12 Winters Blog

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 18, 2016

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held at the University of Louisville February 18-20. Others papers presented were “The Poet Philosopher and the Young Modernist: Fredrich Nietzshe’s Influence on T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry” by Elysia C. Balavage, and “Selections from ‘The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927-1937’” by Yuki Tanaka. Other papers on William H. Gass are available at this blog site; search “Gass.”


In William H. Gass’s “Art of Fiction” interview, in 1976, he declared two writers to be his guiding lights—the “two horses” he was now “try[ing] to manage”:  Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. He added, “Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (LeClair 18). That interview for The Paris Review was exactly forty years ago, and viewing Gass’s writing career from the vantage point of 2016, I am here to suggest that, yes, Rilke has been a major influence, but Valéry’s has been far greater than what Gass anticipated; and in fact may have been even greater than Rilke’s in the final analysis. Assessing influence, however, is complicated in this case, I believe, because a large part of Gass’s attraction to Valéry’s work in the first place was due to his finding the Frenchman to be a kindred spirit. Hence it is difficult to say how much of Gass is like Valéry because of Valéry’s influence and how much is because of their inherent like-mindedness.

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A quick survey of Gass’s work since 1976—which includes two novels, a collection of novellas, a collection of novellas and stories, and eight books of nonfiction—may imply that Rilke has been the greater influence, as Gass intended. After all, Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for which he won the American Book Award, centers on a history professor of German ancestry who specializes in Nazi Germany (Rilke allusions abound); and his other post-1976 novel, Middle C (2013), for which he won the William Dean Howells Medal, centers on a music professor born in Vienna whose special interest is Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg; and, glaringly, there is Gass’s Reading Rilke (1999), his book-length study of the problems associated with translating Rilke into English. However, a more in-depth look at Gass’s work over these past four decades reveals numerous correspondences with Valéry, some of which I will touch upon in this paper. The correspondence that I will pay particular attention to, though, is that between the title character of Valéry’s experimental novella The Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896) and the protagonist of Gass’s Middle C, Joseph Skizzen.

Before I go further, a brief biographical sketch of Paul Valéry: He was born in 1871, and published two notable works in his twenties, the essay “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and Monsieur Teste; then he stopped publishing altogether for nearly twenty years—emerging from his “great silence” with the long poem “The Young Fate” in 1917 at the age of forty-six. During his “silence,” while he didn’t write for publication, he did write, practically every day, filling his notebooks. Once his silence was over, he was catapulted into the literary limelight, publishing poems, essays, and dramas, becoming perhaps the most celebrated man of letters in France. By the end of his life in 1945 he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a dozen times.

The title for this paper comes from Gass himself. In his 1972 review of Valéry’s collected works, in the New York Times Book Review, he wrote that Valéry “invariably . . . [pretended] he wasn’t a poet; that he came to poetry by accident” (The World Within the Word 162). By the same token, Gass has insisted in numerous interviews (and he’s given many, many interviews) that he’s not a poet, that the best he can achieve is an amusing limerick. Others, however, have asserted that Gass’s fiction is more akin to poetry than prose, that his novellas and novels are in essence extremely long prose poems; and in spite of his insistence on his not being a poet, he would seem to agree with this view of his work. In a 1998 interview, for instance, Gass said, “I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning” (Abowitz 144). Moreover, about a decade earlier he said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (Saltzman 91). Critics have tended to include Gass in the group of writers whom Gass described as poet-novelists.

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

A smile, then, like the glassine window in a yellow envelope. I smiled. In that selfsame instant, too, I thought of the brown, redly stenciled paper bag we had the grocer refill with our breakfast oranges during the splendid summer of sex and sleep just past—of sweetly sweating together, I would have dared to describe it then, for we were wonderfully foolish and full of ourselves, and nothing existed but your parted knees, my sighs, the torpid air. It was a bag—that bag—we’d become sentimental about because (its neck still twisted where we held it) you said it was wrinkled and brown as my balls, and resembled an old cocoon, too, out of which we would both emerge as juicy and new as the oranges, like “Monarchs of Melody,” and so on, and I said to you simply, Dance the orange (a quotation from Rilke), and you said, What? There was a pause full of café clatter. (160-61)

And beyond Gass’s poetic prose, he has written actual poems, besides the off-color limericks that populate The Tunnel. In Middle C, for example, there is a longish, single-stanza poem written via the persona of the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen. It begins, “The Catacombs contain so many hollow heads: / thighbones armbones backbones piled like wood, / some bones bleached, some a bit liverish instead: / bones which once confidently stood / on the floor of the world” (337). And, perhaps more significantly, there are the translated poems in Reading Rilke. There was a celebration held at Washington University in St. Louis in honor of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, Passages of Time, and he read from each of his works in chronological order, except he broke chronology to end with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet,” which concludes,

Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air. (187)

It was a dramatic finale, especially since the event was supposed to be in July, near Gass’s birthday, but he was too ill to read then; so it was rescheduled for October, and the author had to arrive via wheelchair, and deliver the reading while seated. Happily, he was able to give another reading, a year later, when his new book, Eyes, came out. (I wasn’t able to attend the Eyes reading, so I’m not sure how he appeared, healthwise, compared to the Wash U. reading.)

My point is that, like Valéry, Gass has downplayed his abilities as a poet, yet his literary record begs to differ. The fact that he broke the chronology of his birthday celebration reading to conclude with a poem—and he had to consider that it may be his final public reading, held on the campus where he’d spent the lion’s share of his academic life—suggests, perhaps, the importance he has placed on his work as a poet, and also, of course, it may have been a final homage to one of his heroes. In spite of Gass’s frailness, his wit was as lively as ever. When he finished reading “The Death of the Poet,” and thus the reading, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Once the crowd settled, he said, “Rilke is good.”

Evidence of the earliness of Valéry’s influence or at least recognized kinship is the preface to Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), which Gass devotes almost entirely to the connection between the collection’s contents and the way that Valéry had assembled his oeuvre. Gass writes, “It is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to requests and invitations. . . . [H]e turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances” (xi). Gass continues, “The recollection is embarrassing because the reviews and essays gathered here are responses too—ideas ordered up as, in emergency, militias are”; and then he describes his book as a “strange spectacle” in which he tries “to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither” (xii). So, Gass recognizes the parallel between the forces at work in Valéry’s literary life and his own. Gass has readily acknowledged the slowness with which his fiction has appeared (notably, it took him some twenty-six years to write The Tunnel), citing two reasons: the slowness with which he writes, and rewrites, and rewrites; but also the fact that he regularly received opportunities to contribute nonfiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, and to give guest lectures, and they tended to pay real money, unlike his fiction, which garnered much praise but little cash over his career.

This parallel between the circumstances of their output is interesting; however, the correspondences between Valéry’s creative process and his primary artistic focus, and Gass’s, is what is truly significant. In his creative work, Valéry was almost exclusively interested in describing the workings of the mind, of consciousness; and developing complex artistic structures to reflect those workings. T. S. Eliot noted Valéry’s dismissiveness of the idea of inspiration as the font of poetic creation. In Eliot’s introduction to Valéry’s collection The Art of Poetry, he writes, “The insistence, in Valéry’s poetics, upon the small part played [by ‘inspiration’ . . .] and upon the subsequent process of deliberate, conscious, arduous labor, is a most wholesome reminder to the young poet” (xii). Eliot goes on to compare Valéry’s technique and the resulting work to that done by artists in other media, most notably music composers: “[Valéry] always maintained that assimilation Poetry to Music which was a Symbolist tenet” (xiv). James R. Lawler echoes Eliot when he writes that Valéry “makes much of the comparison of poetry to the sexual act, the organicity of the tree, the freedom of the dance, and the richness of music—especially that of Wagner” (x).

The wellspring of music composition as a source of structural principles for poetry (or highly poetic prose) is arguably the greatest correspondence between Valéry as artist and Gass as artist. Examples abound, but The Tunnel and Middle C offer the most radiant ones. For the The Tunnel Gass developed a highly synthetic structure based on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s musical theory of a twelve-tone system. Consequently there are twelve sections or chapters, and in each Gass develops twelve primary themes or images. He said, “[T]hat is how I began working out the way the various themes come in and out. It’s layered that way too. . . .” (Kaposi 135). In The Tunnel, Gass’s methodology is difficult to discern because Gass gave it a “chaotic and wild” look while in fact it is, he said, “as tightly bound as a body in a corset” (134). He achieved the appearance of chaos by “deliberately dishevel[ing]” the narrative with “all kinds of other things like repetitions [and] contradictions.” He said, “[T]he larger structure must mimic human memory, human consciousness. It lies, it forgets and contradicts. It’s fragmentary, it doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t even know everything” (134). For Middle C, the use of the Schoenberg system is much more overt, with Skizzen, its protagonist, being a music professor whose specialty is Schoenberg and Skizzen’s obsession with getting a statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive just right. Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation: “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352). Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.

Let me return to another Valéry-Gass correspondence which I touched on earlier: their concern with the workings of the mind or, said differently, consciousness. Jackson Mathews, arguably the most herculean of Valéry’s translators into English, begins his introduction to Monsieur Teste with the statement that “Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that this pursuit led through man into the world” (vii). Valéry’s interest in the mind was present in his earliest published work, the essay on Leonardo’s method and, even more obviously, Monsieur Teste, that is, “Mr. Head” or “Mr. Brain as Organ of Observation” or something to that effect. However, it was during Valéry’s twenty-year “silence” that he delved into the phenomenon of consciousness most critically. Gass writes, “Valéry began keeping notebooks in earnest, rising at dawn every day like a priest at his observances to record the onset of consciousness, and devoting several hours then to the minutest study of his own mind” (“Paul Valéry” 163). As noted earlier, Gass fashioned The Tunnel, all 800 or so pages of it, to mimic the human mind in its intricate workings. In Middle C, Gass pays much attention to Skizzen’s thought processes, especially his copious writing, revising, critique of, and further revising of his statement about humans’ unworthiness for survival. Such concerns are everywhere in Gass’s work, including his most recently published, the collection of novellas and stories, Eyes. I would point in particular to the novella Charity, a challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative, all a single paragraph, that mercilessly bounces between the main character’s childhood and his present, and, chaotically, various times in between, all the while sorting through his feelings about the act of charity and how he came to feel about it as he does in the now of the story.

In the limited time remaining, I’ll turn to the correspondence between Valéry’s character Monsieur Teste and Gass’s Joseph Skizzen (though I think William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, has significant Teste-esque qualities as well). The convention of The Evening with Monsieur Teste is that the narrator is a friend of Edmond Teste’s, and he goes about attempting to describe his friend’s character. There is very little action per se, and as such almost nothing in the way of plot, in a conventional sense at least (very Gassian in that regard). He tells us that he came to “believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to his research” (11). In Middle C, Joseph Skizzen is obsessed with what he calls his Inhumanity Museum, essentially a record, largely in the form of newspaper clippings and personal notes, of humans’ ceaseless cruelty to one another. The collection is associated with his ongoing struggle to word just so his statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive. Monsieur Teste becomes almost a recluse, desiring little contact with other people. He is married, but the narrator suggests that Monsieur and Madam Teste’s relationship is more platonic than passionate, due to Edmond’s preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Similarly, Skizzen never marries in Middle C, and in fact never has sex—he flees as if terrified at the two attempts to seduce him, both by older women, in the novel. Ultimately he ends up living with his mother in a house on the campus where he teaches music history and theory, his few “pleasures” consisting of listening to Schoenberg, assembling his Inhumanity Museum, and revising his pet statement. What is more, Teste’s friend describe Edmond’s understanding of “the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!” (11-12). Skizzen’s malleability is central to his persona in Middle C. He goes through several name changes, moving from Austria to England to America, and eventually fabricates a false identity, one which includes that he has an advanced degree in musical composition, when in fact his knowledge of music is wholly self-taught. One of the reasons he gravitates toward Schoenberg as his special interest is because of the composer’s obscurity and therefore the decreased likelihood that another Schoenberg scholar would be able to question Skizzen’s understanding of the Austrian’s theories. But over time Skizzen molds himself into a genuine expert on Schoenberg and a respected teacher at the college—though his fear of being found out as a fraud haunts him throughout the novel.

To utter the cliché that I have only scratched the surface of this topic would be a generous overstatement. Perhaps I have eyed the spot where one may strike the first blow. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated the Valéry-Gass scholarly vein to be a rich one, and that an even richer one is the Valéry-Rilke-Gass vein. A couple of years ago I hoped to edit a series of critical studies on Gass, and I put out the call for abstracts far and wide; however, I had to abandon the project as I only received one email of inquiry about the project, and then not even an abstract followed. Nevertheless, I will continue my campaign to bring attention to Gass’s work in hopes that others will follow me up the hill, or, better still, down the tunnel. Meanwhile, if interested, you can find several papers on Gass’s work at my blog.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. The Art of Poetry. By Paul Valéry. Trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Pantheon, 1958. vii-xxiv. Print.

Gass, William H. Charity. Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories. New York: Knopf, 2015. 77-149.  Print.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life. 1970. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. xi-xiii. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. 1999. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

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

—. The World Within the Word. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

Lawler, James R. Introduction. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. vii-xxiii. Print.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 46-55. [online]

Mathews, Jackson. Introduction. Monsieur Teste. By Valéry. Trans. Jackson Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. vii-ix. Print.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. 1896. Trans. Jackson Mathew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Notes on images: The photo of Paul Valéry was found at amoeba.com via Google image. The photo of William H. Gass was found at 3ammagazine.com via Google image.

 

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The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

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

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.

The Loss of Intellect by Ted Morrissey

Posted in April 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 15, 2014

I appreciate NAR’s invitation to contribute to its blog.

Morrissey blog pic

My review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C for NAR was a warm-up for a longer critical paper that I’ll present at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and in preparing to write that paper I re-read several of Gass’s essays and interviews, including an interview from 1995 that was published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3.1 (1997), and reprinted in Conversations with William H. Gass (2003), edited by Theodore G. Ammon.

The interviewer, Idiko Kaposi, asked Gass his view on emerging (mid-90s) technologies and how they would affect writing, reading, and ultimately, thinking. As a teacher, mainly of eighteen-year-olds, looking back at Gass’s remarks from nearly two decades ago, I find his insights disturbingly accurate. Gass, besides being an award-winning novelist and literary critic, was also a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, since retired.

Gass suspected that the…

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Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2014

My paper, “Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C,” was presented Feb. 20, 2014, at the Louisville Conference on Literature Culture Since 1900 as part of the panel “The New Adventures of Old Debates: Postmodernism and the New Sincerity,” chaired by Nick Curry, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘Everything is ending but not yet’: Post-Modern Irony and the New Sincerity in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Katherine Leake Weese, Hampden-Sydney College; and “Liminality and Dialogism: Dreamscape Narratives in Donald Barthelme’s Postmodern Paradise” by Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior. (A much abridged version of this paper appeared as a review in North American Review, 298.4. Search this blog for other Gass papers.)

Middle C image

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

by Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois Springfield

A long and complex novel, or series of novels . . . may present us with a world complete through every principle and consequence, rivaling in its comprehensiveness the most grandiose philosophical systems. (Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” 9)

With the release of Middle C in 2013, William H. Gass’s third novel, one imagines that Gass has attempted to do just that:  present us with a world complete.  For the past half century, William Gass has been one of America’s most prolific essayists and literary critics, as well as one of its most receptive interviewees.  Consequently, his ideas about writing, especially about writing the novel and what makes a great one, are well documented, and they’ve remained amazingly consistent decade after decade.  Middle C, even more so than his previous two novels, is a praxis of his most heartfelt theories—which makes it a deliberately challenging read, deliberately aimed at a rapidly disappearing readership.  What is more, given Gass’s age, Middle C may prove to be the final argument in his legendary debate with John Gardner in which aesthetics was pitted against morality as the rubric for assessing great literature.

Gass, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, is a self-acknowledged slow writer of his own fiction.  Therefore, his novels have appeared with great gaps of time in between:  Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (1995), and now Middle C—with an iconic collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a highly experimental novella (?), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and a collection of novellas, Cartesian Sonata (1998), rounding out his books of fiction.  Meanwhile, the professor of philosophy, retired from Washington University in St. Louis, has published ten collections of essays and criticism between 1970 and 2012.  Conversations with William H. Gass, a compendium of just some of his copious interviews, was released by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.

This paper will deal with Gass’s concept of narrative structure that he refers to as layering, his views on characterization, and his sense of morality’s proper place in fiction.

In Middle C, via the novel’s singular focus, music professor Joseph Skizzen, Gass demonstrates the narrative elements he believes to be essential to great fiction, but also the ones that have prevented him from being a best-selling author—though they have garnered him numerous honors and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Tunnel, a ponderous novel twenty-six years in the writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though not a musician himself, Gass has long been fascinated with musical composition and has tried to structure his novels as if they were orchestral arrangements.  More important, Gass’s nonlinear structural technique that he refers to as layering mimics musical composition, he believes, because the goal of a great novel is to affect the reader as a whole creation:  “[T]he linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements too, equally important.  So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered:  certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are nonlinear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers” (Janssens 60-61).

The result of layering is a narrative that shifts relentlessly between Skizzen’s childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond to nearing retirement age, forcing readers to acquire their temporal bearings with each new section.  It is useful that each phase of Skizzen’s life tends to take place in a distinct setting with different casts of characters (except for the professor’s mother, Miriam, as she is a constant throughout).  Gass also provides some assistance in how he references Skizzen as either Joey or Joseph, but ultimately the two names appear side by side in the novel as if the young and old versions of his character become conjoined twins and experience the world through dual perceptions.

The merciless shifting in time is due to the thematic elements in the book. Gass writes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme” (49).  In The Tunnel, Gass employed a twelve-part structure suggestive of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pattern.  “That is how I began working out the way for the various themes to come in and out,” said Gass. “It’s layered that way too” (Kaposi 135).  In Middle C, Gass has returned to the concept of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but even more overtly.  For one thing, Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, like Alan Berg and Anton Webern, are discussed at various points in the novel via Professor Skizzen’s lectures; and Skizzen himself effects the aura of a Viennese intellectual, reflective of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of musical composers.  Also, throughout the novel Skizzen wrestles with a sentence, or series of sentences, having to do with the destructive nature of the human race, as he continually composes the thought, critiques it, and revises it.  Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation:  “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352).  Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.  The twelve-tone system has four parts, described as Prime—Retrograde—Inverse—Retrograde Inverse.  As such, the primacy of “First Skizzen felt” is represented literally with the word First, while “mankind must perish” suggests the retrograde movement of the species from existence to extinction.  “Then he feared” marks the inverse of Skizzen’s initial impression, and “it might survive” is the retrograde inverse because it reverses his belief that mankind will become extinct and concludes that it will actually persist.

In a microcosmic sense, Skizzen’s capturing of the perfect expression of his fears about the human race reflect Gass’s overarching strategy of novel composition, which he expressed in a 2012 Tin House interview:  “You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level.  And indeed, a spatial level.  Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels” (Gerke 41).  On the page, Gass, as he often has, uses typographical features to suggest the multilayered nature of Skizzen’s expression, by indenting, tabbing and boldfacing the words, so that visually they draw attention to their deeper meanings and associations. This evolving thought about humanity is associated with another reoccurring element in the novel, Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and handwritten notecards that detail horrific human actions:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby:  the Inhumanity Museum. . . . Sometimes he changed the [name] placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum. . . . Daily, he would escape his sentence to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record. (55)

And just as Gass returns to the evolving sentence throughout the novel, he also references the Inhumanity Museum and its growing record of atrocities.  Hence, the motif of humans’ inhumanity to other humans demonstrates one of Gass’s other important theories about fictional narrative:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  He writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (“The Concept of Character” 49, 50).  Perhaps Gass’s interest in developing ideas as characters and not people stems from his most fundamental affections.   In the Tin House interview, he acknowledged that he “hate[s] the species” and aligns himself with Spinoza’s advocacy of “lov[ing] ideas” (Gerke 33, 36).  People, he says, are less trustworthy than objects, and the singular focus of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, reflects that lack of trustworthiness in that the music professor is a complete fraud who constructs his career, and his very life, from forged documents and fabricated CVs.

Gass said that Skizzen was based on a real history professor at Wooster College in Ohio who was living under a false identity and on the run from both the English and Canadian authorities.  Gass remarked, “I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort.  Professor Skizzen obtains his position with false CVs [. . .] but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach” (Gerke 37-8).  Skizzen’s falseness even extends to his supposed admiration of Schoenberg, whom he chose as a pet topic because no one knew much about him.  Perhaps Skizzen’s irreverent strategy reflects to some degree Gass’s own choice of Schoenberg’s twelve-part system to use as a controlling structure for his fiction.  In writing criticism, Gass had to stay within the boundaries of expectation, he said, but for his fiction, which has been more important to him, “there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill,” allowing him “to be more outrageous, or daring” (32).

Gass’s emphases in Middle C on inhumane behavior and on Skizzen’s profound falseness represent another of his theories about artistic, versus popular, writing.  On the one hand, Gass has said that significant novels need to be about significant themes.  In the essay “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes, “[T]he form and method of metaphor are very much like the form and method of the novel. . . . [T]he artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to his model the quality of sensuous display.” He goes on,

[T]hen imagine the Oriental deviousness, the rich rearrangement, the endless complications of the novel conceived as I suggest it should be, as a monumental metaphor, a metaphor we move at length through, the construction of a mountain with its views, a different, figured history to stretch beside our own, a brand-new ordering both of the world and our understanding. (68-9)

Yet this world-altering effect must be executed via mundane plot details.  Gass said, “. . . I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations whose reality is strong because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something.  If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose” (Gerke 42-3).  He said that “ninety percent of bad literature” was due to writers focusing on the sensational act itself, the part of real life that is “quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (43).  As such, Professor Skizzen’s achievement of the perfect twelve-part sentence about humans’ inhumanity acts as a kind of climax for Middle C, and Skizzen’s feared defrocking, which occupies the final pages of the novel, is a sort of anticlimax juxtaposed against the truly climactic narrative event.

This avoidance of the extreme situation has been practiced by Gass ever since his very first written narrative, from about 1951, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” which carefully sidesteps descriptions of child abuse, molestation, kidnapping, rape and murder, leaving them merely implied on the fringes of the plot.  And in The Tunnel, Gass’s most ambitious work, the Holocaust remains in the background while the novel’s protagonist secretly digs a hole to nowhere in his basement.

Gass is in his ninetieth year, and it’s all but certain that he will not write any other novels.  He’s said that more novellas, stories, essays and literary criticism could be forthcoming, so Middle C may well be his closing argument in his famous debate with John Gardner, who died in 1982.  Gass and Gardner’s debate regarding the chief aim of fiction was often carried out in private, but it also became very public, being transcribed in various interviews and even fictionalized by Larry McCaffery in The Literary Review as a Point-Counterpoint-style “confrontation” (135).  At the risk of oversimplifying their positions … Gardner believed that literature’s highest calling was to put forward a moral, life-affirming message, while Gass believed that literature’s highest calling was to be something beautiful, a work of linguistic art.  Gass said in a 1978 interview, “There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is.  I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness.  John and others have values which they think are important.  Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people.  I think it is very important . . .” (LeClair 55).  Gardner’s view was that “you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream . . . living a virtual life, making moral judgments in a virtual state” (49-50).

More than a decade after Gardner’s death, with the publication of The Tunnel, whose narrator, history professor Frederick Kohler, seems to sympathize with the Nazis, Gass was still clarifying his position on morality versus art in literature.  He said that his “position [had] been frequently misunderstood, almost invariably” (Kaposi 122).  He went on,

Ethical, political, and social concerns will be present in every writer’s work at every point.  The question is not that; the question is how you write about them. . . . My view is that you don’t judge a work to be beautiful because it’s morally uplifting or tells the truth about things.  And it’s perfectly possible for a work to be beautiful and not tell the truth, and in fact to be morally not a very nice thing.  Ideally of course it would be all these things at once. (122)

Unlike Kohler, Joseph Skizzen is clearly appalled by human behavior, like the Holocaust.  In his lectures on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Skizzen contemplates how Jews were able to reconcile “the Almighty’s malevolence . . . a punishment long in coming and therefore most deserved” (209).  Thus, in the context of a novel in which nothing much happens, certainly nothing earthshattering, Gass interjects significant moral issues, especially involving humakind’s inhumane treatment of itself.  In The Tunnel, Gass created a character and a book who were “morally not a very nice thing,” and it seemed to distract many readers from its artfulness, its literary beauty.  In a 1998 interview, Gass responded to critic Robert Atler’s assertion that The Tunnel was an immoral book because of the way it treated the Holocaust by saying that it must be “to some sorts of reader an immoral book.  I want it to be for them.  I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.  It’s for me the proof in the pudding” (Abowitz 144). Gass said that he considers Middle C “a much lighter” book (Gerke 38), even though he deals with many of the same issues as in The Tunnel.  What makes it seem lighter, perhaps, is the first-person narrator’s posture toward atrocities like the Holocaust.

In the end, then, Gass has found a way to create a work of literary art while also taking the higher moral ground that his friend John Gardner advocated.  Gardner said in 1978 that his “ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books” (LeClair 55)—maybe he managed to change Gass’s final novel from beyond the grave.

Gass is adamant that he’s written his last novel as a matter of practicality—after all, eighteen years elapsed between The Tunnel and Middle C (“I can’t live forever,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)—but he’s working on a collection of essays, a collection short stories (alluded to in the mid-1990s and still not complete apparently), and he’s planning another novella or two.

Let me end on a personal and professional note:  I’m planning to edit a series of books on Gass’s work through Twelve Winters Press, and about a week ago I put out a call for submissions (of abstracts) for the first anthology, titled Critical Perspectives on William H. Gass: The Novellas.  Please visit TwelveWinters.com/submissions for details and to access the submissions portal. You can also follow my 12 Winters Blog and ReadingGass.org for updates on the project.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 55-76. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 3-26. Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Henderson, Jane. “William Gass: At 88, Gass Has Written Last Novel—But Not Last Book.” 10 Mar. 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” 1979. Ammon 56-70.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” 1978. Ammon 46-55.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Gass-Gardner Debate: Showdown on Main Street.” The Literary Review 23.1 (fall 1979): 134-144. Print.

William H. Gass’s “Very Cold Winter”

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 2012 as part of the PsyArt Foundation panel, chaired by Andrew Gordon, “William H. Gass’s ‘Very Cold Winter’:  The Trauma of the Fallout Shelter Frenzy as Expressed in The Tunnel.”

William H. Gass’s “Very Cold Winter”:

The Trauma of the Fallout Shelter Frenzy as Expressed in The Tunnel

William H. Gass’s long and densely postmodern novel The Tunnel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, has perplexed both casual readers and literary critics, whose reactions and readings have varied widely, to say the least.  Indeed, H. L. Hix, author of Understanding William H. Gass, writes that the “early responses [of which there were many] ranged from wildly enthusiastic to contemptuous” (77).  Moreover, not only is The Tunnel an odd novel—bringing together just about every postmodern trope (“cram[med] together like [rush-hour] commuters,” Gass has said [Ziegler 14])—but its writing and publishing history is equally strange in the saga of American letters as Gass worked on the project for nearly thirty years, publishing excerpts from it in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monograms on nineteen occasions from 1969 to 1988.  Regardless of whether their opinion fell on the “wildly enthusiastic” or the “contemptuous” end of the spectrum, most critics agreed that The Tunnel warranted multiple readings and extensive excavation.  When that work has been undertaken, Irving Malin has conjectured that Gass’s magnum opus will be hailed, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, as “the most significant novel written since World War II” (11).

Hence, with pick and shovel in hand, I arrive bearing some finds from the dig—a dig, by the way, which has not been especially extensive thus far:  A review of the MLA International Database yielded only 30 articles dealing with The Tunnel since its publication, and the majority were generated by the same handful of Gass devotees.  What’s more, apparently there have been no scholarly publications on The Tunnel in nearly seven years.  Perhaps because Gass himself has been so concerned with language (especially metaphor, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, completed at Cornell in 1954), the readings of his work have often focused on its textual complexities, and only a very few have treated The Tunnel, especially, as an expression of trauma.  And if traumatic experience is cited as a wellspring of Gass’s writing, it is generally his well-known miserable childhood that is named as the culprit.  In fact, Hix’s essential understanding of Gass is that he “writes to get even for his childhood, his resentment for which he has clearly stated” (1).  However, no one seems to have noticed that Gass’s writing career falls perfectly in line with the extreme anxiety caused in Western culture by the United States’ unleashing of atomic weapons and the initiation of the Cold War—events about which Gass has written directly numerous times.  What is more, no one that I’ve read has made the, what I consider, obvious connection between the fact that Gass began writing The Tunnel at the height of the U.S.’s fallout shelter frenzy, which was initiated, according to Kenneth D. Rose, in 1961 by John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech, wherein the President called for an aggressive shelter-building program in response to the Soviet Union’s threats that there would be war if the West did not withdraw from the German capital.  Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev was “Then let there be war, Mr. Chairman.  It’s going to be a very cold winter” (2).

Given the publishing history of the The Tunnel, not to mention the brevity of this presentation, I’m going to focus my analysis on the first two sections of the novel to appear in print—“We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review in 1969, and “Why Windows Are Important To Me” in TriQuarterly in 1971—and I’m also going to draw from a paper I presented at the conference in 2010 which provides my study’s trauma-theory underpinnings.  That paper, which looks more broadly at the effects of the threat of nuclear annihilation on Gass’s writing, particularly his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” is posted on my blog.

First, however, it’s necessary to reflect on the fallout shelter phenomenon and its myriad effects on the American people’s psyches—effects that I believe often manifest themselves in Gass’s narrative in which the first-person protagonist, history professor William Kohler, goes to his basement to write the final piece of his masterwork on Nazi Germany, thirty years in the making, but instead begins a meandering autobiography of his painful childhood, lackluster career, and loveless marriage; and, meanwhile, for reasons that are never quite clear, Kohler starts digging a surreptitious and superfluous tunnel behind his basement furnace.  While Kennedy’s 1961 speech may mark the beginning of the United States’ frenzy over fallout shelter-building, it was the previous administration, under Eisenhower, that first broached the topic.  For about a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government and consequently its people were able to convince themselves that nuclear warfare wasn’t all that different from more traditional forms of warfare; however, atomic tests in the mid-fifties demonstrated just how catastrophic a nuclear attack could be on the United States.  Ralph Lapp, civil defense editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, wrote in 1954 that “the new peril from radioactive fall-out is more than just a threat to civil defense—it is a peril to humanity” (Rose 25-26).  In the following issue of the Bulletin, Val Peterson, Eisenhower’s chief civil defense administrator, was quoted as saying that life after a nuclear war would “be stark, elemental, brutal, filthy, and miserable [. . . a] kind of hell” that no one was prepared for (26).

At first, the Eisenhower administration promoted the idea of a government-led program to build fallout shelters in cities throughout the country, but when the estimated costs proved astronomical and the logistics all but impossible, they shifted their emphasis to home-based shelter projects undertaken by private citizens.  In spite of efforts to publicize the dangers of nuclear fallout and to cast home shelter-building as an act of patriotism, a 1960 Senate subcommittee study concluded that “few shelters of any description have been constructed in the United States” (Rose 35).  However, Kennedy’s Berlin speech a year later dramatically changed national sentiment as it “was made in an atmosphere of crisis and produced an immediate public clamoring for information on how citizens could protect themselves and their families” (37).  Responding to this public sentiment, a tidal wave of published material (both factual and fictive, and some a confusing hybrid of each) kept the topics of nuclear annihilation and fallout shelter-building fresh in the American psyche for years to come.  As Rose puts it, of possibly “great[est] significance were the numerous nuclear apocalyptic scenarios that appeared in the mainstream magazines and newspapers, often incorporated as part of a feature story on the fallout shelter controversy [. . . as] these descriptions would reach a very wide swath of the public” (40).

The controversy as it quickly emerged was multifaceted, to put it lightly, but in brief it consisted of questions like the following:  How would a typical homeowner go about building and supplying a fallout shelter for his family?  Could a well-built shelter truly protect a family from the initial bombing and from radioactive fallout?  Would a homeowner be prepared to use deadly force against ill-prepared friends and neighbors wanting inside his shelter at the moment of crisis?  Would a postapocalyptic life be worth living even if one did survive in the shelter?  Was building a shelter courageously patriotic or was it a cowardly act in direct opposition to the American fighting spirit?  How would a community that had survived essentially intact respond to homeless and desperate refugees arriving from neighboring towns and cities?  Were the shelter-building and -supplying businessmen who suddenly appeared on the landscape genuine professionals who had their clients’ best interests at heart, or were they conmen out to make a quick dollar off of people’s fears and confusion (many swimming-pool builders, for example, recast themselves as fallout-shelter experts)?

Before looking at Gass’s narrative in more detail, let me draw upon my earlier work for a brief discussion of literary trauma theory.  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; essentially that individuals writing in isolation on various continents just all happened to begin writing in the same sorts of ways, all in a narrow time span of about fifteen years.  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.  For example, Americans were deeply and immediately conflicted with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; that is, 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).  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).

In not recognizing the emergence of postmodern literary style as being connected to the nuclear age, 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” (“‘Nothing’” 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 note 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).

I’ll note that while Rose and Dewey are offering different years, 1961 versus 1962, as the catalytic year for American culture’s traumatic response to atomic annihilation, they are both citing the same source:  the sudden heating up of the Cold War.

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.  As noted earlier, 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.

Now, in the brief time remaining, to look at some of Gass’s text.  The paper that I presented in 2010, which I’ve archived at my blog, deals with apocalyptic images in Gass—mushroom-cloud shapes, cyclones, extreme heat, deadly winds, and in general destruction raining down from above—and such images are certainly abundant in early excerpts from The Tunnel.  To bring my discussion from above to below ground, I’ll draw attention to a snatch of song lyric that is frequently repeated in 1969’s “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in which a crow represents death.  The narrator, William Kohler (“Kohler,” by the way, is German for miner), recalls the song from his youth, and the line goes, “Crow—O crow— / don’t cross my path, / so my life lasts / a little longer” (8 et al.).  This notion of extending life “a little longer” was central to the fallout shelter issue:  Would a shelter merely extend life for a few weeks or months as survivors of atomic attack would eventually have to come above ground, only to die from residual radiation or starvation?  The song continues, “Crow—O crow— / each time you pass, / my sickness grows / a little stronger” (10, 12).  The song continues with images of protracted and painful death.  There are references to enclosure throughout this early published excerpt, especially enclosure within one’s own or another’s body, but the imagery becomes most concentrated late in the piece when Kohler contemplates his sitting in his basement day after day pondering and writing about his wasted life.  He says, “I know there are worse ways of living—deeper, darker, damper dungeons—than my own. [. . .] And yet I hold my head and groan and wish these books had fallen in upon me years ago” (30).  Furthermore, he posits that “a man who brings his own walls with him is in prison”—perhaps reflective on some level of the fact that the United States has brought this dilemma upon itself with its creation of and unleashing of atomic weapons.  This reading is bolstered by other elements in the text that I don’t have time to discuss here.

Instead, I’d like to look at “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” published in 1971, which is even thicker with images of enclosure and the complex psychology associated with becoming hidden.  In this excerpt, Kohler discusses his obsession with “trenches, castles, dugouts, outposts, [and] graves” (58), relating several episodes from his childhood and early adult years in which he either created hiding places or discovered such places behind walls and inside maintenance shafts.  Kohler describes “that powerful out of the world feeling” (61) he experienced whenever he hid away because, when not hiding, the world of “out there” made him “an ordinary mortal” and “erod[ed him] like rain” (60).  Here is a lengthy passage about the “bliss” of hiding that is especially rich in ambiguity when examined closely:

[To hide is t]o enter yourself so completely that you’re like a peeled-off glove; to become to the world invisible, entirely out of touch, no longer defined by the eyes of others, unanswering to anyone; to go away with such utterness behind a curtain or beneath a tented table, in the unfamiliar angles of an attic or the menace of a basement; to be swallowed by a chest or hamper as the whale-god swallowed Jonah, and then to find yourself alive, and even well, in the belly of your own being—in a barn loft, under a porch, anywhere out of the mob’s middle distance like a Stuart Little, a Tom Thumb, or a Tinker Bell—unnoticed and therefore all the more noticing [. . .] to go supremely away like this was to re-enter through another atmosphere [. . .] (57)

Here we get the joy of hiding and surviving, and even the sense of superiority that those who hide feel over those who are not hidden, characterized as a “mob.”  To hide is a kind of mystical experience by which one comes to fully understand oneself.  Yet there is also present in the passage a sense of extreme isolation and alienation from the world, and there is the frightful image of being swallowed; moreover, we note that of all the hiding places mentioned the only underground one, the basement, is also the only one overtly described negative, as menacing in fact.  It is also interesting that when Kohler hides he feels tiny—like Stuart Little, Tom Thumb, Tinker Bell—perhaps suggestive of the cowardliness that many associated with shelter-building.  Finally, I’ll point out the idea of transcendence, that via hiding one seems to enter an entirely new realm:  maybe the difference between the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds shelter-builders would experience.  In fact, the word bliss itself carries with it the notion of transcendence in addition to simply being joyful—but of course to transcend into bliss, one must die.

In this paper I have only begun to scratch the surface of a rich vein in William H. Gass’s writing—indeed a vein that runs throughout American postmodern literature.  In my way of thinking, it’s no coincidence that the vogue of postmodernism fizzled with the end of the Cold War.  That is to say, the reading public and publishers in general seemed to suddenly change their tastes, and stopped being attracted to the tropes of postmodern literary style when the threat of nuclear Armageddon no longer seemed imminent.  Giants of postmodernism, like Gass and Pynchon, have continued to write as they did in the sixties, seventies and eighties—but honors and accolades, once so numerous, have been far fewer with slumping book sales and contemporary critics who often find them out of step, and perhaps something like curious relics of the Cold War.

Works Cited

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.  “We Have Not Lived the Right Life.”  New American Review 6 (1969):  7-32.  Print.

—.  “Why Windows Are Important to Me.”  The Best of TriQuarterly.  Ed. Jonathan Brent.  New York:  Washington Square P, 1982.  49-69.  Print.

Hix, H. L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

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

Malin, Irving.  “Anti-Introduction.”  Into The Tunnel:  Readings of Gass’s Novel.  Ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin.  Newark:  U of Deleware P, 1998.  11.  Print.

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

Rose, Kenneth D.  One Nation Underground:  The Fallout Shelter in American Culture.  New York:  New York UP, 2001.  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.

tedmorrissey.com

 

 

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

surprise

my nose

my ah!

breath

goes

f

a

s

s

s

t

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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Notes from the Louisville Conference and AWP 2012

Posted in March 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 18, 2012

The transition of February into March was exceedingly busy for me as I attended both the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (Feb. 23-25) and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago (Feb. 29-March 3). I’ve been a regular attendee and presenter at Louisville the past eight years, but I’ve only attended AWP twice, the other time being Chicago 2004. Hecticness aside, the conferences were well worth the effort, and for this post I’ll record some thoughts and observations about each.

This year’s installment was the fortieth Louisville Conference, and it was typically excellent. I presented a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel and how the fallout-shelter phenomenon of the 1950s and ’60s may have affected its writing. The novel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, took Gass nearly thirty years to write, and he published 19 excerpts of The Tunnel in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monographs between 1969 and 1988. Given my paper’s focus and the necessary brevity of the presentation, I concentrated my analysis on the two earliest published excerpts: “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review (1969) and “Why Windows Are Important to Me” in TriQuarterly (1971). My paper was essentially a companion to a paper I presented at Louisville in 2010 on Gass and nuclear annihilation in general, focusing somewhat on The Tunnel but mainly on his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968).

My paper was part of a prearranged panel for The PsyArt Foundation, organized by Andrew Gordon. My scholarly interests have been associated with literary trauma theory; that is, looking at texts, especially postmodern texts, that may have been significantly influenced by the writer’s traumatized psyche. And I’ve been especially interested in cultural trauma, whereby an entire nation or some other large group of people has experienced the zeitgeist of trauma (e.g., fear of nuclear annihilation). When my interests in literary trauma theory began around 2008, it was not an area that a lot of scholars were exploring; however, the theoretical paradigm seems to be catching on as I was surprised to find that at the 2012 Louisville Conference there were numerous papers involving trauma-theory readings of texts. In fact, in the online program I found 23 panels and papers that contained the word “trauma.” Unfortunately, the Conference doesn’t seem to archive its past programs online, and this link will likely go dead in the near future.

The overall quality of the presentations at Louisville is always excellent, but here are some papers or readings that I found to be especially engaging: The panel on “Modernism & Experimentation” was very thought provoking with presenters Lindsay Welsch (on Forster’s A Passage to India), Elizabeth J. Wellman (on Djuna Barnes), and — especially — Christopher McVey’s paper “Book of Lief, A Comedy of Letters: Finnegans Wake, Historiography, and the Heliotrope.” I also learned a lot from Carolyn A. Durham’s paper “The Spy Novel Parodied: Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech.” In a panel that I chaired, there were two exceptional papers on films: Patrick Herald’s “I Have Lost Something: Fantasy in American Beauty” and William Welty’s “‘That Rug Really Tied the Room Together’: Why The Dude Is a Lacanian.”

In the creative panel that I was part of, reading “Crowsong for the Stricken,” I had the pleasure of hearing Don Peteroy’s entertaining short story “Too Much Anthropology” and the spellbinding poetry of Cecilia Woloch.

In mentioning these few, I have omitted countless excellent others, but in the interest of everyone’s attention span I’ll move on to some words about AWP 2012. I’d never attended a conference that had literally sold out, but AWP in Chicago did, as there were more than 9,000 participants this year. Besides presentations and readings, one of the most notable aspects of the annual conference is its bookfair, where hundreds of presses (especially small and university presses) and literary journals display the fruits of their labors (of love). I attended AWP as part of the “Q crew” (as I call us), the editors, readers and interns of Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program, housed on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield, Illinois. Frankly, I enjoy hanging out at the Quiddity table and telling passers-by about the journal and radio program, but I also attended some very interesting panels and readings.

Among the interesting panels that I attended were “The Fiction Chapbook — A Sleeper Form Wakes Up” (by Nicole Louise Reid, Eric Lorberer, Diane Goettel, Keven Sampsell, and Abigail Beckel) about how the chapbook, known mostly as a format for poetry, could become an excellent way to get short fiction into the hands of readers; and “The Science of Stories: What Cognitive Science Can Tell Us about Making Narratives” (by Jack Wang, Andrew Elfenbein, Tim Horvath, Austin Bennett, and Livia Blackburne) about how and why readers respond to various aspects of storytelling.

I also attended an excellent reception/reading hosted by Ruminate Magazine, Rock & Sling, and WordFarm. Then following that reception was one of the historic moments of the conference, a reading by U.K. and U.S. Poets Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine — I mean, how often does one get to hear a national poet laureate, period, leave be the current U.K. and U.S. poets on the same stage?

My double conference extravaganza was a bit taxing, but both were well worth the time and effort. Just a couple of other quick notes regarding my own writing and publishing: My story “Primitive Scent” appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Tulane Review. Also, on the day I was to read “Crowsong for the Stricken” at the Louisville Conference I received an email that it will appear in this spring’s edition of Noctua Review. Moreover, just before leaving for AWP I had an email that Constellations will be publishing “Beside Running Waters” in its forthcoming issue. And finally, I’ve heard that the issue of Pisgah Review with my story “The Composure of Death” is out. (The Pisgah website is a bit behind and still featuring the winter 2010 issue.)

The publisher of Men of Winter, Punkin House, plans to bring out my novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God. Originally it was slated for spring 2012, but there’s been no movement on it, so that time frame is probably not very realistic. If interested (or even if not), see my website tedmorrissey.com for updates regarding its publication and other news.

Reflections on Best of the Net

Posted in February 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 5, 2012

The last several weeks have been so busy that time for blogging was all but nonexistent. There was syllabus writing, and preparing my presentation on William H. Gass’s The Tunnel for the fast-approaching Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and — most time-consuming, but also most interesting, of all — was reading fiction for the Best of the Net 2011 anthology, published by Sundress Publications.

Sundress was founded and is managed by Erin Elizabeth Smith (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing her read her own poetry in the fall), but it was my friend and colleague Meagan Cass who invited me to read fiction nominations for Best of the Net, which strives to publish the best poetry, fiction and nonfiction that appeared originally in online journals. Journal editors must nominate the work (unless it was self-published, in which case the author may submit the piece). See Sundress’s submissions page for full guidelines.

Meagan had lined up several readers for fiction, so I was in a group that was assigned just under seventy short stories to read; in other words, I read about half of the total fiction submissions — so the observations I’m about to share are based solely on that half; perhaps the other half would have suggested different impressions altogether (though I suspect not). According to the email to readers that organized the reading, this was the largest number of nominations Best of the Net had received, a sign, it seems clear, that the anthology is catching on and more and more editors are aware of it and appreciate its mission to give kudos to work published online, as opposed to that which first appeared in print publications.

Strictly online publications (though many do their own “best of” print editions on, say, an annual basis) are gaining legitimacy to be sure. The Modern Language Association, for example, has been establishing criteria for online publication of scholarly work to assist in the tenure-granting process as more and more academics have been turning to peer-reviewed online and e-outlets. (See the MLA’s “The Future of Scholarly Publishing.”)

There remains a certain prestige to being published in traditional print, especially if by a long-established journal (this is true for both academic and creative writers), but I do believe electronic publication is catching up — thanks to a complex web (ha) of factors, including projects like Best of the Net that call attention to the excellent writing which is appearing in online venues.

It was an honor to be asked to read for Sundress’s project, and I knew it would be an educational experience. As a writer (especially as a creative writer) I’m very much interested in trends in electronic publication, and I had certain questions going into my reading that I hoped the experience would help me answer — and I believe it has. First and foremost I was curious about this legitimacy issue; that is, I wanted to know how online-published work seemed to stack up against work appearing in more traditional, and established, journals. I wondered about the writers themselves: Would they primarily be first-timers in terms of publication, or ones who had only published in obscure and eclectic online sites?

And I wondered about the journals and their editors and designers. I’m hardly a babe in the woods when it comes to my exploring and reading online publications (in fact, I like to think of myself as something of an expert, or as much of an expert as one can be in a field that literally changes by the minute); however, I knew the project would introduce me to journals I’d never encountered, in spite of my regular trolling of Duotrope’s Digest, NewPages.com, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses’ member directory. I wondered where these journals were originating (from a university English department or from somebody’s basement or from somebody’s smartphone while sipping a latte at Starbucks). I wondered who their editors were, and I wondered what sorts of designs and formats were being used (and how reader friendly they were).

I’m about to get to my observations, I promise, but I should probably point out that I’ve been reading literary journal submissions for years, going back to my undergrad days at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale reading and editing the English Department’s Grassroots journal, but much more recently I published/edited my own chapbook-style journal, A Summer’s Reading, from 1997 to 2004, and since 2007 I’ve been editing then simply reading for Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program.

So let’s just say I’ve supped deeply from the slush pile.

I suppose I thought reading for Best of the Net would be a lot like slush-pile reading in that I would discover early on in a given piece that I wasn’t smelling what its author was cooking, but this wasn’t the case at all. I said earlier that it was time-consuming, and that’s because I found I really needed to read just about every piece to the final mark of punctuation to try to decide yea or nay, and even then it was often a difficult decision. We fiction readers had been charged with finding only about twelve to fifteen “yeses” (in other words, we had to say “no” to around fifty-five in our own batch). I discovered that the writing was overall very, very good; and, for me, it was often the end of the story that moved my metaphorical thumb up or down — which I suppose isn’t surprising seeing that as a writer and teacher I know how difficult endings can be (much more challenging than writing an effective beginning).

The process was also time-consuming because by and large the submissions were full-length stories. Reading online, it’s difficult to gauge lengths as one might when reading from paper, but in my group there were only a handful that I’d call flash fiction or even a short short, and a roughly equal number were in the neighborhood of 10,000 words (which in paper manuscript would be about forty pages). As an editor and publisher of print journals, I’ve been frustrated by space limitations and have had to say “no” to many a worthy offering because there simply wasn’t room for it in the journal; and, as a writer, I’ve been curious why more journal editors didn’t take advantage of the infinity of cyberspace by publishing longer pieces (to be read by whom I’m not precisely sure — but that’s a whole different issue).

In terms of form, I’d say that in contrast to the cutting-edge nature of online publishing, the stories themselves tended to be very traditional. Again, I’d say only a half dozen or so of my seventy-ish were what I’d term experimental in narrative structure or style. I suppose since writers tend to write in a way that would be publishable by either print or online journals, the web editors receive pieces that have also been sent to their print counterparts. And even the story-writers who did play with form did so in a way that would translate to paper-print in essentially the same manner. (Here I am, I should acknowledge, writing quite specifically for the web, and yet I’m composing almost exactly as I did thirty-five years ago when writing a sports story for the Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper, so it seems the medium itself has not greatly affected how we write and process text, regardless of whether we are a forty-something or a twenty-something.)

Thus it’s fair to say that I was surprised by both the consistently high quality of the nominated pieces and also by their consistent ties to their print forebears. Perhaps online editors had published numerous highly experimental pieces but chose to nominate their more traditional ones. My sense, however, from both my Best of the Net reading and my usual snooping about online journals, is that the vast, vast majority of what’s being published on the web would be equally suited to traditional print.

As far as the writers themselves go, I only scanned bios after I’d read the piece and made my yea/nay decision, but I found quite a mix, just as one does in a print publication. There were writers who had not published before and ones who had only published in barely-on-the-radar venues, but there were also many, many writers who had impressive lists of credits and awards. Also just like their traditional brethren, the editors of these online journals tend to be academically trained and, often, affiliated; they are writers and poets themselves, with their own publishing credits and accolades; many are MFAs and PhDs, or are candidates, respectively.

I found that many of the journal sites were attractive and very readable, but at the same time there were those whose designers didn’t appear to believe that people would actually be attempting to read what they were publishing — with tiny, highly compressed text that seemed to say “Go ahead, just try to read me … I dare ya!” Reader fatigue was a problem I often struggled with, and I tried not to let it affect my judgment of the individual story. I should say that editors tended to nominate pieces in two forms, both in text documents and with links to their publications; I generally toggled back and forth to determine which would be easier on my eyes (even if I opted for the text document, I was curious about the journal itself and would poke around a bit).

Here are just a few journals I encountered due to my BOTN reading that I was especially impressed with in terms of design and, in some cases, general mood or aesthetic philosophy, but it is hardly an exhaustive list: Juked, Cha, Serving House Journal, Fiction Weekly, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of excellent work being published in online venues, thanks to the loving labor of a lot of dedicated editors and web designers, and as a consequence web-based publication, at least in the creative arts, is quickly achieving the prestige which had been granted exclusively to traditional print journals.

So kudos to these writers and editors; and to presses like Sundress that are dedicated to recognizing online excellence.

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Pathfinding: a blog dedicated to helping new writers find outlets for their work

The Pharmacy has quickly become a site of literary energy

Posted in December 2011 by Ted Morrissey on December 18, 2011

The Pharmacy art studio, located at the corner of Pasfield and South Grand in Springfield, Illinois, has quickly established itself as not only a site of visual artistic energy but literary artistic energy as well. In addition to hosting readings, often in conjunction with University of Illinois at Springfield’s creative writing program — in recent months poets Stephen Frech and E. E. Smith, and UIS’s undergraduate and graduate creative writers — The Pharmacy has hosted and/or organized writing workshops and open-mic events. Spearheaded by Andrew Woolbright and Adam Nicholson, The Pharmacy Literati have already had a profound impact on promoting and producing literature in Springfield. And all this, of course, is in addition to The Pharmacy’s primary mission to promote visual artists.

Most recently, The Pharmacy hosted novelist (among many other things) A. D. Carson, who read from his novel Cold. I’ve italicized “read” because it was really more of a performance than a simple reading, including wrap, slam poetry, and often accompanied by recorded musical tracks, composed and in large part performed by A. D. In fact, Cold has companion CDs and MP3s (see A. D.’s Amazon page). A. D.’s multifaceted reading was emblematic of The Pharmacy itself in that it’s a creative space which places no boundaries on imagination, regardless of form or content. Art, some completed, some in progress, adorns the walls and various nooks; here, there and everywhere are the various implements and supplies for making art, plus manual and power tools, food stuff, a hodgepodge of furniture, and, of course, books, books, books … on shelves, on tables, on couches. In addition to the artwork, the walls are also home to graffitied quotes.

In sum, The Pharmacy is wonderfully, beautifully messy — it’s sort of like the bedroom of a hypercreative teenager. In other words, it’s like the mind, both conscious and unconscious, of the true artist — whether an artist of images, of words, of sounds: they all come to The Pharmacy to play, and incredible things happen. If you’re creative and/or crave the fruits of creativity, you have to find The Pharmacy in Springfield. (I suspect the name “The Pharmacy” was chosen largely because the old building was indeed a pharmacy, but the founders chose wisely in that it has once again become a place of healing [spiritual and soulful], and the name further suggests the mind-opening and mind-altering effects of certain kinds of pharmacology [some legal, some not].)

I mentioned the readings done by UIS’s student creative writers, and I should add that they were quite good and made for a most enjoyable evening, especially when combined with macaroni and cheese lovingly prepared by the students’ teacher, Meagan Cass. Meagan recently received the good — and much-deserved — news that her story “Girlhunt, Spring 1999” was nominated by Devil’s Lake for a Pushcart Prize. Treat yourself right, and take a few minutes to read “Girlhunt, Spring 1999.”

On my own writing front, since completing the manuscript of my novel “An Untimely Frost” back in June, I’ve been writing a series of loosely connected short stories (four thus far), and one, “Primitive Scent,” was picked up by The Tulane Review, while another, “Crowsong for the Stricken,” was accepted for presentation at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 this coming February. I’ll also be presenting a paper on William H. Gass’s novel The Tunnel at the conference as part of the PsyArt panel. In other news, my publisher, Punkin House, has added Barnes & Noble to its sellers, along with Amazon, and as such a Nook version of Men of Winter is now available. Punkin House’s CEO Amy Ferrell has also informed me that an audio-book edition is in the works.

Meanwhile, the article I was invited to write for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series has come out in #54: “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.” I wrote about using the collected letters of Washington Irving to assist in capturing the narrative voice I wanted for “An Untimely Frost,” whose first-person protagonist is Washington Irving-esque. Also, the interview with me that Beth Gilstrap wrote for The Fourth River has come out, thanks in no small part to the journal’s fiction editor Robert Yune. Beth talked to me about both Men of Winter and Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella that Punkin House will bring out in 2012, paired with a collection of twelve previously published stories.

I’m at work on a fifth short story, though not of the same fictional ilk as the previous four, but I also need to get my Gass paper shipshape for the Louisville conference. Once those two projects are completed, I’ll turn my writing attention in full to the next novel I have in mind, a work that will be connected with “Primitive Scent” and “Crowsong for the Stricken.” So many tales to tell, so little time … but hopefully enough.

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work

Vachel Lindsay Association and upcoming Pharmacy showing

Posted in November 2011 by Ted Morrissey on November 6, 2011

It’s been such a busy fall in the local literary and art community, here in Springfield, Illinois, that it’s been a challenge to find time to blog about it (much to everyone’s disappointment, I know). I’ll only hit a few of the recent and upcoming highlights.

Last week was particularly bustling with Halloween-related doings. Last Thursday, Oct. 27, was the Midwest Gothic Costume Ball on the campus of Benedictine University at Springfield. I donned a get-up in honor of Herman Melville, and in spite of the well-worn copy of Moby-Dick protruding from my coat pocket, and my “Hello. My Name Is ‘Herman'” sticker, most folks needed a little assistance to connect the dots. That’s all right. I was joined by fellow authors Edgar Allen Poe and Hunter S. Thompson (complete with manual typewriter and verbatim suicide note — talk about commitment to a role), among a host of other costumed revelers.

Held in historic and haunted Brinkerhoff Home, the highlight of the ball, for me, was a discussion and reading by Jodee Stanley, editor of Ninth Letter literary journal, who is co-editing, along with Brian Kornell, an anthology of Midwest Gothic literature (in other words, creepy stories set in the Midwest). Her talk was fascinating, and her selected readings appropriately creepy. Check out Jodee and Brian’s website. The Costume Ball was hosted by Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program, which also released its new edition, 4.2, featuring the paintings of my favorite local artist Felicia Olin.

Then the following evening, Meagan Cass, of the University of Illinois at Springfield, organized the first annual Horror Reading, held at Cafe Andiamo in downtown Springfield. Attendees could read from their favorite horror stories or their own original prose and poetry. It was well attended by UIS faculty, graduate students, and a host of others.

Meanwhile, Springfield Poets and Writers, Prairie Art Alliance, and Sangamon Watercolor Society have been quite active, including some joint ventures. There’s been too much afoot to even adequately summarize here, but check out their various websites, especially for upcoming events.

Last night I proudly joined the board of the Vachel Lindsay Association, which is devoted to maintaining the poet’s family home and promoting the work of one of the twentieth century’s most influential poets. The Association’s meeting and dinner was held at Maldaner’s, a historic restaurant in downtown Springfield; and the featured speaker was Louisa Lindsay-Sprouse, the poet’s granddaughter. Louisa gave a spirited, informative and entertaining talk on her grandfather’s influence growing up, though she never knew him as he took his own life in 1931.

I was asked to join the Vachel Lindsay board by my friends and colleagues Lisa Higgs, who became board president last night, and Tracy Zeman, also a board member. Lisa and Tracy are exceptional poets in their own right.

I fear I may be burying my lead, but I’m looking forward to the upcoming showing by artists of The Pharmacy, which will be this Friday, November 11, at the wharehouse, 1022 S. Pasfield Street in Springfield, just a couple of blocks north of The Pharmacy. In addition to being an artists colony, The Pharmacy has been very active in promoting creative writing as well, hosting workshops and readings.

In terms of my own writing, I continue to tinker with stories set in a bizarre Midwestern town — though I believe they’re clamoring to be a novel, and they’ve pretty much talked me into it. I have a paper on William H. Gass that I need to write for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, so I’ll get to that shortly, and when it’s done, I’ll turn my full attention to this bizarre Midwestern town … thing … project (yes project sounds better). Somewhat in preparation for the paper, I read Gass’s book-length essay On Being Blue, though mainly my paper will focus on the author’s long and dense novel The Tunnel.

One last note, I received a text message from my publisher, Amy Ferrell of Punkin House, that my novel Men of Winter is going to be released, eventually, as an audio book (Nook and Kindle versions were recently made available).

tedmorrissey.com

Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work