Hey, Rube: WILLIAM H. GASS
Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest
Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY
Monday, August 20, 2007
The following interview appears in Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest, which is available for purchase on this site
A short interview with William H. Gass
By Leopold Froehlich
William H. Gass’s 1966 masterpiece, Omensetter’s Luck, could be described as the perfect novel of the Midwest. Set in a small Ohio town in the 1890s, Omensetter defined the essential Midwestern struggle between goodness and cunning. Gass, in fact, may be the great Midwestern writer of the 20th century. Born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1924, he grew up in Warren, Ohio, attending Kenyon, Ohio Wesleyan and Cornell and teaching at Purdue before joining the philosophy department at Washington University in St. Louis in 1969. (Until his death in 1995, author Stanley Elkin was Gass’s friend and colleague at Washington.) In 1995 Gass published his magnum opus, The Tunnel. He is also a formidable essayist, as is evident in his latest book, The Temple of Texts.
Stop Smiling: According to Merriam-Webster the word rube first appeared in 1896. Was it invented to describe Midwesterners?
William Gass: Rube is a spoiled anagram for urban. “Hey, rube” is a carnival cry of panic.
SS: When it comes to Midwestern writers, maybe there is something to Hippolyte Taine’s race, milieu et moment. Is there a unifying theme in the works of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Hamlin Garland and Edward Dahlberg?
WG: Yes, none of them are very good.
SS: Where does that leave F. Scott Fitzgerald? Out standing in his field?
WG: As a fielder he was only fair, at the plate, acceptable, by the glass, superb. Like most Midwestern writers he fled, at an early age, to Buffalo. Most of his novels are about Lake Erie, where he was out swimming.
SS: You grew up in Warren, Ohio and graduated from Kenyon. Who would you consider the great Ohio writers? Dawn Powell? William Dean Howells? Ambrose Bierce? Zane Grey?
WG: There are no great Ohio writers, and his name is Hart Crane. Ohio only produces great presidents like James Garfield and Warren Harding.
SS: You were born in Fargo. Do you feel any affinity for Black Elk? Could you ever live there again?
WG: I was born there. I didn't live there. I sometimes visited, which isn't living either. You mean: could I dwell there, but since I never dwelt once, I cannot do so again. Elk is very good when served with acorn squash.
SS: Considering the decline of population in the upper Midwest, what do you think of proposals to let the Badlands reassume their place as the Great American Desert? To allow it to revert to the bison and Lakota?
WG: I think the entire country should be abandoned. Why not to the bison and Lakota? Or to chickweed and Osage orange. Rocks could have quite a good life.
SS: Along with Chuck Berry, Buddy Ebson and Redd Foxx, you are a member of the St. Louis Walk of Fame. This qualifies you to talk about St. Louis, home of Kate Chopin, William S. Burroughs, Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot. Why did they all leave?
WG: They were following the example of Tennessee Williams. Of the stars on the Walk of Fame, I identify most with Betty Grable and Phyllis Diller.
SS: Has Phyllis Diller influenced your coiffure?
WG: No, but she has lent me the bags under my eyes.
SS: If the upper Midwest is to be abandoned, what will become of the Rust Belt? St. Louis is virtually a ghost town, and Detroit and Youngstown look even worse.
WG: Virtually is not good enough. If St. Louis were really a ghost town, what a good time we could have. Using the subjunctive, for instance. And haunting the night away. Actually, I love rust, and adore decay. I hate suburbs — laid out like military encampments and scrubbed to a gross point. Fall is the best time of year, and rust is a good redeeming color.
SS: Why has the Midwest been such a wellspring for humorists? Finley Peter Dunne, James Thurber, Kin Hubbard and Mark Twain all defined a voice that became the standard for American comic prose. What is Midwestern humor?
SS: You grew up within the sphere of influence of the Cleveland Indians. Are you a Tribe devotee?
WG: The Cleveland Indians had a sphere of influence? Only a Cub fan could imagine such an unlikely thing. They once had quite a good infield and a feller who could pitch. Their sphere of influence didn't reach right field.
SS: Did Stanley Elkin become a Midwesterner? If so, when and how?
WG: Stanley, every year, had to be reintroduced to trees. He was an utter rube. He loved Chicago because he mistook it for New York. Geography was a foreign country. His idea of travel was to order room service in a motel next to a cloverleaf.