perspective, a literary journal run by Washington University Professors Jarvis Thurston and Mona Van Duyn which published another of Gass’ stories, “Icicles”, in 1962.

When William Matheson conceived the Modern Literature Collection in 1964 he assembled a panel, headed by Thurston and Van Duyn, to come up with a list of lesser known authors who work would be considered important in 50 years times. Elkin served on the panel responsible for selecting fiction writers, which recommended Gass in spite of his not having yet published a book and in short order Van Duyn wrote to Gass inquiring about his manuscripts. Two years later he would publish Omensetter’s Luck to great acclaim. Van Duyn, Thurston, and Elkin were also instrumental in bringing Gass to Washington University when a teaching position opened in the Department of Philosophy in 1969. Gass  became part of a close-knit group of writers at the University which centered around Thurston and Van Duyn, and  he and Elkin remained close colleagues and lifetime friends.

A photo of Stanley Elkin speaking at a podium while William Gass, also on-stage, looks on.
Stanley Elkin speaks as William Gass looks on.

Materials held in the William H. Gass Papers include thousands of pages of manuscripts towards his fiction and essays and 52 boxes of correspondence. The Modern Literature Collection also holds the archive of the International Writers Center, which Gass and associate director Lorin Cuoco donated following his retirement and her resignation from the IWC. More materials related to William H. Gass can be found in our online exhibit, The Soul Inside the Sentence.

The following manuscript materials, related to the stories and essay in Accent are held in the Gass papers:

The following is typed on plain paper: "Now folks today we're going to auction off missus Pimber's things. I think you all knew missus Pimber and you know she had some pretty nice things. This is going to be a real fine sale and we have a real fine day for it. It may get hot, though, later on, so we want to keep things moving right along. And now I'm going to begin the sale with the things back here by the barn. You've all had a chance to look at everything so let's bid right out for these find things and keep things moving right along. The sale is cash as usual and missus Grady is inside to take care of that. The ladies of the Methodist church are providing the lunch. You can see their tables across there in missus Root's lot. It'll be good. All right I'm going ot begin with the sale back here so if you folks will follow me we'll get started." A handwritten note follows; the first two sentences of the note are crossed out: "The light hurt Israbestis. He was used to a dark room. Where were all his friends?"
Page from a typescript draft of “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott” by William H. Gass
Two of three pages displayed here of a typescript draft of "The Triumph of Israbestis Tott" by William H. Gass The type is very small.
Page from a typescript draft of “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott” by William H. Gass
The last of three pages displayed here of a typescript draft of "The Triumph of Israbestis Tott" by William H. Gass The type is very small.
Page from a typescript draft of “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott” by William H. Gass