Tests of Time
A review by Jason Picone
The title of William H. Gass's latest essay collection implicitly invites the reader to consider whether or not Mr. Gass will pass the test of time that every writer eventually faces. Chances are that his esoteric fiction, enjoyed by a small and mostly academic audience, will not, but that his witty and often elitist essays will. For an explanation of why, one need only read a few pages of Tests of Time to experience the ferocious, indispensable intellect of one of America's most celebrated essayists.
Frequently included in the annual Best American Essays (as well as represented in Best American Essays of the Century – whew! that's one test passed), Gass's essays are rollicking, irreverent, and ostentatiously learned. In "The Writer and Politics: A Litany," Gass lists anecdotes from the lives of hundreds of authors that have suffered due to a political conflict, maneuvering, or injustice. Far from being a tiring catalogue, it's a breathtaking chronicle of sordid deeds that is interspersed with serious contemplation of the writer's political role.
The stand out essay in this collection (and most likely to be canonical) is the title piece, "The Test of Time," which asks the question: What does a literary work need to do to pass the test of time? To answer his own question, the author considers the nature of the society and culture giving the test. This gives Gass the opportunity to deliver a scathing definition of mass culture, one he is only too happy to offer:
It amuses; it consoles; it allows people to vent their feelings in a relatively innocuous manner; it permits easy identification and promotes illusions of control; it establishes communities of common experience and provides the middle class and middle-class intellectuals with something they can talk about as if they had taste, brains, and breeding.
Gass gets his shots in, but eventually moves away from barbs of this sort, using vigorous and creative thinking to examine the test of time, and why some works pass it, while others are forgotten. He refuses to settle for the easy answers, which hold that the canon is self-evident, or that the literary elite has single-handedly kept the writing of Cervantes, Byron, and Proust alive. Gass's explanation of how to pass the test is simple, logical, and, most importantly, well earned by the mental gymnastics that drive this accomplished essay.
Equally successful as the ambitious and mind-stretching essays are Gass's oddball short pieces. In "I've Got a Little List," the author examines the nature of lists, starting with basic definitions of what constitutes a list (you need four items), then extending to the realm of grocery and to-do lists. At first, it appears to be a pedestrian subject, unworthy of consideration, but Gass's poking and prodding yields rich strains of thought. He theorizes that the "list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess," and that man's internal monologue is essentially a running list of disparate thoughts, the common thread of which is the thinker.
The most eloquent essay in the collection is "The Shears of the Censor," which briefly recounts the author's days in the navy, where he censored the mail of his fellow crewman. It fell to Gass to cut out anything that resembled a code (the XOXOXOX at the end of many an epistle to a loved one) or inadvertently hinted at the location of navy vessels. These mostly harmless excisions stung the young Gass; he stopped censoring and was eventually found out and disciplined.
It's little surprise that Gass balked at removing innocuous passages from letters that were innocuous themselves. While he proposes that all letters, novels, and poems are imperfect in some way, he also believes that their essential unit of composition, the word, redeems them. The word is paramount to Gass, and Tests of Time is another volume in the author's lifelong project of venerating the word for its creative power, a power that enables the finely wrought word to transcend the test of time.