William Howard Gass (born July 30, 1924) is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and former philosophy professor. He has written two novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and seven volumes of essays, three of which have won National Book Critics Circle Award prizes and one of which, A Temple of Texts (2006), won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. His 1995 novel The Tunnel received the American Book Award.
William Howard Gass was born on July 30, 1924, in Fargo, North Dakota. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Warren, Ohio, a steel town, where he attended local schools. He has described his childhood as an unhappy one, with an abusive, racist father and a passive, alcoholic mother; critics would later cite his characters as having these same qualities. His father had been trained as an architect but while serving during the First World War had sustained back injuries that forced him to take a job as a high school drafting and architectural drawing teacher. His mother was a housewife.
As a boy he read anything he could get his hands on. From "The Shadow" to "The History of the French Revolution," Gass read constantly, although there were no bookstores in the town of Warren. Later he would claim that the advent of "pocketbooks" saved his literary life. He'd save up all the money he earned or obtained and every two weeks head down and buy as many pocketbooks as he could afford. Even though Gass was always a reader his father disapproved of his aspirations and often berated him for it.
He attended Wesleyan University after graduating from Warren G. Harding High School, where he did very well excluding some difficulties in mathematics, then served as an Ensign in the Navy during World War II for three and a half years, a period he describes as perhaps the worst of his life. He earned his A.B. in philosophy from Kenyon College in 1947 where he graduated magna cum laude. From there he entered Cornell University as a Susan Linn Fellow in philosophy and by 1954 had earned his PhD in that subject. While at Cornell he studied under Max Black and briefly Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1952 before graduating from Cornell he married Mary Pat O'Kelly. His dissertation, "A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor", was based on his training as a philosopher of language. In graduate school Gass read the work of Gertrude Stein, who influenced his writing experiments.
Gass taught at The College of Wooster for four years, Purdue University for sixteen, and Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a professor of philosophy (1969–1978) and the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities (1979–1999). His colleagues there have included the writers Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov (1988 Poet Laureate of the United States), and Mona Van Duyn (1992 Poet Laureate). Since 2000, Gass has been the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities.
Gass is married to the architect Mary Henderson Gass, author of Parkview: A St. Louis Urban Oasis (2005). They have twin daughters. Catherine Gass is an artist teaching at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a photographer for the Newberry Library.