An inside look at the legacy of William Gass through his literary papers, peers | St. Louis Public Radio

An inside look at the legacy of William Gass through his literary papers, peers

Mar 30, 2018

The writings of the late author and philosopher William H. Gass have a reputation for being cerebrally intimidating to some would-be readers. But when Joel Minor opened one of Gass’ books for the first time years ago, he was pleasantly surprised by a sense of accessibility.

“I found his work very approachable,” said Minor, who now oversees the Modern Literature Collection where Gass’ literary archive is housed. “‘Middle C’ is, I think, a very engrossing, approachable book. If you go into it knowing it’s not going to be a strictly linear narrative from start to finish, you’re going to be able to follow it and really appreciate his ability to work the language in a unique way in this character’s perspective.”

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, the Washington University manuscripts curator joined host Don Marsh to share his impressions of Gass, who passed away in December at the age of 93 and will be celebrated at public events next week on the campus where he taught for many years.

Gass was the David L. May Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Washington University. He was instrumental in establishing the Modern Literature Collection more than 50 years ago, and since then it has grown to include manuscript materials from more than 125 authors.

Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection which includes Bill Gass’ archive, shared his impressions of the celebrated author and philosopher.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Those materials often take the form of letters, early drafts and ephemera that can often shed new light on an author’s body of work.

“It can also include personal artifacts, including awards that they win, or memorabilia from their childhood, photo albums, things like that,” said Minor, who has worked closely with Gass and other writers in recent years as the university’s library continues to expand its archival offerings. “Anything that really gives a scholar or a fan insight into the writer’s creative process and also into their life in general, their professional career, is very important to understanding them.”

In Gass’ case, the archive includes drafts of the author’s early books, some of them composed using a typewriter.

“You can see him writing the same sentence or paragraph over and over on the same page,” Minor said. “You can tell he’s working to get it right, and he’s famous for being a master prose stylist. And so a novice or a new writer can see, ‘Well, look, this master really had to work at it to get the rhythm and structure just right.’

“And so that’s fascinating, and you don’t see that as much in current writers’ manuscripts who are working on computers, because as we all do, we just type over it.”

Related Event
What: William H. Gass: His Life and Legacy
When: 2:45 p.m. and 4 p.m. Friday, April 6, 2018
Where: Washington University (1 Brookings Dr., St. Louis, MO 63130)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.