William H. Gass wins 2007 Truman Capote Award for ‘A Temple of Texts’

“A Temple of Texts” by William H. Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is the 2007 winner of the $30,000 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin.

The Capote Award, the largest annual cash prize for literary criticism in the English language, is administered for the Truman Capote Estate by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

William Gass
William H. Gass

“Some years ago I served as a nominator for this award so I know how scrupulous the process is and how serious the standards are,” Gass said. “That certainly makes it even more significant for me. It is also given by the Truman Capote Literary Trust as a memorial to Newton Arvin, a scholar and critic whose own practice brought honor to the field. If you look at the list of previous winners, you will see every other reason why I am so pleased.”

Gass’ book, published in 2006 by Knopf, was selected for the Capote Award by an international panel of prominent critics and writers — Terry Castle, Garrett Stewart, Michael Wood, John Kerrigan, Elaine Scarry and James Wood — each of whom nominated two books. Books of general literary criticism in English, published during the last four years, are eligible for nomination. After reading all the nominated books, each critic ranked the nominees.

Gass will formally receive the award and present a lecture in a ceremony at the University of Iowa in the fall.

Gass has been a prominent figure in American letters for decades, as not only a critic but also a novelist, short story writer, essayist and founder of the International Writers Center at Washington University. He has three times won the National Book Critics Circle Award for collections of essays.

A Washington Post Book World review of “A Temple of Texts” explained, “No one is better than William H. Gass at communicating the sublime and rapturous excitement of reading. This essayist, novelist and teacher is now in his eighties, and yet he still approaches books as if he were a young man hurrying to a rendezvous with a gorgeous older woman.

“When Gass describes the diction of Robert Burton or Gertrude Stein, the sentences of John Hawkes or Robert Coover, he shifts constantly between reverent awe and visceral eagerness, between a hunger for more and a touching sense of gratitude. Yes, gratitude, for how else can an encounter with great beauty leave us but feeling riven, blessed and thankful?”

Stephen Schenkenberg wrote in Identity Theory, “Throughout the book’s 25 essays, Gass is the champion — sometimes joyful, sometimes harsh — of intellectual fitness. For him, reading is a form of aerobics. It is a demanding, exertive, physical act, and as such it stretches, tones, and conditions those who are turning the pages. …

“This is one of William H. Gass’ greatest skills: articulating, and indeed celebrating how the finest artworks find a physical place in our lives. And in this, his most personal and generous essay collection, he does it so often and so magically that the book almost rattles when I carry it.”

The Truman Capote Estate announced the establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust in 1994, during a breakfast at Tiffany’s in New York City, on the 40th anniversary of the publication of Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Past winners of the Capote Award have been British scholar P.N. Furbank, Helen Vendler of Harvard University, John Felstiner of Stanford University, John Kerrigan of Cambridge University, pianist/scholar Charles Rosen of the University of Chicago, Elaine Scarry and Philip Fisher of Harvard University, Malcolm Bowie of Oxford University, Declan Kiberd of University College-Dublin, Irish Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Susan Stewart of Princeton University, Angus Fletcher of the City University of New York Graduate School and Geoffrey Hartman of Yale University.

In addition to the administration of the literary criticism award, the Writers’ Workshop involvement with the trust includes the awarding of Truman Capote Fellowships to UI students in creative writing.

The establishment of the Truman Capote Literary Trust was stipulated in the author’s will, and the Annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin reflects Capote’s frequently expressed concern for the health of literary criticism in the English language. The awards are designed to reward and encourage excellence in the field.

Newton Arvin, in whose memory the award was established, was one of the critics Capote admired. However, Arvin’s academic career at Smith College was destroyed in the late 1940s when his homosexuality was exposed.

The first of the university-based creative writing programs that have collectively transformed the terrain of American literary life, the UI Writers’ Workshop has nurtured poets and fiction writers for nearly 70 years. UI writing alumni have won more than a dozen Pulitzer Prizes, have been honored with virtually every other major American literary award, and count among their number many of America’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers.