Stripping the Master of Kohler’s Rags

By Ted Morrissey

People are, in my view, many people. It’s not that we fall apart all the time into separate personalities, but under certain circumstances we display different values and feelings and modes of thinking” (Ziegler, “WHG in Germany” 115). Thus said William H. Gass when asked about the department colleagues of William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel. That is, Kohler’s fellow historians (Culp, Governali, Herschel and Planmantee) “each represents a theory of history, and each gets his own little story.” Like so much else in The Tunnel, it is not clear whether Kohler is describing actual colleagues, or, rather, projections of his own multifaceted personality. “I wanted to leave the ontological status of these characters in doubt,” said Gass. “Either these are real people in his world […] or they are simply aspects of his own personality mildly at war with one another” (115).

Given that one of the consistent complaints about The Tunnel when it appeared in 1995 was that its protagonist, Kohler, seemed uncomfortably similar to the author himself, the idea of multidimensional personalities is well worth exploring in a symposium that hopes to re-introduce the reading public to Gass’s magnum opus. There was the name, of course: the given name of William paired with a family name of German ancestry. There was the occupation: a professor at a Midwestern university, one quite like Purdue, where Gass was teaching when he began writing the novel. There was the affinity for many of the same writers: most notably the German poet Marie Rainer Rilke, perhaps Gass’s greatest influence. Over time, another similarity became the length of time Kohler took to write his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany: thirty years, four more than the number Gass required to complete a book he imagined finishing in just a fraction of that time. These are only some of the correspondences between the author and his narrative creation, William Frederick Kohler.

Gass anticipated readers who didn’t know how to read well would conflate the persona of the protagonist with the person of the author.

The similarities became troubling for readers and reviewers because Kohler is, well, not nice. In fact, he’s something of a monster. He is mean-spirited toward essentially everyone who has the misfortune of inhabiting his sphere, and he’s downright hateful to his wife, Martha, whom he thinks of as a “guard” that is confining him within the prison of his unhappiness. She has become essentially a non-person to him: “Martha’s face fades as her torso solidifies, her Aryan blood surfacing like lard. I work on her features, but I’ve forgotten what they are[.…] Without a mouth she’ll still talk back, from her crack like as not” (150-51). Worst of all, Kohler’s scholarly work on the Nazis appears more sympathetic toward them than many would like, including the administrators at his university (“those shit-resembling administrators,” he calls them) who overlook him for promotion because they consider him a “Nazi-nuzzler” (133). If Kohler seems to have a soft spot for Nazis and refers flippantly to the Holocaust, he must therefore be anti-Semitic; and if Kohler is an avatar for Gass himself, then the author, too, must be … so went the logic. Writing in The New Republic, Robert Alter said,

It is an act of ventriloquism: behind the repulsive, potentially fascist narrator stands his critic, the novelist, presumably committed to humane, democratic values. But those values are nowhere intimated in the book, and what emerges is a kind of inadvertent complicity between author and protagonist. (link)

And this is one of the less pointed things Alter said about the novel in 1995.

Gass anticipated readers who didn’t know how to read well would conflate the persona of the protagonist with the person of the author: “The resemblances between myself and my narrator are wholly trivial, I think, but I did emphasize them in order to test the reader’s sophistication (a test many reviewers failed). […] Unfriendly reviewers delight in the opportunity to clothe me in Kohler’s rags.” Against such charges, Gass pushed back, saying, “[T]he record will show, I believe, that I do not belong in Kohler’s camp” (Ziegler, “WHG in Germany” 116).

The distinction between the author and his creation is a vital one to make as we attempt to read The Tunnel afresh in 2020, on its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Kohler’s pessimistic view of humanity is not unique to The Tunnel in Gass’s oeuvre.

First, the charges leveled at Kohler in the novel, his seeming sympathy for the Third Reich, is itself a misreading of his work. Kohler the historian asserts that the Nazis were not uniquely evil, as history has tried to paint them. Rather, the evil acts of Nazi Germany were, in fact, commonplace in the long history of humanity. What is more, no lessons will have been learned, and such acts will happen again, and again. In a section of Guilt and Innocence titled “The Lessons of the Führer,” Kohler summarizes what he learned from Hitler, namely that “Mankind is not redeemable.” He elaborates,

Perfection is impossible. Utopias are foolish. All projects must be undertaken with the understanding that human flaws are likely to undo them. The notion that mankind is morally improvable is as silly a superstition and as lacking in any evidence as the belief in the supernatural. The only enemy of man is man. (454)

This lesson leads Kohler to an observation about humankind that has become the best-known phrase associated with The Tunnel: the fascism of the heart, meaning that people have a natural tendency toward fascism. They can easily be led astray by an authoritarian figure. Heide Ziegler, Gass’s friend and frequent collaborator, wrote insightfully about this important aspect of the novel: “His message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists. […] Given the right historical circumstances, […] your Everyman will follow that [authoritarian] leader simply in order to flee his own loneliness, as well as what he believes to be undeserved misfortune” (“WHG: Is There Light” 80). Ziegler’s essay, which appeared in Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel (1998),1 was intended, in part, to respond to reviewers who attributed Kohler’s views to Gass himself. She asserted that a careful reader could separate the voice of Kohler from that of the author, “a poetic voice […] not unlike that of Thomas Mann’s spirit of narration […] in his late novel Der Erwählte (The Holy Sinner).”  Ziegler claimed that “most reviewers revel in anti-Semitic quotations from the book—quotations that show the mind of the narrator at its worst—[but] no reviewer has ventured even to quote one of those daring lyrical passages that relate to the experience of the Holocaust” (81, emphasis in original).

It must be underscored, however, that this gloomy side of Gass’s personality was rooted in his concern for people.

Another point I would make regarding Kohler’s perceived close association with Gass is that Kohler’s pessimistic view of humanity is not unique to The Tunnel in Gass’s oeuvre. A survey of Gass’s characters reveals many who are of a similar opinion. A short list includes the Reverend Jethro Furber in Omensetter’s Luck (1966) who has nothing but contempt for his fellow townspeople: “So obesity and malice [he says of the women]. So grumbling and nagging. So gossip, envy, spite, and avarice. […] And the men then. Lewd speech and slovenly habits. And the peasant’s suspicion, his cruelty and rancor, his anger, drunkenness, pig-headed ignorance and bestiality” (84). Also on the list is Luther Penner, the titular character in the novella “The Master of Secret Revenges” (1998): “Luther would reform us in everything, and surely nothing is more evident than our need for reformation, since even Nature, not to mention Man, has fallen from its former place in our regard, and now lies smashed in fragments, in a scatter of meaningless shards. From earliest childhood this disagreeable state of affairs had impressed itself on [Luther]” (193-94).

Here are two more examples that are especially germane. There is the unnamed narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1967), which served as an early model for The Tunnel. The aging poet says that “[t]he cities are swollen and poisonous with people. It ought to be better. Man has never been a fit environment for man—for rats, maybe, rats do nicely” (193). Moreover, he says, “Sports, politics, and religion are the three passions of the poorly educated. They are the Midwest’s open sores. […] Appalling quantities of money, time, and energy are wasted on them. The rural mind is narrow, passionate, and reckless on these matters” (197). But the Gass character who may come closest to William Kohler’s dim view of humanity is Joseph Skizzen in the novel Middle C (2013). Skizzen collects news articles about acts of atrocity for his Inhumanity Museum. Gass writes,

The expectation that the human race might be destroyed by its disappointed Gods as a punishment for mean and murderous madness of the sort Professor Joseph Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum documents daily has been superseded by the horrifying possibility that the species may be rewarded for its follies instead, with citations for crime, awards for cruelty, and medals for madness. (208)

Each of the aforementioned characters has his distinguishing traits, but they also share significant traits with William Kohler (and Gass), especially Skizzen, a professor at a college similar to Gass’s first teaching post, the College of Wooster in Ohio. Yet to my knowledge, no reviewers condemned Gass for these protagonists’ Kohler-esque views, nor have any presumed that Furber, Penner, the aging poet, or Skizzen was a stand-in for Gass himself. Certainly, Gass, the person, could be critical of his fellow human beings. He was especially disappointed in how easily distracted people are by popular entertainment, instead of focusing on weightier issues addressed in books. In the Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, he writes, “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in our service” (xiii). The books that Gass was referencing were literary texts, which require slow, contemplative consumption—a book like The Tunnel, for instance. He was critical of writers who provided the public with superficial material. He said, in 1976, “A lot of modern writers […] are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats” (LeClair 25). (link)

It must be underscored that this gloomy side of Gass’s personality was rooted in his concern for people, especially young people, who did not read and did not think—and concern for the country, which was becoming increasingly comprised of distracted youth. “It’s a worrisome thing,” said Gass, in 1995. “[I]f you’re just merely a competitive person in the world and you feather your own nest, the fact that the youth are not reading is to your benefit. They’re more easily manipulated. […] Don’t be in a hurry to educate the masses, that’s always been the principle. And it’s going to be harder to really educate them now” (Kaposi 125).

Gass was not only a writer and critic—he was also a successful and beloved teacher, earning various accolades for his prowess in the classroom.2 A cornerstone of his pedagogy appeared to be the importance of paying attention to language: in sum, to read and read well. In a commencement address to Washington University’s Class of 1979 (Wash U in St. Louis), eventually published in Habitations of the Word (1984) as “On Reading to Oneself,” the Master used the opportunity to teach a final lesson to the departing graduates. He said, “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality […] We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (222). The antidote for a life being lived shallowly, superficially is the careful reading of literary texts:

[R]eading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response; […] Such a reader sees every text as unique; greets every work as a familiar stranger. Such a reader is willing to allow another’s words to become hers, his. (227)

Gass concluded, “[W]hether Nature, Man, or God has given us the text, we independently possess the ability to read, to read well, and to move our own mind freely in tune to the moving world” (228). That is, reading well is the key to thinking as an individual, the key to avoiding falling prey to a mob mentality, and the key to adjusting to changing circumstances. The lesson is also buried in The Tunnel when one reads beyond the repugnant persona of William Kohler, about whose consciousness Gass said, “It’s not pleasant; that character was not a place one enjoyed being” (Kaposi 134).

As we embark on reading The Tunnel anew, let us not fall into the trap that Gass laid, let us be better readers than the many reviewers who wrote it such a chilly reception in 1995. Let us at last strip Kohler’s loathsome rags from William Gass—the author, the teacher, the human being.


  1. See Steven G. Kellman’s contribution to this symposium, “The Tunnel into the Future.” Kellman coedited, along with the late Irving Malin, Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel.
  2. William Gass received several awards for his teaching, including the Sigma Delta Chi Best Teacher Award twice and being named One of the Ten Best Teachers in the Big Ten by the Chicago Tribune while at Purdue University; while at Washington University in St. Louis, Gass’s accolades included the Alumni Teaching Award and the Class of 1971 Favorite Faculty Member distinction. What is more, in his book William Gass (Twayne, 1990), Watson L. Holloway writes, “Gass is usually described by interviewers, colleagues, and students as a kindly and affable man” (p. 5).

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. “The Leveling Wind.” The New Republic, vol. 22, no. 13, pp. 29-32. (link)

Gass, William H. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. 172-206.

—. “The Master of Secret Revenges.” Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, Dalkey Archive, 1998, pp. 192-274.

—. Middle C, Knopf, 2013.

—. Omensetter’s Luck, The New American Library, 1966.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon and Schuster, 1985.

—. Preface. “A Revised & Expanded Preface.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, by Gass, Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. The Tunnel. Knopf, 1995.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 120-137.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 17-38. (link)

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass: Is There Light at the End of The Tunnel?” Into The Tunnel: Readings of Gass’s Novel, edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, U of Delaware P, 1998, pp. 71-83.

—. “William H. Gass in Germany.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 111-119.

Ted Morrissey has presented numerous conference papers on William Gass’s work (all available at his blog by searching “gass”), and he’s published reviews of Middle C and The William H. Gass Reader in North American Review. His stories, novel excerpts, poems, essays and reviews have appeared in approximately eighty publications. His new novel, The Artist Spoke, is forthcoming in 2020 from his own Twelve Winters Press. An abbreviated collection of stories, First Kings and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Wordrunner. Follow @t_morrissey.