William Gass, Bards and Storytellers

In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, “Go Forth and Falsify,” William Gass made the comment that a “storyteller’s assignment…was to glorify the past and its daring, protect the family tree, justify male ownership of land…” among other obligations.

It appeared at first glance that Gass had no aesthetic sympathy with the classic role of the “bard” telling what Gass calls “the first stories.” Nor did he seem to support the classic “storyteller’s assignment” in his laundry list of the teller’s obligations. In this sense, he was merely the messenger telling us what the old bard’s role and obligations used to be.

With the quickness of a karate chop, however, he throws in a beautifully shaped statement, “Nowadays this history (the ancient oral history of the bard) is a weakening string of memories.”

It would appear that Gass longs for the “bard” model of cultural storytelling with all of its clean, uncomplicated portrayals of heroes and the glorification of the past.

Gass’s essay is about another narrator, Katherine Anne Porter, a modern storyteller who also made up stories about events in her life. Given her Texas heritage, one would have assumed that she would have written in the old bard tradition. However, as Gass points out, she despised the family system, remained invisible in a nine years marriage, and even “refused” the sexual entreaties of some of her other partners. By default, Gass seems to be saying, she is thoroughly modern (does this, then, make her memories “weak”?)

Gass does not make a convincing argument by mixing a fictional storytelling model of the old bard tradition and contrasting that paradigm to Porter’s “real” contemporary perceptions and behaviors (Gass’s style is so hypnotic, a reader tends to gloss over the content of what he says)

To the more awkward assertion that modern storytellers are embedded in a “weakening string of memories,” one would have to discount Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburgh, Ohio and Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology or David Lynch. We have a plethora of modern storytellers whose visions of the past are strong but are far more realistic, even grim. The past, looked at through the lens of contemporary fiction, is seldom elevated to any kind of imperial level. In that sense, our modern storytellers are making our relationship to the past far more egalitarian and universal.

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