Born: July 30, 1924
Died: December 6, 2017
Ohio connection: Former Resident
William Howard Gass was born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota. When he was very young his family moved to Warren, Ohio, where he would spend his formative years. Gass had an unhappy childhood, as his father (who Gass described as a racist bigot) was crippled by arthritis and his mother was an alcoholic. After graduation from Warren G. Harding High School, Gass entered college at Ohio Wesleyan University; however, his time in college was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1943-1946). After leaving the military, Gass continued his education at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he earned his A.B. in philosophy in 1947. Gass then entered Cornell University in New York as a Susan Linn Fellow in Philosophy. At Cornell, Gass wrote a dissertation influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, by whom he often attended lectures, and Max Black, who directed his undergraduate work. Gass taught philosophy at the College of Wooster, Ohio (1950-54) while pursuing his doctorate. After receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954, Gass left to teach at Purdue University in Indiana (1954-1969). The author of more than 15 works of fiction and nonfiction, Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, was published in 1966 after numerous rejections. Immediately upon release it received wide critical acclaim. He then published the short story collection In The Heart of the Country and a novella, Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, in 1968. In 1969 Gass moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to teach philosophy at Washington University. He retired from Washington University as the David May distinguished University Professor in the Humanities in 1999. In 1970, Gass’s second novel, The Tunnel, did not appear until 1995. Critical reaction to the book was split, with some declaring it Gass’s long-awaited masterpiece, while others were puzzled or found it uneven. Gass’s third novel, Middle C, was released in 2013. In 2015 he published Eyes: Novellas and Stories.
William H. Gass, one of the nation’s most esteemed writers of literature and criticism, died of congestive heart failure at his home in University City, Missouri on December 6, 2017. He was 93
Longview Foundation Award in fiction, 1959, for “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott”; Rockefeller Foundation grant for fiction, 1965-66; Standard Oil Teaching Award, Purdue University, 1967; Sigma Delta Chi Best Teacher Award, Purdue University, 1967 and 1968; Chicago Tribune award for Big-Ten teachers, 1967; Indiana University Writers’ Conference Award for Fiction, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969-70; Alumni Teaching Award, Washington University, 1974; National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature, 1975; Pushcart Prize, 1976, 1983, 1987, 1992; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters National Medal of Merit for fiction, 1979; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, 1986, for The Habitations of the Word: Essays; Getty Scholar, 1993; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and American Book Award, both 1996, for The Tunnel; National Book Critics Circle criticism award, 1997, for Finding a Form; Lifetime Achievement Award, The Lannan Foundation Literary Awards, 1997; National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, and PEN/Spielvogel Diamonstein Award for the art of the essay from the PEN American Center, both for Tests of Time: Essays, 2003. D.Litt., Kenyon College, 1974 and 1985; D.Litt., George Washington University, 1982; D.Litt., Purdue University, 1985. Gass won the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for his 2006 collection of essays, A Temple of Texts.