12 Winters Blog

William H. Gass’s “Very Cold Winter”

Posted in March 2013 by Ted Morrissey on March 12, 2013

In celebration of the release of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C, I decided to post a couple of the conference papers I’ve presented on Gass’s work in recent years–something I’ve been meaning to do but have put off for one reason or another.  Following is the paper I presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 in 2012 as part of the PsyArt Foundation panel, chaired by Andrew Gordon, “William H. Gass’s ‘Very Cold Winter’:  The Trauma of the Fallout Shelter Frenzy as Expressed in The Tunnel.”

William H. Gass’s “Very Cold Winter”:

The Trauma of the Fallout Shelter Frenzy as Expressed in The Tunnel

William H. Gass’s long and densely postmodern novel The Tunnel, which won the American Book Award in 1996, has perplexed both casual readers and literary critics, whose reactions and readings have varied widely, to say the least.  Indeed, H. L. Hix, author of Understanding William H. Gass, writes that the “early responses [of which there were many] ranged from wildly enthusiastic to contemptuous” (77).  Moreover, not only is The Tunnel an odd novel—bringing together just about every postmodern trope (“cram[med] together like [rush-hour] commuters,” Gass has said [Ziegler 14])—but its writing and publishing history is equally strange in the saga of American letters as Gass worked on the project for nearly thirty years, publishing excerpts from it in literary journals, commercial periodicals, and as small-press monograms on nineteen occasions from 1969 to 1988.  Regardless of whether their opinion fell on the “wildly enthusiastic” or the “contemptuous” end of the spectrum, most critics agreed that The Tunnel warranted multiple readings and extensive excavation.  When that work has been undertaken, Irving Malin has conjectured that Gass’s magnum opus will be hailed, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, as “the most significant novel written since World War II” (11).

Hence, with pick and shovel in hand, I arrive bearing some finds from the dig—a dig, by the way, which has not been especially extensive thus far:  A review of the MLA International Database yielded only 30 articles dealing with The Tunnel since its publication, and the majority were generated by the same handful of Gass devotees.  What’s more, apparently there have been no scholarly publications on The Tunnel in nearly seven years.  Perhaps because Gass himself has been so concerned with language (especially metaphor, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, completed at Cornell in 1954), the readings of his work have often focused on its textual complexities, and only a very few have treated The Tunnel, especially, as an expression of trauma.  And if traumatic experience is cited as a wellspring of Gass’s writing, it is generally his well-known miserable childhood that is named as the culprit.  In fact, Hix’s essential understanding of Gass is that he “writes to get even for his childhood, his resentment for which he has clearly stated” (1).  However, no one seems to have noticed that Gass’s writing career falls perfectly in line with the extreme anxiety caused in Western culture by the United States’ unleashing of atomic weapons and the initiation of the Cold War—events about which Gass has written directly numerous times.  What is more, no one that I’ve read has made the, what I consider, obvious connection between the fact that Gass began writing The Tunnel at the height of the U.S.’s fallout shelter frenzy, which was initiated, according to Kenneth D. Rose, in 1961 by John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech, wherein the President called for an aggressive shelter-building program in response to the Soviet Union’s threats that there would be war if the West did not withdraw from the German capital.  Kennedy’s response to Khrushchev was “Then let there be war, Mr. Chairman.  It’s going to be a very cold winter” (2).

Given the publishing history of the The Tunnel, not to mention the brevity of this presentation, I’m going to focus my analysis on the first two sections of the novel to appear in print—“We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in New American Review in 1969, and “Why Windows Are Important To Me” in TriQuarterly in 1971—and I’m also going to draw from a paper I presented at the conference in 2010 which provides my study’s trauma-theory underpinnings.  That paper, which looks more broadly at the effects of the threat of nuclear annihilation on Gass’s writing, particularly his classic short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” is posted on my blog.

First, however, it’s necessary to reflect on the fallout shelter phenomenon and its myriad effects on the American people’s psyches—effects that I believe often manifest themselves in Gass’s narrative in which the first-person protagonist, history professor William Kohler, goes to his basement to write the final piece of his masterwork on Nazi Germany, thirty years in the making, but instead begins a meandering autobiography of his painful childhood, lackluster career, and loveless marriage; and, meanwhile, for reasons that are never quite clear, Kohler starts digging a surreptitious and superfluous tunnel behind his basement furnace.  While Kennedy’s 1961 speech may mark the beginning of the United States’ frenzy over fallout shelter-building, it was the previous administration, under Eisenhower, that first broached the topic.  For about a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government and consequently its people were able to convince themselves that nuclear warfare wasn’t all that different from more traditional forms of warfare; however, atomic tests in the mid-fifties demonstrated just how catastrophic a nuclear attack could be on the United States.  Ralph Lapp, civil defense editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, wrote in 1954 that “the new peril from radioactive fall-out is more than just a threat to civil defense—it is a peril to humanity” (Rose 25-26).  In the following issue of the Bulletin, Val Peterson, Eisenhower’s chief civil defense administrator, was quoted as saying that life after a nuclear war would “be stark, elemental, brutal, filthy, and miserable [. . . a] kind of hell” that no one was prepared for (26).

At first, the Eisenhower administration promoted the idea of a government-led program to build fallout shelters in cities throughout the country, but when the estimated costs proved astronomical and the logistics all but impossible, they shifted their emphasis to home-based shelter projects undertaken by private citizens.  In spite of efforts to publicize the dangers of nuclear fallout and to cast home shelter-building as an act of patriotism, a 1960 Senate subcommittee study concluded that “few shelters of any description have been constructed in the United States” (Rose 35).  However, Kennedy’s Berlin speech a year later dramatically changed national sentiment as it “was made in an atmosphere of crisis and produced an immediate public clamoring for information on how citizens could protect themselves and their families” (37).  Responding to this public sentiment, a tidal wave of published material (both factual and fictive, and some a confusing hybrid of each) kept the topics of nuclear annihilation and fallout shelter-building fresh in the American psyche for years to come.  As Rose puts it, of possibly “great[est] significance were the numerous nuclear apocalyptic scenarios that appeared in the mainstream magazines and newspapers, often incorporated as part of a feature story on the fallout shelter controversy [. . . as] these descriptions would reach a very wide swath of the public” (40).

The controversy as it quickly emerged was multifaceted, to put it lightly, but in brief it consisted of questions like the following:  How would a typical homeowner go about building and supplying a fallout shelter for his family?  Could a well-built shelter truly protect a family from the initial bombing and from radioactive fallout?  Would a homeowner be prepared to use deadly force against ill-prepared friends and neighbors wanting inside his shelter at the moment of crisis?  Would a postapocalyptic life be worth living even if one did survive in the shelter?  Was building a shelter courageously patriotic or was it a cowardly act in direct opposition to the American fighting spirit?  How would a community that had survived essentially intact respond to homeless and desperate refugees arriving from neighboring towns and cities?  Were the shelter-building and -supplying businessmen who suddenly appeared on the landscape genuine professionals who had their clients’ best interests at heart, or were they conmen out to make a quick dollar off of people’s fears and confusion (many swimming-pool builders, for example, recast themselves as fallout-shelter experts)?

Before looking at Gass’s narrative in more detail, let me draw upon my earlier work for a brief discussion of literary trauma theory.  In a writers’ symposium on postmodern literature held at Brown University in 1989, Robert Coover, in his welcoming remarks, gave the impression that the writing style which became known as postmodernism sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s almost by sheer coincidence; essentially that individuals writing in isolation on various continents just all happened to begin writing in the same sorts of ways, all in a narrow time span of about fifteen years.  According to Coover, writers, with virtual simultaneity, decided to abandon modernist realism for something fragmented, repetitive, largely unrealistic and illogical, and highly intertextual.

A more cogent explanation, I believe, rests with trauma theory:  The trauma of the nuclear age, which was experienced by the entirety of Western culture (not to mention Eastern), affected the psyches of these writers in a way that resulted in postmodern literary style—a style, according to theorists like Anne Whitehead, Cathy Caruth, and Laura Di Prete, that reflects the traumatized voice.  Meanwhile, historians Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell have made several provocative assertions regarding twentieth-century zeitgeist as it suddenly evolved after the Second World War.  For example, Americans were deeply and immediately conflicted with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; that is, they experienced the “contradictory emotions of approval and fear the bomb evoked, a combination that has continued to disturb and confuse Americans ever since” (33).  And all of this internal conflict, much of which resides in the unconscious, has contributed to a “sense of the world as deeply absurd and dangerous” (335).

In not recognizing the emergence of postmodern literary style as being connected to the nuclear age, it is quite possible that Coover and the other postmodernists at the Brown University symposium experienced the same sort of repression and dissociation that individual trauma victims frequently do.  It is not uncommon for people suffering the symptomology of posttraumatic stress disorder to have no conscious recollection whatsoever of the traumatizing event, or to have a dissociated recollection.  Coover also discussed writing as “a kind of therapy.”  He said, “There are things you have to work your way through.  There are issues that have to be confronted[. . . .]  So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life” (“‘Nothing’” 242).  Hence Coover recognized the unsettling cultural climate of post-Hiroshima America and how it contributed to narrative style; also, his view of writing-as-therapy is consistent with trauma theorists who suggest that postmodern techniques are akin to victims’ struggling to transform traumatic memory into narrative memory.

In his examination of the apocalyptic temper in the American novel, Joseph Dewey theorizes about the literary community’s response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he describes as “slow in coming.”   Dewey writes, “[T]he literary conscience of America did not seem ready in the 1940s and even in the 1950s to engage the menace of the mushroom cloud” (8).  At first, writers, along with the rest of their culture, experienced a “psychic numbing [. . .] in the face of such catastrophe.”  In the ’50s, notes Dewey, “the American literary community pondered the bomb only in tentative ways.”  He references “a glut of forgettable speculative fiction” that appeared during the decade.  In the early ’60s, however, “the American novel began to work with the implications of the nuclear age” (9).  Dewey speculates that the Cuban Missile Crisis—“the nuclear High Noon over Cuba”—may have acted as a catalyst for writers in general to “begin to think about the unthinkable.”  Dewey does not approach his subject in this way, but he seems to be accounting for the dual starting point for American postmodern literary style, which some trace to the mid-1940s and others to the ’60s.  Nor does Dewey tend to speak in psychological terms, but he seems to be suggesting that American writers were by and large repressing the atomic blasts for nearly two decades, until nuclear Armageddon loomed in 1962, which caused the cultural literary psyche to begin to confront the source of its trauma, if only dissociatively.  The scenario that Dewey suggests corresponds with the way many individuals respond to a traumatic event.  Perhaps the fear of nuclear Apocalypse was part of the American psyche since 1945, but it seemed unreal until 1962’s standoff with Cuba and its ally the Soviet Union.  It is also useful to note that groups—entire nations even—can respond to trauma just as individuals do.  In fact, Neil J. Smelser, in his work on cultural trauma in particular, notes that societies can undergo a delayed response to trauma akin to the Freudian notion of a breakdown in repression, which “only succeeded in incubating, not obliterating the threat”—though he qualifies the analogy as not being perfect (Alexander et al. 51).

I’ll note that while Rose and Dewey are offering different years, 1961 versus 1962, as the catalytic year for American culture’s traumatic response to atomic annihilation, they are both citing the same source:  the sudden heating up of the Cold War.

While evidence of a link between post-Hiroshima trauma and postmodern technique can be found, with greater or lesser conspicuousness, in the work of all writers who occupy the established pantheon of postmodernists, I think the connective tissue is most apparent in the fiction of William H. Gass, one of the writers at the Brown symposium, and, interestingly, the writer Coover called “our real living biographer of the human mind” (242).  In his work, which was begun in the early 1950s (when Gass was in his late twenties) but did not start to appear in print consistently until the 1960s, Gass often alludes to trauma and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (though not specifically by these labels), and he cites directly and indirectly the nuclear age as the source of widespread anxiety.  As noted earlier, Gass’s childhood was, by his own description, miserable, raised by an alcoholic mother and an agonistic father; and one could certainly point to these influences for his prose’s negativity.  There is no question that these facts have affected Gass’s writing, much of which is overtly autobiographical; however, I believe that the Cold War zeitgeist had an even greater impact on his storytelling.  One might even conjecture that the insecurities caused by Gass’s childhood made the fear associated with that zeitgeist even more potent.  The psychological community has long recognized that individuals respond differently to trauma due to a variety of factors, including their mental health when they experience the trauma, and even their genetic predisposition to dealing with traumatic stress.

Now, in the brief time remaining, to look at some of Gass’s text.  The paper that I presented in 2010, which I’ve archived at my blog, deals with apocalyptic images in Gass—mushroom-cloud shapes, cyclones, extreme heat, deadly winds, and in general destruction raining down from above—and such images are certainly abundant in early excerpts from The Tunnel.  To bring my discussion from above to below ground, I’ll draw attention to a snatch of song lyric that is frequently repeated in 1969’s “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in which a crow represents death.  The narrator, William Kohler (“Kohler,” by the way, is German for miner), recalls the song from his youth, and the line goes, “Crow—O crow— / don’t cross my path, / so my life lasts / a little longer” (8 et al.).  This notion of extending life “a little longer” was central to the fallout shelter issue:  Would a shelter merely extend life for a few weeks or months as survivors of atomic attack would eventually have to come above ground, only to die from residual radiation or starvation?  The song continues, “Crow—O crow— / each time you pass, / my sickness grows / a little stronger” (10, 12).  The song continues with images of protracted and painful death.  There are references to enclosure throughout this early published excerpt, especially enclosure within one’s own or another’s body, but the imagery becomes most concentrated late in the piece when Kohler contemplates his sitting in his basement day after day pondering and writing about his wasted life.  He says, “I know there are worse ways of living—deeper, darker, damper dungeons—than my own. [. . .] And yet I hold my head and groan and wish these books had fallen in upon me years ago” (30).  Furthermore, he posits that “a man who brings his own walls with him is in prison”—perhaps reflective on some level of the fact that the United States has brought this dilemma upon itself with its creation of and unleashing of atomic weapons.  This reading is bolstered by other elements in the text that I don’t have time to discuss here.

Instead, I’d like to look at “Why Windows Are Important to Me,” published in 1971, which is even thicker with images of enclosure and the complex psychology associated with becoming hidden.  In this excerpt, Kohler discusses his obsession with “trenches, castles, dugouts, outposts, [and] graves” (58), relating several episodes from his childhood and early adult years in which he either created hiding places or discovered such places behind walls and inside maintenance shafts.  Kohler describes “that powerful out of the world feeling” (61) he experienced whenever he hid away because, when not hiding, the world of “out there” made him “an ordinary mortal” and “erod[ed him] like rain” (60).  Here is a lengthy passage about the “bliss” of hiding that is especially rich in ambiguity when examined closely:

[To hide is t]o enter yourself so completely that you’re like a peeled-off glove; to become to the world invisible, entirely out of touch, no longer defined by the eyes of others, unanswering to anyone; to go away with such utterness behind a curtain or beneath a tented table, in the unfamiliar angles of an attic or the menace of a basement; to be swallowed by a chest or hamper as the whale-god swallowed Jonah, and then to find yourself alive, and even well, in the belly of your own being—in a barn loft, under a porch, anywhere out of the mob’s middle distance like a Stuart Little, a Tom Thumb, or a Tinker Bell—unnoticed and therefore all the more noticing [. . .] to go supremely away like this was to re-enter through another atmosphere [. . .] (57)

Here we get the joy of hiding and surviving, and even the sense of superiority that those who hide feel over those who are not hidden, characterized as a “mob.”  To hide is a kind of mystical experience by which one comes to fully understand oneself.  Yet there is also present in the passage a sense of extreme isolation and alienation from the world, and there is the frightful image of being swallowed; moreover, we note that of all the hiding places mentioned the only underground one, the basement, is also the only one overtly described negative, as menacing in fact.  It is also interesting that when Kohler hides he feels tiny—like Stuart Little, Tom Thumb, Tinker Bell—perhaps suggestive of the cowardliness that many associated with shelter-building.  Finally, I’ll point out the idea of transcendence, that via hiding one seems to enter an entirely new realm:  maybe the difference between the pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds shelter-builders would experience.  In fact, the word bliss itself carries with it the notion of transcendence in addition to simply being joyful—but of course to transcend into bliss, one must die.

In this paper I have only begun to scratch the surface of a rich vein in William H. Gass’s writing—indeed a vein that runs throughout American postmodern literature.  In my way of thinking, it’s no coincidence that the vogue of postmodernism fizzled with the end of the Cold War.  That is to say, the reading public and publishers in general seemed to suddenly change their tastes, and stopped being attracted to the tropes of postmodern literary style when the threat of nuclear Armageddon no longer seemed imminent.  Giants of postmodernism, like Gass and Pynchon, have continued to write as they did in the sixties, seventies and eighties—but honors and accolades, once so numerous, have been far fewer with slumping book sales and contemporary critics who often find them out of step, and perhaps something like curious relics of the Cold War.

Works Cited

Dewey, Joseph.  In a Dark Time:  The Apocalyptic Temper in the American Novel of the Nuclear Age.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue UP, 1990.  Print.

Gass, William H.  “We Have Not Lived the Right Life.”  New American Review 6 (1969):  7-32.  Print.

—.  “Why Windows Are Important to Me.”  The Best of TriQuarterly.  Ed. Jonathan Brent.  New York:  Washington Square P, 1982.  49-69.  Print.

Hix, H. L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lifton, Robert Jay, and Greg Mitchell.  Hiroshima in America:  Fifty Years of Denial.  New York:  Grosset/Putnam, 1995.  Print.

Malin, Irving.  “Anti-Introduction.”  Into The Tunnel:  Readings of Gass’s Novel.  Ed. Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin.  Newark:  U of Deleware P, 1998.  11.  Print.

“‘Nothing but Darkness and Talk?’:  Writers’ Symposium on Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction.”  Critique 31.4 (1990):  235-55.  Print.

Rose, Kenneth D.  One Nation Underground:  The Fallout Shelter in American Culture.  New York:  New York UP, 2001.  Print.

Smelser, Neil J.  “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma.”  Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity.  Ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander et al.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 2004.  31-59.  Print.