Obscurely born (rumors circulated secretly like poorly printed money: was I caesarian? a breech? were those forceps marks on the back of my little red neck? was my papa playing baseball when my mother pushed me screaming into being? was I supposed to care that I was born obscurely?) of parents who hardly honored their heritage even by the bother of forcibly forgetting it; and who had many prejudices but few beliefs (the town I grew quickly older in appeared to be full of nigs, micks, wops, spicks, bohunks, polacks, kikes; on the public walks, in the halls of the high school, one could not be too careful of the profaned lips of water fountains); thus while there was much to complain of, just as there is in any family—much to resist—it was all quite particular, palpable, concrete. Good little clerk, my father hated workers, blacks, and Jews, the way he expected women to hate worms. There wasn’t a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn, unless perhaps it was the general suggestion of something poisonously Republican, or a periodical’s respect for certain Trade Marks. And I remember resolving, while on long walks or during summer reveries or while deep in the night’s bed, not to be like that, when that was whatever was around me: Warren, Ohio—factory smoke, depression, household gloom, resentments, illness, ugliness, despair, etcetera, and littleness, above all, smallness, the encroachment of the lean and meager. I won’t be like that, I said, and naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit. Even as a grown man I was still desperately boasting that I’d choose another cunt to come from. Well, Balzac wanted his de, and I wanted my anonymity.
School was a dull time in the beginning; I was a slow student, my achievement intermittent and unpredictable as a loose wire. I decorated my days with extravagant, outrageous lies. Yet I was reading Malory, too, and listening to Guinevere bid Launcelot adieu:
For as well as I have loved thee, mine heart will not serve me to see thee; for through thee and me is the flower of kings and knights destroyed. Therefore, Sir Launcelot, go to thy realm, and there take thee a wife, and live with her with joy and bliss, and I pray thee heartily pray for me to our Lord, that I may amend my misliving.
Amend my misliving. And everything in me then said: I want to be like that—like that aching phrase. So oddly, at a time when no one any longer allowed reading or writing to give them face, place, or history, I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables: not merely my soul, as we used to say, but guts too, a body I knew was mine because, in response to the work which became whatever of me there was, it angrily ulcerated.
I read with the hungry rage of a forest blaze.
I wanted to be a fireman, I recall, but by eight I’d given up that very real cliché for an equally unreal one: I wanted to become a writer
… . a what? Well, a writer wasn’t whatever Warren was. A writer was whatever Malory was when he wrote down his ee’s: mine heart will not serve me to see thee. And that’s what I wanted to be—a string of stresses.
… a what?
The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.
Unlike this preface, then, which pretends to the presence of your eye, these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness. I willed their existence, but I don’t know why. Except that in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style. I wanted to feel responsible where I could bear to be responsible, and to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page—something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known (I thought) always had. They appeared in the world obscurely, too—slow brief bit by bit, through gritted teeth and much despairing; and if any person were to suffer such a birth, we’d see the skull come out on Thursday, skin appear by week’s end, liver later, jaws arrive just after eating. And no one of us, least of all the owner of the opening it inched from, would know what species the creature would eventually contrive to copy and to claim. Because I wrote these stories without imagining there would be readers to sustain them, they exist now as if readerless (strange species indeed, like the flat, pigmentless fish of deep seas, or the blind, transparent shrimp of coastal caves), although a reader now and then lets light fall on them from that other, less real world of common life and pleasant ordinary things.
Occasionally one’s companion, in a rare mood of love, will say: ‘Bill, tell about the time you told off that trucker at the truck stop’; but Bill’s audience knows he’s no emperor of anecdote, like Stanley Elkin, and they will expect at best not to be bored, pallidly amused, not edified or elevated, not cemented or composed; and occasionally one’s children will still want a story told them, improvised on the spot, not merely read or from a flabby memory recited. Then they will beg far better than a dog.
Tell us a story, fawfaw. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us a long and lonely story about the sticky-handed giants who had no homes, because we want to cry. Tell us the story of the overfriendly lions. Tell us the story of the sad and barkless dog. Tell us, fawfaw, tell us, because we want to cry. Tell us of the long bridge and the short wagon and the tall tollkeeper and the tall tollkeeper’s high horse and the tiny brown tail of the tall tollkeeper’s high horse that couldn’t swish away blue flies … because we want to cry. We want to cry.
Well which? … which shall I tell you the story of to make you sad so you will cry?
Oh don’t do that, fawfaw. We want to cry. Don’t make us sad. We merely want to cry. Tell us a lonely story. Tell us about the giants. Tell us about the lions. Tell us about the dog. But do not make us sad, fawfaw, just make us cry.
Well which? … which then shall I tell you if you want to cry? … which, the story of?
Woods. I knew it would be woods.
William H. Gass, Preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.