July 30, 2019 — Today is the birthday of William Gass, a writer and philosopher born in Fargo in 1924. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Cornell in 1954 and is one of today’s most critically acclaimed authors of fiction and criticism.

Each year, hundreds of book reviewers in the National Book Critics Circle vote for what they feel is the year’s best book in five different categories: fiction, biography or autobiography, general nonfiction, poetry and criticism. Awards are on a par with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and for most writers, receiving a National Book Critics Circle Award is considered one of the most prestigious honors in literature. Ironically, Gass hasn’t always agreed.

In 1985, he won in the category of criticism for a book called, “Habitations of the Word.” In 2003, he won again, this time for a work called “Finding a Form.” He was unable to attend either award ceremony, but he wrote the following for last year’s event:

“A few years ago, a book of mine was honored by the National Book Critics Circle, and on that occasion, too, a previous commitment made it impossible for me to attend the award ceremony. Thinking back on my record regarding such things, I realized that when I attended the ceremonies, I became what is called ‘a finalist,’ but when I was unable to be there, I sometimes ‘won’ by a syllable or so down the stretch. I must apologize to my fellow finalists because my absence ... has given me an unfair advantage.

“Naturally,” he continued, “I understand why I have received this award. In the very book in question, I have an essay (often, it appears to be the only one anybody’s read) which complains that many prize-giving panels (not the National Book Critics Circle, of course) ‘take dead aim at mediocrity and always hit their mark.’ My punishment is plain. I shall try to do better next time... As for this time,” he finished, “Thank you very, very much.”

When Gass was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1998, it was said, “A consummate author with a philosopher’s training, William Gass joined the Washington University faculty in 1969 and (was named a David L. May Distinguished Professor in the Humanities) in 1979. Gass introduced audiences to his polished, energetic prose with the 1966 novel Omensetter’s Luck and the classic book of short stories In the Heart of the Heart of the Country... and in 1995, Gass completed his monumental novel The Tunnel. A distinguished artist deeply concerned with the issues writers face, William Gass was named director of the International Writers Center in 1990.”

The book to which they referred, The Tunnel, was many years in the making. In 1992, three years before it was published, John Unsworth wrote about it in the Arizona Quarterly “...Omensetter’s Luck was (15) years in the making, and parts of that novel first surfaced (11) years before the book did. That equals (James) Joyce’s record, but it pales beside the saga of The Tunnel: this work has been ‘in progress’ since 1966, and since 1969 some (19) sections, totaling more than 300 pages, have appeared in print.” The comment finished with, “Gass is now sixty-seven, and has been publishing for more than thirty years; more than two-thirds of that career has already been devoted to The Tunnel.”

Gass once wrote, “A culture morally and functionally fails which does not let its crazies, its artists and its saints, its scientists and politicians, claim, on occasion, a higher law than its own congresses can pass, traditions permit, or conscience conceive.” Amen.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.

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