12 Winters Blog

In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 12, 2013

In celebration of the release of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C, I decided to post a couple of the conference papers I’ve presented on Gass’s work in recent years–something I’ve been meaning to do but have put off for one reason or another.  Following is the paper I presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 in 2010, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”

In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:

Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass

In a writers’ symposium on postmodern literature held at Brown University in 1989, Robert Coover, in his welcoming remarks, gave the impression that the writing style which became known as postmodernism sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s almost by sheer coincidence.  Among the symposium participants were Leslie Fiedler, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis.  Coover said, “[T]his group sought out some form, some means by which to express what seemed to them new realities” (“‘Nothing’” 233).  However, Coover goes on to suggest a remarkably thin theory as to why so many writers, all working in relative isolation, began constructing narrative in uncannily similar styles:

We felt we were all alone.  No one was reading us, nor was anyone writing remotely like the sort of writing we were doing until, in the little magazines, we began slowly to discover one another.  Few of us knew one another at the time we began writing.  There was a uniform feeling among writers at that time that something had to change, something had to break, some structure had to go.  And that was, I think, what most united us.

Even though the panel was intended to be a debate, and not merely a discussion, not a single writer challenged Coover’s explanation for the emergence of postmodern style.  At first this assessment may seem startling—that some of the keenest and best-educated minds who were at the forefront of producing and (many) critiquing literary postmodernism accepted the premise that postmodern narrative style more or less just happened; essentially that individuals writing in isolation on various continents, including North and South America, and Europe, just all happened to begin writing in the same sorts of ways, all in a narrow time span, from about 1950 to 1965.  According to Coover, writers, with virtual simultaneity, decided to abandon modernist realism for something fragmented, repetitive, largely unrealistic and illogical, and highly intertextual.

A more cogent explanation, I believe, rests with trauma theory:  The trauma of the nuclear age, which was experienced by the entirety of Western culture (not to mention Eastern), affected the psyches of these writers in a way that resulted in postmodern literary style—a style, according to theorists like Anne Whitehead, Cathy Caruth, and Laura Di Prete, that reflects the traumatized voice.  Meanwhile, historians Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell have made several provocative assertions regarding twentieth-century zeitgeist as it suddenly evolved after the Second World War.  One is that the “[s]truggles with the Hiroshima narrative have to do with a sense of meaning in a nuclear age, with our vision of America and our sense of ourselves” (xvi).  Another is that Americans were deeply and immediately conflicted with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that they experienced the “contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has continued to disturb and confuse Americans ever since” (33).  A third assertion is that “[o]dinary people [. . .] experienced their own post-Hiroshima entrapment—mixtures of nuclearism and nuclear terror, of weapons advocacy and fearful anticipation of death and extinction” (306).  And all of this internal conflict, much of which resides in the unconscious, has contributed to a “sense of the world as deeply absurd and dangerous” (335).

It is quite possible that Coover and the other postmodernists at the Brown University symposium experienced the same sort of repression and dissociation that individual trauma victims frequently do.  It is not uncommon for people suffering the symptomology of posttraumatic stress disorder to have no conscious recollection whatsoever of the traumatizing event, or to have a dissociated recollection.  Coover also discussed writing as “a kind of therapy.”  He said, “There are things you have to work your way through.  There are issues that have to be confronted[. . . .]  So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life” (242).  Hence Coover recognized the unsettling cultural climate of post-Hiroshima America and how it contributed to narrative style; also, his view of writing-as-therapy is consistent with trauma theorists who suggest that postmodern techniques are akin to victims’ struggling to transform traumatic memory into narrative memory.

In his examination of the apocalyptic temper in the American novel, Joseph Dewey theorizes about the literary community’s response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he describes as “slow in coming.”   Dewey writes, “[T]he literary conscience of America did not seem ready in the 1940s and even in the 1950s to engage the menace of the mushroom cloud” (8).  At first, writers, along with the rest of their culture, experienced a “psychic numbing [. . .] in the face of such catastrophe.”  In the ’50s, notes Dewey, “the American literary community pondered the bomb only in tentative ways.”  He references “a glut of forgettable speculative fiction” that appeared during the decade.  In the early ‘60s, however, “the American novel began to work with the implications of the nuclear age” (9).  Dewey speculates that the Cuban Missile Crisis—“the nuclear High Noon over Cuba”—may have acted as a catalyst for writers in general to “begin to think about the unthinkable.”  Dewey does not approach his subject in this way, but he seems to be accounting for the dual starting point for American postmodern literary style, which some trace to the mid 1940s and others to the ’60s.  Nor does Dewey tend to speak in psychological terms, but he seems to be suggesting that American writers were by and large repressing the atomic blasts for nearly two decades, until nuclear Armageddon loomed in 1962, which caused the cultural literary psyche to begin to confront the source of its trauma, if only dissociatively.  The scenario that Dewey suggests corresponds with the way many individuals respond to a traumatic event.  Perhaps the fear of nuclear Apocalypse was part of the American psyche since 1945, but it seemed unreal until 1962’s standoff with Cuba and its ally the Soviet Union.  It is also useful to recall that groups—entire nations even—can respond to trauma just as individuals do.  In fact, Neil J. Smelser, in his work on cultural trauma in particular, notes that societies can undergo a delayed response to trauma akin to the Freudian notion of a breakdown in repression, which “only succeeded in incubating, not obliterating the threat”—though he qualifies the analogy as not being perfect (Alexander et al. 51).

While evidence of a link between post-Hiroshima trauma and postmodern technique can be found, with greater or lesser conspicuousness, in the work of all writers who occupy the established pantheon of postmodernists, I think the connective tissue is most apparent in the fiction of William H. Gass, one of the writers at the Brown symposium, and, interestingly, the writer Coover called “our real living biographer of the human mind” (242).  In his work, which was begun in the early 1950s (when Gass was in his late twenties) but did not start to appear in print consistently until the 1960s, Gass often alludes to trauma and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (though not specifically by these labels), and he cites directly and indirectly the nuclear age as the source of widespread anxiety.  It must be stated upfront that Gass’s childhood was, by his own description, miserable, raised by an alcoholic mother and an agonistic father; and one could certainly point to these influences for his prose’s negativity.  There is no question that these facts have affected Gass’s writing, much of which is overtly autobiographical; however, I believe that the Cold War zeitgeist had an even greater impact on his storytelling.  One might even conjecture that the insecurities caused by Gass’s childhood made the fear associated with that zeitgeist even more potent.  The psychological community has long recognized that individuals respond differently to trauma due to a variety of factors, including their mental health when they experience the trauma, and even their genetic predisposition to dealing with traumatic stress.

In any event, a good place to begin is Gass’s well-known short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” which appeared in New American Review and then in a collection by the same title in 1968 (though Gass says that it was written much earlier, implying the beginning of the decade (Bellamy 39)).  The oddly and disjointedly segmented story features a disillusioned poet-teacher narrator living in a small Indiana town, called simply “B,” a town which represents (it has been widely noted and in fact acknowledged by Gass) W. B. Yeats’s Byzantium from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927).  The short story has generated a fair amount of critical attention over the past forty years, and much of that criticism examines the psychological underpinnings of the narrative.  In one of the earliest studies, in 1973, Frederick Busch writes, “[Gass’s poet-narrator] is caught in the heart of the country, he is fallen.  And the country he has come to is his mind. [. . .]  This little story is a saga of the mind” (99, 100).  Similarly, Charlotte Byrd Hadella says that the “narrator/poet is miserable, lonely, and lost in a fragmented world, much like the world of Eliot’s The Waste Land, because he fails to participate fully in either art or life” (49).  As such, “the narrator has left one world and entered another—the world of his own imagination.”  What is more, Hadella claims that “[w]ith the fragmented structure of his story, Gass conveys a subliminal message of isolation, loneliness, and departmentalized perception of his narrator” (50).  Both critics are unwittingly keying on psychological components of the story that are mimetic of posttraumatic stress disorder—the unbidden merging of real and unreal worlds, profound feelings of disconnectedness with one’s self and others.

These analyses are useful to be sure, and in fact I want to look at some of the same passages in the story that these critics cite, but I believe even more can be gleaned from the story via a trauma-theory paradigm.  Given the insightfulness of these critics’ observations, I am struck by an omission that they and other commentators have committed in their readings of the narrative.  No one has paid any attention whatsoever to a passage that I see as key to understanding the narrator’s disjointed psyche.  In a section subtitled “Politics,” the narrator criticizes his fellow townspeople (and Americans in general I would say) by stating, “I have known men [. . .] who for years have voted squarely against their interests.  Nor have I ever noticed that their surly Christian views prevented them from urging forward the smithereening, say, of Russia, China, Cuba, or Korea” (197).  Here the narrator makes direct reference to using nuclear weapons against Cold War enemies—attacks which would be squarely against American interests (as it would provoke retaliation, including nuclear retaliation) and which contradict the Christian morality that the majority of Americans claim to advocate.  This atomic-bombing reference does not come out of the blue, so to speak.  In an earlier section also subtitled “Politics,” the narrator alludes to “the Russians [. . .] launching [. . .] their satellite” (186), and in “Education” he says that at school “children will be taught to read and warned against Communism” (187).  Taking into account these Cold War references, the narrator’s disposition and the townspeople he describes sound very much like the divided, post-Hiroshima psyches that Lifton and Mitchell discuss:  “By the 1960s, Americans were living a nuclear ‘double life’:  aware that any moment each of us and everything around us could be suddenly annihilated, yet at the same time proceeding with our everyday, nitty-gritty lives and conducting ‘business as usual’” (351).  Americans, in short, were divided in two, with their measured self (which was interested in making a comfortable and meaningful life) being in constant conflict with their apocalyptic self (which accepted that the nuclear end was at hand and therefore every action was irrelevant).  Hadella is noting this conflicted duality in the story when she writes that “the narrator’s mood is a perpetual winter.  The poet/narrator avoids thinking of spring as the season of rebirth and renewal.  Thus, even when he does mention spring rain, the rain mentioned is only a memory, and it is not associated with desire or awakening to life” (51).  It is as if Gass’s narrator, with his measured self, desires a future (the coming of spring rains), but will not allow himself to believe it will arrive because of his apocalyptic self, the self that envisions a spring rain that causes “the trees [to] fill with ice” (181).

Hadella’s careful study is mainly concerned with Gass’s use of weather imagery, especially winter.  In the context I am framing, the winter and its snow become even more psychologically significant as mimetic of a nuclear winter and its radioactive (or dirty) snow.  Before looking at winter/snow references in way of support, I want to turn to the “Weather” section that describes a summer heatwave in B as Gass uses language suggestive, I think, of a nuclear blast.  The passage is lengthy but well worth examining:

In the summer light, too, the sky darkens a moment when you open your eyes.  The heat is pure distraction.  Steeped in our fluids, miserable in the folds of our bodies, we can scarcely think of anything but our sticky parts.  Hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust crisscross the country.  In many places, given an indifferent push, the wind will still coast for miles, gather resource and edge as it goes, cunning and force. [. . .]  Sometimes I think the land is flat because the winds have leveled it, they blow so constantly.  In any case, a gale can grow in a field of corn that’s as hot as a draft from hell, and to receive it is one of the most dismaying experiences of this life, though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse. (180-81)

On the one hand, this is a wonderfully apt description of a Midwestern heatwave, but Gass’s language as it relates to a nuclear blast cannot be easily dismissed:  melting, even liquefying “bodies”; widespread devastation  by “hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust” driven by “cunning and force”; a flattened landscape, “leveled” by “a draft from hell”; a “dismaying” life experience, but the “wind in winter” to follow is in a “sense even worse.”  Then there is the winter and its snow that are so closely linked to death.  The narrator says, “I would rather it were the weather that was to blame for what I am and what my friends and neighbors are—we who live here in the heart of the country.  Better the weather, the wind, the pale dying snow . . . the snow—why not the snow?” (191).  Images of winter/snow connected to death continue in this “Weather” section.  He says, “Still I suspect the secret’s in this snow, the secret of our sickness, if we could only diagnose it, for we are all dying like the elms in Urbana” (192).  The passage ends with the narrator’s assertion “[. . .] what a desert we could make of ourselves—from Chicago to Cairo, from Hammond to Columbus—what beautiful DeathValleys.”  Again, viewed through the prism of the Cold War mentality and how the unconscious must have been affected by the sense of impending nuclear doom, it is reasonable that at some level Gass is describing atomic annihilation and the aftermath for those lucky or unlucky enough to survive the attacks.

An important aspect of the conflicted post-Hiroshima psyche is the sense of responsibility and guilt associated with bombing Japan, combined with pride in American resolve and ingenuity, and an acceptance of the “Hiroshima narrative” propaganda that claimed the attack to be necessary, even justified—and Hadella picks up on these vibes in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as well.  She writes, “Through the narrator’s obsessive attention to weather, Gass emphasizes a controlling irony in the story:  though the narrator complains about the weather, he is the one who is responsible for the world in which he lives.  His complaints suggest that he does not accept this responsibility” (51).  Hadella’s analysis reflects to the letter the psychological turmoil Americans found themselves grappling with, according to the research of historians Lifton and Mitchell.

There is much more that could be said of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (indeed, all of Gass’s work) via a trauma-theory paradigm, but in the interest of time I want to shift my focus to the author’s masterwork, the long and difficult novel The Tunnel, published in 1995 but begun in 1966.  The plot of the novel, in a nutshell, involves the narrator, history professor William Kohler, sitting down to write the introduction to his masterwork, a book titled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, but instead writing a memoir about his unhappy childhood, mediocre career, and loveless marriage.  He writes in his basement and at some point, for reasons that are never crystal clear, decides to start digging a tunnel beneath his house to make a surreptitious and superfluous escape.  The novel is especially intriguing when viewed through the lens of trauma theory, but in the interest of brevity I’ll focus mainly on a section of The Tunnel that appeared as a stand-alone piece in The Kenyon Review in 1979, titled “The Old Folks”; it was retitled “The Ghost Folks” in a section of the novel (on pages 128-142, Dalkey Archive edition) with few, but significant, changes.  Kohler and his wife, Marty/Martha, along with their two sons visit his parents, returning to his childhood home and all of its unpleasant memories and associations.  Kohler’s mother is an alcoholic and his father a quarrelsome racist.

The story is set in approximately 1950, and Kohler says that the emotion he feels when he sets foot in his childhood home is rage.  When his boys act up, for which he can’t blame them, he says, “[W]hat I need is total obliteration, now—now that we have the bomb, we can all be blown back into our original pieces with one clean disintegration, instead of being pulled apart slowly with dental pliers” (161; 130 in the novel).  He goes on to speak of the inevitability of nuclear annihilation, saying that when a child, “I believed in doom in those days.  Now, when the world ends, I doubt it will even whimper” (167; 135).  Interestingly, the latter sentence, expressing the inevitability of annihilation, is deleted from the novel, which may reflect Gass’s, as well as the country’s, waning certainty that nuclear war with the Soviets was just a matter of time.  In fact, direct references to the Second World War, to Japan, to Hiroshima, to the bomb, and so forth are frequent in the first half or so of the novel, and virtually nonexistent in the last half.  I am attempting to determine the stages of development of the book, but it seems, at this point, that the overall structure of The Tunnel does follow, by and large, the chronology of Gass’s composing it.  This study is aided by the fact that several parts of the book appeared in print as stand-alone pieces over the decades.  Also, in a 1971 interview, Gass claimed to have written 300 manuscript pages of The Tunnel (McCauley 11).

The idea of responsibility, especially shared responsibility, for a ruined future (or perhaps no future at all) is expressed in various ways in “The Old Folks.”  As Kohler and Marty are traveling with their children to his parents’ home, he says that the children “cannot realize to what profound degree the adults are conspiring against them” (159; 128).  Specifically, Kohler is referring to himself and his wife, but much of the story deals with human history on a broad scale, as Kohler mixes in sparring theoretical conversations he’s had with his colleagues in the history department, so there is a sense that humanity in the twentieth century has conspired against itself.  Twice in the story, including its opening words, Kohler asks, rhetorically, “Who is not in league?” (159, 172; 128, 139).  On the most superficial level, Kohler is suggesting in the first reference that he and his wife are in league against their unsuspecting children.  But given the facts that the question is repeated in connection with a conversation between Kohler’s history department colleagues and that Gass’s attention to linguistic nuance is second to none, the iteration is especially provocative.  The word league of course means, among other definitions, conspiring with others for questionable purposes; but in the context of the story, league may be suggestive of the League of Nations, formed in 1920 in an effort to strive for world peace.  Even though Woodrow Wilson put forward the initial idea, the United States never officially joined the League.  So one way of interpreting Kohler’s question may be “Who is not working toward world peace?” and one legitimate answer would be “the United States.”  This reading is bolstered by the fact that immediately after the repetition of the question Kohler morbidly describes his colleagues as mere “skulls [whose shadows] drifted across the opaque glass” (172; 139).

My final point concerns the image of the atomic mushroom cloud, which Joseph Dewey calls a representation of “the last crisis in human history,” as “humans [. . . rather than God] would plot, construct, and then execute their own demise” (7).  Gass seems to dissociate the mushroom-cloud shape as tornadic rather than atomic, meaning that he often writes of tornadoes, cyclones, and whirlwinds, and of their destructive abilities.  Kohler refers frequently to a childhood episode when a tornado passed so near the house that it blew the shattered windows inward.  In “The Old Folks,” Kohler refers to himself and his wife as “whirlwinds” who have taken their children from a place of happiness and contentment to set them down here in his parents’ cheerless home (161; 130).  More interesting, still, is Kohler’s discussion of a reoccurring nightmare in which he is falling toward the sea, anticipating his own painful death.  In the novel, Kohler visually represents his falling—bomb-like—via text that takes the shape of a tornado, or a mushroom cloud:

it was like falling into the sea

to pass that open door

a wind like cold water

space a cold glass

flights of fish


my nose

my ah!









and all this has happened before (86)

The “terror” of the dream “wakes” Kohler, who feels “as if I were back in the army and my fall were a part of my duty” (85).  It seems significant that Kohler connects the image to the military, the arm of the government most associated with the use of atomic weapons.  There is no time to develop the idea further, but this tornado/mushroom-cloud shape also seems to represent the process of moving from chaos (life) to entropic order (death) that Kohler alludes to throughout, directly or indirectly, and it also suggests the overall shape of the novel’s narrative structure, as we move from broad, global, historical issues toward an ending section that focuses quite concretely on Kohler’s tunneling project in his basement, and his wife’s discovery of what he’s been doing these many months behind her back.

To bring this to a close, I will remind us that the first-wave of postmodern writers seemed preoccupied with bombs and the act of bombing.  A few examples would be Pynchon’s V. and Gravity’s Rainbow; Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night; Heller’s Catch-22; and DeLillo’s Underworld.  These and other postmodernists may have been responding to their culture’s traumatized psyche—a psyche that was conflicted between nuclearism and nuclear terror, a psyche that was attempting to move the Hiroshima narrative from traumatic memory to narrative memory, and thus come to terms with what the United States had unleashed on the world . . . and on itself.  Kohler seems to conclude that the most optimistic thing that could be said about the bomb is that it “will probably bring neither extermination nor peace, but prolong the life and use of conventional arms” (515)—an idea that he sums up in the limerick:

There was a professor of history

who explained to his class every misery

of our human state:

1 war is man’s fate;

2 hate pays for hate;

3 all help comes too late;

4 our lives don’t relate;

but why this is so stays a mystery. (535)

Works Cited

Bellamy, Joe David, ed.  The New Fiction:  Interviews with Innovative American Writers.  Urbana:  U of Illinois P, 1974.  Print.

Busch, Frederick.  “But This Is What It Is to Live in Hell:  William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.’”  Modern Fiction Studies 19 (1973):  97-109.  Microfilm.

Dewey, Joseph.  In a Dark Time:  The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue UP, 1990.  Print.

Gass, William H.  In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories.  1968.  Boston, MA:  Godine, 1981.  Print.

—.  “The Old Folks.”  The Best American Short Stories of 1980.  Ed. Stanley Elkin.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin.  Print.

—.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive P, 2007.  Print.

Hadella, Charlotte Byrd.  “The Winter Wasteland of William Gass’s ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.’”  Critique 30.1 (1998):  49-58.  Print.

Lifton, Robert Jay, and Greg Mitchell.  Hiroshima in America:  Fifty Years of Denial.  New York:  Grosset/Putnam, 1995.  Print.

McCauley, Carole Spearin.  “William H. Gass.”  Conversations with William H. Gass.  Ed. Theodore G. Ammon.  Jackson:  UP of Mississippi, 2003.  Print.

“‘Nothing but Darkness and Talk?’:  Writers’ Symposium on Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction.”  Critique 31.4 (1990):  235-55.  Print.

Smelser, Neil J.  “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma.”  Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity.  Ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 2004.  31-59.  Print.



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  1. […] his long, complex novel The Tunnel, but also, most recently, his novella “The Pedersen Kid” (“In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War,” “William H. Gass’s ‘Very Cold Winter’,” “The True Intruder in William H. Gass’s […]

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