12 Winters Blog

Bridging Donne with the Digital Age: William H. Gass’s Devotion to Baroque Prose

Posted in February 2023, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 24, 2023

(The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held Feb. 23-26, 2023, at the University of Louisville. It was part of the panel “Some Forms of Postmodernism in American Fiction,” chaired by Hunter Augeri, Duke University. Other papers were “The Violence of Microscopy: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Inverted Totalitarianism at the End of History” by Jonathan Vincent, Towson University; and “Susan Sontag’s Death Kit as Pre-Post-Fiction” by Charlie Bertsch, Independent Scholar.)

William H. Gass – master stylist and acclaimed author of novels, essays, criticism, and translation – passed away December 6, 2017, at the age of 93. In the last few months of his long life infirmity prevented him from writing, but not before he was able to bring his final work to completion, simply titled “Baroque Prose.” No doubt it wasn’t as fully rendered as he would have liked, nor as finely tuned certainly, yet it was a fitting end to a life devoted to language: absorbing it, analyzing it, diagraming it, and shaping it into some of the most artful forms ever spoken or read. William Gaddis considered his friend Bill Gass “our foremost writer, a magician with language” (507); John Barth admired Bill Gass the person, but “most of all . . . the writing: in the fiction, those inhospitable landscapes and typically pathetic-when-not-monstrous characters, marvelously rendered into language; in the essays, the play of mind and wide-ranging erudition lightly deployed. And in both the prose, the prose . . .” (72). Perhaps Watson L. Holloway, author of William Gass (1990), put it most succinctly when he refers to “Gass’s finely tuned word machine,” noting it is “the language that must be at the root of any appreciation of his work” (x).

Gass wrote and spoke about the supreme importance of the sound of language too many times to count. Just how much attention he gave the aural quality of language in his own work may best be seen in his comments about his friend William Gaddis’s writing. In Gass’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Recognitions, he says,

“[W]e must always listen to the language; it is our first sign of the presence of a master’s hand; and when we do that, when we listen, it is because we have first pronounced the words and performed the text, so when we listen we hear, hear ourselves singing the saying, and now we are real readers, we are participating in the making, we are moving the tune along the line. . .” (ix).

Sadly, Gass is not as well known, even among academics and worshippers of the written word, as he should be, so here’s a biography in miniature. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, Gass was educated at Kenyon College (A.B. in philosophy, 1947) and Cornell University (Ph.D. in philosophy, 1954). We mainly associate him with Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught from 1969 to 1990 and then established and directed the International Writers Center there until his retirement in 2000. He also taught at the College of Wooster (1949-54) and Purdue University (1955-1969). His fiction and other writings began to appear in the 1950s, and his debut novel, Omensetter’s Luck, came out in 1966, quickly followed by the collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), the highly experimental novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and the essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970). He began writing his magnum opus, The Tunnel, in 1966, not finishing it until 1992 (pieces of it appeared regularly over the years, especially in the journal Conjunctions). Knopf released The Tunnel, all 650 postmodern pages of it, in 1995, and it won the American Book Award the following year, meanwhile accumulating an impressive array of both rose-tossing admirers and stone-throwing critics. This is a much-abbreviated description of his writings and awards over the decades.

As noted, Gass spent nearly three decades working on The Tunnel, which is unusual among novelists, but it was typical for the way Gass approached all his writing projects. He tended to work with concepts for years before considering them complete enough to appear in print. By his own admission, Gass wrote slowly and revised obsessively. For instance, characters that first appeared in 1968’s Willie Masters’ are further developed in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata & Other Novellas. The intricate structure of The Tunnel was an elaboration of the structure Gass invented for the long story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” first published in 1967. Gass’s final work is no exception. In fact, we can trace the origins of “Baroque Prose” all the way back to Gass’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor” (1954). (Happily, the dissertation and even its early drafts are part of the Gass papers archived at Washington University’s Special Collections Department – a treasure trove of Gass material.)

A brief excerpt from “Baroque Prose” was published in Gass’s lifetime, barely, in the inaugural issue of LitMag, spring 2017; and a longer version of the same excerpt appeared posthumously in the online journal Socrates on the Beach, issue 4, 2022. Gass’s widow, Mary Henderson Gass, generously and graciously sent me the entire manuscript in anticipation of this presentation. To date, plans for publication of the work are undecided. My main goals for this paper are to provide a brief description of “Baroque Prose” and to try to communicate its essence. The latter is challenging for a short presentation. Anyone who has read Gass’s nonfiction recalls that it is both tightly structured and marvelously meandering within its parts, which are constructed of highly poetic prose, often with comic touches. If one has read Gass’s nonfiction, I would say “Baroque Prose” most closely resembles his book-length essay On Being Blue, which is a beautiful examination of all the things we may mean when we use the word blue. But the comparison is far from perfect.

First, there is the word that is at the heart of Gass’s last work: baroque. He spends a significant amount of time telling us what it is, and what it isn’t. We recall, of course, that baroque refers to a style most associated with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, frequently applied to European art, music and architecture. We are told by various sources that it was known for its grandeur, sensuous richness, drama, dynamism, movement, tension, and emotional exuberance. Gass does refer fleetingly to some of the art forms known for their baroque attributes, but as his title makes clear, he chiefly analyzes baroque prose, particularly of the seventeenth century as it was practiced in the pulpit by two master rhetoricians, John Donne (1571/2-1631) and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667). I calculate the “Baroque Prose” manuscript to be about 35,520 words, but I do so without confidence. Gass gives us copious quotes from Donne and Taylor and others, often in single-spaced block quotes; and he indulges what was a lifelong pleasure by providing numerous detailed diagrams in the service of analyzing the passages. The manuscript is divided into three numbered and well-balanced sections of about 45-50 pages, each of which is wide-ranging and sometimes overlapping in scope. There is also a rough chronological organization at work, as Gass’s main interest in the first half of the book is Donne, and Taylor becomes the latter half’s primary focus.

Gass appears to have several purposes, including defining and describing what makes prose baroque; illustrating why it’s effective (when it is effective); describing its rise and fall in the historical context of Europe; providing biographies of principals like Donne and Taylor; arguing for our continued interest in the baroque style of prose; and telling an engaging story whose main character is baroque prose. Along the way, Gass is also entertaining us with his trademark style, not holding back at all in wowing us one last time with his signature metaphors and similes. And like all of Gass’s nonfiction (really all of Gass), “Baroque Prose” is both serious and funny.

As noted earlier, Gass always maintained that effective writing was meant to be heard, not just read on the page by the eyes, but spoken, even if only to one’s internal ear, which makes his attraction to the subject of baroque prose quite natural. Throughout the manuscript, he provides italicized statements about baroque prose, eye-catching insertions that focus the reader on a particular aspect of his central subject. The first italicized insertion says, “Baroque prose begins as prose prepared to be performed . . . a prose that is therefore far from the book or paper, living, if it lives, in the listeners’ ears” ([4]). In fact, continues Gass, “once [the prose] reaches print, it will no longer be pronounced, no longer heard, no longer fed its breath, so no longer in being.” Regarding Donne’s baroque performances from the pulpit (Donne was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England in 1615 and made Dean of St. Paul’s in 1621), Gass tells us, “Later, when publication was considered, a good deal of polish would be applied, removing, like soil from a shoe, much spontaneity, accident, and improvisation. Reading him now we must imagine dramatic pauses, gestures, sudden changes of posture, a play of facial expressions, extemporaneous additions, and the drama of the whisper and shout” ([11]).

Gass breaks down Donne’s rhetorical strategy: “During his opening Donne is establishing, not his subject, or a textual interpretation . . . ; he is not springing an apothegm to satisfy the men or a sweet sentiment to please the ladies; rather he is gathering his ruling image and its materials as though he were a carpenter arriving at an important moment of construction. . . . Donne’s mind is always moving through the middle of a metaphor” ([15-16]). In this statement we can see that Gass is still working through an analysis that began with his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote in the early 1950s. In his philosophical inquiry into metaphor, Gass turned to Donne regularly. Oftentimes the precise passages appear in both the unpublished dissertation and “Baroque Prose” (for example, passages from Donne’s The Lamentations of Jeremy). One of Gass’s concerns in his dissertation was how prose writers use language devices, like metaphor, compared to how poets tend to use them; and he returns to that comparison in “Baroque Prose,” telling us that “in poetry [] modifiers often lie around as loose as change, so that the reader is at a loss to know into which pocket the pence should go . . . whereas, in prose, number and relation, modification and consignment are to be connected, balanced, obeyed, in pursuit of a coherent and completed arrangement” ([16-17]).

Here is an abbreviated summary of some of Gass’s italicized insertions: “Baroque prose is written as if it were the libretto of an opera; as if it had to compete with an organ . . .” ([17]). Another: “The audiences of baroque prose admired a quick mind and the courtly flourish; they enjoyed it when their man in the pulpit showed a bit of wit and strut. There was a deep playfulness in this prose . . .” ([20]). And another: “Baroque prose loves the parenthetical, the marginal, the afterthought, the postscript, which it then inserts into the middle of things like herbs are stirred into a boiling pot . . . ” ([28]). Yet another: “Baroque prose is built on, and out of, conflict and chaos, paradox and bafflement. Its wish is for the harmony of dissident chords, the melody of dissenting lines . . . “([113]). In each case, Gass expands on the idea with explanation, quotations, and analysis.

In Part 2, Gass turns his attention primarily to Jeremy Taylor, who “does not seem to be as troubled a soul as Donne, and he is certainly, in every way, a more temperate man, liberal to a fault according to his peers” ([49]). Gass then provides a brief biography of Taylor, who was eventually made Bishop of Down and Conner Diocese, in Ireland, by Charles II. Gass points out that Taylor’s preaching was known for its “loose style,” but he goes on to assert that there is a complex rhetorical strategy at work, easily missed by the casual listener (or reader). Gass’s extensive analysis includes detailed diagrams to illustrate the mastery of Taylor’s baroque rhetoric. He again enters into a comparison of poetry versus prose: “Poetry calls out, through the dispositions of its lines, to be read as it requires; but the words that queue up to be prose are like subway passengers during rush: crowded hip to thigh, briefcase to umbrella, shoe to shoe” ([53]).

Gass’s detailed analyses of Taylor’s sermons continues into Part 3, as does his biographical narrative, which is a segue to discussing how the baroque style fell out of favor in England and Europe generally. Gass calls 1641 “[t]he dreadful year” as Taylor was briefly imprisoned and then removed from his clerical posts. Gass writes, “On the European continent the Thirty Years War had been killing people since 1618. Later scholars would declare the conflict in Europe closed in 1648. But England would have its own war now . . .” ([108]). With the rise of Puritanism, baroque’s ornate style of preaching would be out of step with the simplicity they sought. “Another enemy was length,” says Gass. “Sermonizers are likely to be strongly winded, as if their voices were to become themselves sturdy columns, built to last as eternally as a cathedral’s. The Puritan dictatorship had banned all public amusements [including entertaining styles in the pulpit]” ([108]).

Then came another blow to the baroque: the scientific ideal after 1660. Robert South, an opponent of the baroque, “began his attack on rhetorical preachifying by claiming that only the ignorant were impressed by verbal flourish” ([111-112]). In the remainder of the manuscript, the final 30 pages or so, Gass races through the history of the baroque style to the present, meanwhile cataloging with precision various characteristics that make it deserving of our appreciation today, like highlighting “what a little excess will do for you” ([70]). In sum, he says, “In the baroque, beauty begs for more beauty” ([119]). In the these final pages, Gass gives us baroque examples from more modern authors than Donne and Taylor, for instance a passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

On the one hand, Gass is typically funny in this, his final work, but he has also come to terms with his approaching end. After talking about John Milton’s “flowery style,” Gass says, “I shall take a look at Milton’s use of adjectives later on. And adverbs even later”; then adds in a new paragraph, “A promise I shall probably break” ([33-34]). At first, one thinks he means he will not return to the topics in this book, but really Gass means he will likely never have the chance to write about them. Later we get another comment that, though humorous, underscores Gass’s sense of the inevitable. Following a full-page paragraph, Gass inserts in brackets, “I have decided to leave the foregoing paragraph as it first fell upon the page, as a warning to those who compose” ([82]). Gass, the relentless rewriter of his work, has run out of time and energy to wrestle a paragraph into perfection.

Midway through Part 1, Gass elaborates on the delight of repetition in the baroque and other nuanced techniques, drawing the conclusion, “The difference between writers we should study and admire, and those we may safely ignore, partly lies in their attention to such subtleties” ([21]). Here, it seems, Gass is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) making the case that his work should continue to be studied after his death as his own baroqueness is on full display in practically everything he published. I, for one, have never needed any such prodding. Gass will continue to be the main focus of my scholarship and a limitless source of inspiration for my teaching and writing.

Works Cited

Barth, John. “As Sinuous and Tough as Ivy.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 11, no. 3, 1991, pp. 71-72.

Gaddis, William. The Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.

Gass, William H. Introduction. The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, 1955, Penguin Classics, 1993, pp. v-xv.

––. “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor.” Doctoral dissertation, Cornell University, 1954.

Holloway, Watson L. William Gass. Twayne, 1990.

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