By Ted Morrissey
I am not certain when the math clicked for me—that 2020 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Tunnel, a novel that didn’t show up on my radar until 2009 (I’m almost ashamed to acknowledge)—but it was sometime in the earliest days of the pandemic’s lockdown, that is, mid-March. From my perspective, hardly anyone was reading William H. Gass’s magnum opus. For that matter, hardly anyone was reading William H. Gass at all. Even at literature conferences, attended by people for whom literature is both their profession and their passion, many have not heard of William Gass. Then again, I have to remember that I resided in such a sorry state myself until 2009.
I started working on my doctorate in English studies somewhat late in life, at age 39, doing it one course per semester (it takes about five years to amass one’s coursework via that approach, for anyone who’s wondering). Throughout my studies at Illinois State University, under the direction of Robert L. McLaughlin, I was interested in postmodernism, and for my dissertation itself—which discussed literary trauma theory—I planned to focus on writers like Thomas Pynchon and, especially, William Gaddis.
Inching along, almost glacially, I was finally ready to write my dissertation, mainly in the summer of 2009, seven years into the process. In preparation, during the winter and spring of that year I was acquiring books that I thought may come in handy. One of my purchases was an extremely used copy of Norton’s Postmodern American Fiction, brightly highlighted and ambitiously annotated by a previous owner. While flipping through the book, I noted a particularly colorful story—a story that, upon further perusal, had an unusual layout. It was comprised of numerous short sections, each with its own abbreviated heading.
That evening’s reading set the hook, and it’s been firmly planted ever since.
The story had an unusual title, too: “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” By William H. Gass. I began reading and was instantly arrested by the author’s prose style. I had meant to only glance through the newly arrived anthology, but instead I read the odd story in one sitting. Mesmerized. Thunderstruck. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks later I attended the AWP Conference in Chicago. Riding the Amtrak, I looked through the program book and discovered there would be a tribute panel devoted to William Gass that included a reading by the author.
Of course I attended. I don’t recall what any of the panelists said in praise of Gass, but I recall Gass’s reading quite well. It was insect-themed. He read passages from several works, beginning with an excerpt from “Order of Insects” and ending with the grasshopper scene from The Tunnel, wherein a young William Kohler is accosted by a swarm of ’hoppers.
That evening’s reading set the hook, and it’s been firmly planted ever since. I began acquiring as much of Gass’s work as I could, doing my best to devour it as I simultaneously began writing my dissertation. I got hold of The Tunnel and was fascinated by its elaborate structure. I read it speedily, mainly with an eye toward parts that could contribute to my dissertation’s thesis. I successfully defended in October of that year, 2009, but knew my work with Gass was only just beginning.
One of the first orders of business was to re-read The Tunnel, but this time slowly and thoroughly, annotating copiously. I became a devotee (even a disciple) of William Gass, whom I began thinking of, and referring to, as the Master, an epithet normally reserved for Henry James in literary circles. The Master’s work has become my obsession, and part of that obsession is to try to make as many people as possible aware of his writing and get them reading his words. To that end, I have presented numerous conference papers, published reviews of Middle C and The William H. Gass Reader in North American Review, and included his books on my students’ reading lists with regularity.
I’m pleased and humbled to be able to publish many thought-provoking and insightful pieces focused on The Tunnel.
When I realized that The Tunnel turned twenty-five this year, I immediately thought of creating a special project to commemorate the novel—something that would encourage a fresh wave of readers to discover it, casual readers and scholars alike. Due to the pandemic, and other issues of practicality that would be present pandemic or no pandemic, I decided some sort of online project, an online symposium perhaps, would be the best approach.
I secured the website and began contacting “Gass people,” those who have written about or otherwise expressed interest in and appreciation of William Gass’s work over the years. Everyone I contacted was excited about the project, but most were unable to commit to contributing to it for a variety of reasons (usually because they had other projects that demanded their attention). Nevertheless, I received commitments from a range of talented writers and scholars. There may yet be another piece or two added to the symposium’s site, but I’m pleased and humbled to be able to publish many thought-provoking and insightful pieces focused on The Tunnel as it stands presently.
At the end of each contribution is a note on the contributor. Please navigate to the various articles via the menu, where each title is listed. Or, on the “About” homepage, you’ll find a list of contributors that also serves as links to their various pieces. The term symposium implies discourse on the subject at hand, an exchange of ideas and opinions. When I first conceived of the project, I imagined there might be video chats among participants and others interested in the site. For now something like that seems more than I am able to manage, but I have established a “Symposium Commentary” page. My hope is that contributors will read each other’s pieces and offer commentary, thereby establishing a dialogue—a conversation that will be open to anyone who visits the site.
Contributions to the Symposium have been made by David Auerbach, Greg Gerke, Steven G. Kellman, John Madera, Joel Minor, Alec Nevala-Lee, Joy Williams, Tim Youd and Josh Zajdman.
The approach is not as dynamically interactive as I had once imagined; it will, however, allow Gass enthusiasts to share their thoughts on the novel, and it will allow contributors to receive feedback. In the spirit of increased interaction, a video has been added to this site since it first became live: Washington University in St. Louis’ 25th Anniversary Celebration of The Tunnel, available here.
As I conclude, let me offer my heartfelt appreciation to all of the contributors—as well as to those who were not able to contribute but offered their good wishes and a promise that they would visit the site when it was ready. Two contributors have been especially vital in securing interest in the symposium, Greg Gerke and Joel Minor. I would like to recognize Michael Silverblatt, an early and outspoken champion of the novel who was unable to contribute an article but spent several hours talking to me about Gass and The Tunnel via telephone (neither technology nor time has been our ally, but I remain hopeful that I will eventually be able to add Michael’s considerable knowledge and insights to the symposium). Thank you, also, to Catherine Gass and Mary Henderson Gass for their enthusiastic support of the project and for offering leads on potential contributors.