A brief glimpse into the mind of William Gass

When William Youngblood traveled from California to St. Louis to begin work in Washington University’s much-acclaimed creative writing program in poetry, he didn’t anticipate taking a job in Olin Library. The part-time position came about casually and serendipitously, through a tip from a friend who previously had the job. Special Collections keeps a position open for MFA candidates, and Youngblood – then in the second year of his program and craving some external structure to go alongside his creative work – took up the post.

William Youngblood is a junior fellow in the English department. He earned his MFA in poetry in 2018.  

At the library, Youngblood unexpectedly kept bumping up against the work of William Gass, a titan of American literature and beloved WashU emeritus professor. As part of the Olin renovation, Youngblood spent hours moving boxes of Gass manuscripts from their previous home to a new vault. In preparation for an event, he spent time looking at Gass’s debates with novelist John Gardener. Then, when Gass passed away in December 2017 at the age of 93, Youngblood found himself amid a flood of writers and readers across the country seeking ways to remember and pay tribute to the legendary author.

Along with curator Joel Minor, Youngblood began to sift through the William H. Gass Papers – dozens of boxes of archival material solicited for the library's Modern Literature Collection beginning in 1964. In doing so, Youngblood had a rare and unanticipated opportunity for a poet – a chance to briefly immerse himself in the mind of a literary icon. In Youngblood’s words, "to get deeply, almost weirdly personal into his process."

Luckily for fans of Gass’s work, the author left behind an extensive amount of published written material. One volume alone, the soon-to-be-published William Gass Reader, compiles fifty of his famously dense essays and works of fiction. As Youngblood experienced, the William H. Gass Papers at Olin Library offer a unique glimpse into the backstory behind the literature.


A glimpse into the process

William Gass
Celebrated author and literary critic William Gass joined the Department of Philosophy in Arts & Sciences in 1969. His archives are housed within Olin Library's Modern Literature Collection. Photo: Herb Weitman / University Archives.

The William H. Gass Papers consist of interviews, notes, letters, and, most extensively, Gass’s own manuscript materials. When beginning to plan a series of blog posts about Gass’s life and the library’s collection, Minor and Youngblood began digging through the writer's early drafts. Gass is known for his elaborate and carefully composed prose; these documents reveal the meticulous process that brought those sentences to life.

“From the perspective of being a writer, he had an almost terrifyingly thorough revision process,” Youngblood says. “I don’t know how he had the stamina to do what he did. There will be 15 versions of one short paragraph in a row, over weeks and weeks, with tiny, minute changes.”

Especially noteworthy to a poet was Gass’s attention to sound. “In some of his drafts, he would metrically scan his sentences to make sure they had poetic rhythms,” Youngblood notes. “I found pages and pages where everything was in iambs and trochees and things like that. He would change a word because it didn’t fit the metrical scheme he was using.”

Gass always maintained that he was a bad writer, Youngblood says, and asserted that his success came through hard work alone. While most readers would disagree with the first part of that statement, the archives verify both the hard work behind Gass’s craft and the remarkable results of that process.

“Almost any William Gass sentence could be taken and engraved on something,” Youngblood says. “They’re that beautiful.”


The pursuit of the ideal object

Excerpt from manuscript to The Tunnel. William H. Gass Papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

While Gass’s revisions reveal the extreme attention that the author paid to the minutiae of his writing, other documents in the William H. Gass Papers show a similarly careful crafting of his works as a whole. Youngblood recalls one such document, a long letter that Gass wrote to the publishers of the novel The Tunnel.  

“It’s sort of an apparatus to explain to the typesetter why certain things need to be a certain way, and why certain things need to be on various pages,” Youngblood explains. Running some 30 pages long, the letter provided guidance for almost every page of the book, with directions for “how it’s working and how it should look.”

Notably to Youngblood, Gass admits upfront in the letter that it may not be possible to fully follow his instructions. Nonetheless, he asks the typesetter to remain as close as possible to his directions. “There’s sort of this weird tension, that you find popping up in many of these documents, between what is possible and what the ideal object would be – whether or not it’s possible to create the ideal object,” says Youngblood. “It strikes me that he thinks about these things in a way that maybe a poet would.”

This pursuit of the ideal led to literary acclaim, numerous awards, and of course the books themselves. “His books are objects,” Youngblood reflects. “They are these huge, carefully sculpted things – but they sing. He has this great reputation for difficulty, and they are difficult books. But if you read them out loud, they’re gorgeous. You just get caught up in them. It feels good to read them. It’s sort of a fascinating experience, especially because he’s always writing about something horrible about humanity and human nature.”


A peek behind the curtain

Excerpt from Gass’s letter to Mona Van Duyn in response to being solicited for the Modern Literature Collection in 1964. William H. Gass Papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

As a person deep in his own creative process, Youngblood reacted to Gass’s drafts and revisions with amazement. Yet on a personal level, he found a different part of the archive most memorable.

“The documents that stuck with me the most, that were the most interesting to me, were actually the letters between Gass and basically anybody," Youngblood recalls.

These letters reveal a side of Gass that often goes unseen in his literary works. “He has this reputation of being a fairly severe, prickly, intense sort of person that I think comes out through a lot of his writing,” says Youngblood. “I think that’s true, and that’s there. But looking at his correspondence, and looking at how he talked to others and how he talked about himself, he was an extremely warm, caring, oddly self-effacing person for one of the monuments of American literature. Just a warm, funny person. Which was enormously surprising to me, having read interviews and having read some of his books and expecting to go into the mind of the person who was always writing about something horrible,” he says, laughing.

Youngblood would never claim to be an expert on William Gass. He hesitates to even declare how Gass has influenced his own poetry, finding the idea “preposterously arrogant.” Yet his brief time in the archives marked a moment of discovery, the kind of discovery that serendipitously happens across the campus every day.

“It’s like having the curtain pulled back,” Youngblood reflects, “but it’s not like when you hear how a magic trick works – oh great, the rabbit was in the bottom of the hat. It almost makes it more interesting, to understand the level of detail. Gass’s books can seem very chaotic and strange and plotless on the surface, but they’re so carefully constructed on a sentence by sentence, page by page, almost word by word level. It’s really fascinating to see.”

“It was good to be able to exist adjacent to his head for a number of weeks,” Youngblood says. “He was just a wonderful presence to exist with, for a time.”