Stanley Elkin, my main man

Stanley Elkin! William Gass! Yeah, man!

Stanley Elkin and William Gass, two of the greatest novelists, literary theorists and thinkers of our time, were best buds at Washington University in St. Louis. What talents, originality.  And what different personalities! They fortunately got some of the laurels and awards they deserved while living. Gass continues to receive the highest recognition and honors any writer could ever dream of and carries on bringing out a new and absolutely brilliant unexexpected new book every few years. Regretfully, Elkin has gone on to his great reward (Heaven help him! Irreverent! Yes. Love it.) A piercing satirist in the American idiom, masterful stylist, he did things with sentences and narrative that were startling and amazing, he was dead on about our bubble-headedness, yet still compassionate.

Here is a personal reminiscence of mine of both (it’s also on Kevin’s blog as a comment). This post has  launched an “effusion” and exaltation of sorts in my hungry roaming head and imagination. Pardon the gush–

[addressed to Kevin]

Oh, here we go again. You nut!  I can’t believe you’re an ELKIN buzzard too!  I met him many years ago, ADORED HIM, THOUGHT HE WAS BRILLIANT, HAVE READ A BUNCH OF HIS NOVELS– (ARE YOU JEALOUS?)––AND ta dum! I HAD WILLIAM GASS (NO LESS!) as a writing “mentor” at a writers’ conference in Sarasota, FL. It was amazing.  William Gaddis was there too ( The Recognitions, JR, 2 times NBA winner for fiction), Rust Hills, the fiction editor of Esquire (he put on the conference, decided on the students, asked his buds Gass, Gaddis and others to “instruct”) and his wife Joy Williams helped him with it(she is also a novelist). So funny looking back… I was still in my 20′s, so in freaking awe of these guys who were talking to ME and asking me if I needed another glass of wine. Oh gosh. Thinking about it still makes my head spin.  At the time I’d only written poetry!  And Gass read it CAREFULLY, spent a lot of time with me discussing it, asking me questions, always found things he got off on in it (however so minor, he was always unfailingly kind) and said he loved it.  Of course I fainted several times at these words from a such a literary eminence.  He FLOORED me though when he said astonished and pleased that my poetry reminded him of DAME EDITH SITWELL’S, “so jeweled, musical and resonant.” I almost died on the spot.  Who? That histrionic aristocratic Brit freak (or so I thought at the time, what’d I know? NOTHING.) That was the very last poet I wanted to be compared to, I was struck mute by the praise, it was so unexpected (that’s Gass for you, he was having fun with me I see now) even if the esteemed William Gass thought it was wonderful.  Dumbstuck, dazzled and very hungover I went home to reconsider…EVERYTHING.  This is too much. Wonderful. Yes, Elkin is so funny, such a sharp satirist, and not afraid of risks.  I learned so much from Gass in just 3 days and from reading Elkin. That’s why I am pain in the butt on the page to some people, I guess. His point was, why the hell not? What do you write FOR?  Sad when he got sick and declined. It upset Gass very much, he’d talk glancingly of it and you could see the pain in his eyes.  They were very good friends.  Thanks for this. Elkin should have a revival or new appreciation, reconsideration.  He was hell on wheels with the Virgin Mary character in The Living End. Gawd. Thx again, Kevin. What a surprise your post was — I have first editions of all of Elkins’ books–Gass’s  (blush, two of my heroes) Margaret


Thx, Kevin!


STANLEY ELKIN! 1930-1995



Story collections

Novella collections

Other works

Limited editions

  • The First George Mills (Part One of George Mills; 376 copies, all signed by Elkin and the illustrator, Jane E. Hughes) (1980)
  • Why I Live Where I Live (essay; 30 unnumbered copies) (1983)
  • The Coffee Room (radio play; 95 copies, all signed by Elkin and the illustrator, Michael McCurdy) (1987)


  • “A Poetics for Bullies”, read by Jackson Beck, with comments by Elkin, in New Sounds in American Fiction, Program 10. (edited by Gordon Lish) (1969)

As editor


  • 1995 – National Book Critics Circle Award for Mrs. Ted Bliss
  • 1994 – PEN Faulkner Award finalist for Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
  • 1991 – National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The MacGuffin
  • 1982 – National Book Critics Circle Award for George Mills


  1. ^ Bezner, Kevin (2001). “Stanley (Lawrence) Elkin”. In Greasley, Philip A. Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume One: The Authors. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. p. 172. ISBN 0-253-33609-0. Retrieved June 3, 2010.
  2. ^ “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
  3. ^ St. Louis Walk of Fame. “St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees”. Retrieved 25 April 2013.

External links


Came across a piece on Bookslut about one of my earliest and most influential writer-heroes, Stanley Elkin. Apart from the usual roster of American and British hotshots — Dickens, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner — Elkin was probably the first novelist to truly excite me. His sentences were like blossoming fractals, and he used all classes of words to color his prose, especially jargon from any walk of life, and back-formed words only he could get away with. I was young and impressionable when I read The Living End. Elkin had himself a devotee.

55f30c0e-5160-11df-ae03-0017a4a78c22-imageIt didn’t hurt that he was teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, my home town. I was going to another college at the time, but Elkin loomed large there too, along with William Gass, another Wash U writer and teacher. Talk about inspiring. These were the days when I made the mental decision to…

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About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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