William H. Gass is both a fiction and nonfiction writer who is very well-known for his essays. Born in 1924 in North Dakota and raised in Ohio, Gass served in WWII in the Navy and received his PhD in Philosophy. He taught philosophy at Purdue University and Washington University in St. Louis.
He has written six books of fiction and 9 books of nonfiction. Three of his collections of essays have won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. His writing is marked by high prose style and complex sentence construction, which often renders it difficult to read. The essays contain challenging and ingenious theories on writing and the written word from the view of a lover of literature and art, a philosopher, and brilliant prose writer.
One of his most famous quotes is: “Works of art are my objects of worship. [They] are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled.”
“And” is an essay that explores the many functions and the importance of the simple word “and.” It is written in a scholarly voice and we see Gass employing glorifying language to discuss language.
There are 12 sections of the essay, some only a few words, others take up a few pages. Each section starts with the word “And,” which begins the first sentence of the section. Gass starts by defining the word’s importance in language in broad terms, discusses the physical sound of the word, diagrams its use in a Stein excerpt, and finishes by giving several different ways the word can be used.
The style and word-choice are elevated and the piece is not a quick read. The subject can be hard to follow, as it requires some abstract thinking, but is valuable in its exploration of a much-used word.
The original publication of “And” was in the February 1984 issue of Harper’s. The target audience for this magazine is left-leaning, well-educated adults.
The issue contains articles dealing with Marxism, Reagan-era politics, existentialism, art, Cold War tensions and political scandal (see table of content image).
The main titles on the cover are “The Existential Death of Jean-Paul Sartre” (with his picture included), “The Reagan Revolt That Wasn’t,” “Can the Peace Movement Make a President,” “The Degradation of Work and the Apotheosis of Art,” and “And.” With articles such as these, it is clear that the magazine’s audience is intelligent.
Most of the magazine is dedicated to content, with relatively few ads and pictures. The ads are for products such as classical music collections, books on understanding historical symbols, and car ads selling technology to buyers.
While there are no letters concerning the essay in later issues, many of the letters published are written by well-known names, such as Thomas Sowell (in this issue) and Edward Abbey.
The essay appeared in Gass’s 1985 collection Habitations of the Word: Essays. This collection won the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism.
Most of the other essays in the collection focus specifically on language. “The Soul Inside the Sentence” and “Tropes of the Text” appear before “And,” and “The Habitations of the Word” appears after it. The other titles further exhibit Gass’s love for and fascination with the art of language.
The essay has been extended by several pages in the collection. Gass added to give more examples to support his points and expand further on some of the more difficult concepts to grasp. He also added footnotes to refer to his sources and further explain some of the phrases that he uses in the essay.
The reception of the collection was a very positive one. Gass is lauded for his obvious love of the sentence and his ability to develop essays that challenge and educate the reader.
Gass, William H. “And.” Harper’s. Feb. 1984: 54-61. Print.
Gass, William H. Habitations of the Word: Essays. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997. Print.
Stuckey-French, Ned. Excerpt from “Encyclopedia of the Essay: William H. Gass, 1924-.” Custom-Essay. Custom-Essay. N.d. Web. 22 April 2011. < http://www.custom-essay.net/essay-encyclopedia/William-Gass-Essay.htm>
“1984 in History.” Brainyhistory.com. BrainyHistory, n.d. Web. 22 April 2011. <http://www.brainyhistory.com/years/1984.html>
Harper’s February 1984. Print.
“William H. Gass, Habitations of the Word.” Amazon.com. Amazon.com, n.d. Web. 22 April 2011. http://www.amazon.com/Habitations-Word-William-H-Gass/dp/0671617699
Text and images: Lauren Fusilier