Authors: John Williams
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JOHN WILLIAMS (1922–1994) was born and raised in northeast Texas. Despite a talent for writing and acting, Williams flunked out of a local junior college after his first year. He reluctantly joined the war effort, enlisting in the Army Air Corps, and managing to write a draft of his first novel while there. Once home, Williams found a small publisher for the novel and enrolled at the University of Denver, where he was eventually to receive both his B.A. and M.A., and where he was to return as an instructor in 1954. Williams was to remain on the staff of the writing program at the University of Denver until his retirement in 1985. During these years, he was an active guest lecturer and writer, publishing two volumes of poetry and three novels,
Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner
(also published by NYRB Classics), and the National Book Award–winning
MICHELLE LATIOLAIS is a member of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine where she is associate professor of English. She is the author of the novel
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In 1981 I began my graduate studies with John Williams at the University of Denver, where he had taught since 1954. After my first workshop, he came to my office—almost completely obscured by the stack of books he carried; he was not at all a tall man—and he set them on my desk. “Ignore all of what you just heard and sat through. Read these authors. They will be your teachers. You’re a writer who can’t be taught, who has to figure it out on her own.” The rich timbre of his voice resounded in the tiny space. He walked out through the warren of graduate-student offices and down the dingy linoleum hall. He wore a blazer and slacks and a paisley ascot. I never saw him dressed any differently, not even when I visited him in Fayetteville, Arkansas, shortly before he died. I was dumbstruck, nor did I know what to be most dumbstruck by, the fact that a professor had come to me, or being told I could not be taught. I was used to simpering in doorways during office hours until a professor deigned to look up from his papers and acknowledge me; I was in graduate school
to be taught
, and to be taught by John Williams, who had received the National Book Award in 1973 for his novel
I turned to the tower of novels above which had so recently been John Williams’s gaunt, deeply lined face—he was an inveterate smoker and emphysema would kill him in 1994. There was Ford Madox Ford’s perfectly structured
The Good Soldier
and Edith Wharton’s
The House of Mirth
The Age of Innocence
Ethan Frome. The Wife of Martin Guerre
The Trial of Sören Qvist
were finely wrought and beautifully atmospheric historical novels by Janet Lewis, whose career—Williams would later tell me—had been eclipsed by her husband, the poet and critic Yvor Winters. Vitally important to John Williams’s own writing were the novels of Henry James, and so under Williams’s tutelage I would learn to write the consciousness of a character by reading
Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl
John Williams wrote three very fine novels, each within a specific genre, and each a production which significantly transcends the ghettoizing of genre fiction.
(1960) is a western;
(1965) is an “academic novel,” or rather a novel which unfolds within the walls of the academy; and
(1972) is a historical novel constructed of documents and letters whose authors—each in one of Cicero’s three oratorical styles—collectively fill out a picture of the adult life of Augustus Caesar. Not completely playfully, John Williams always refused to claim
Nothing but the Night
(1948), his first novel, written while serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Somewhat in deference to his evaluation, I have never read it.
John Williams did not necessarily embrace or even eschew genre convention so much as he found interest in exploring the mendacity that arises when convention starts to control material or story or, most problematically, character. Williams’s examination of genre, even as he writes within it, is erudite, stately, illuminating.
The iconoclasm need not be loud and messy
, I can almost hear him saying, his eyes keenly on us in workshop and then his full head of slicked-back black hair tilting and the cigarette placed between his lips.
. In his third year at Harvard College, and shortly after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Andrews leaves his studies to come west. The year is 1873 and fortune can be made in buffalo hides as the moneyed classes of America are all agog for buffalo robes, though later in the novel the hunters wonder at this craze as “you never can really get the stink out of them.” But buffalo hides and the proceeds which can be had from them—smell or no smell—are not what Will Andrews seeks. His father is a Unitarian minister, as was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, and Andrews, like Emerson, is not a man who can find himself in the halls of academe:
Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay south-westward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King’s Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained. Through the trees and across the rolling landscape, he had been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld somewhat as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.
Andrews leaves Boston “crowded with carriages and walking men who toiled sluggishly beneath the arches of evenly spaced elms that had been made to grow, it seemed, out of the flat stone of sidewalk and roadway.” He leaves his father’s house on Clarendon Street near Beacon and the river Charles “winding among plotted fields and villages and towns, carrying the refuse of man and city out to the great bay.” Andrews wants to go where no man has gone before, and though he is leaving the house in which he was born and raised, he is not yet born, nor is he yet grown. It is a story you have heard before, an ur-story, one of self-discovery, a dream sought, and a setting-out fearlessly and confidently to achieve this realization, a young man going west...and therein begins what perhaps the reader has not encountered before: John Williams’s intense scrutiny of this romantic tale, this unquestioned gloss of the manic energies underlying westward expansion, manifest destiny, the “American spirit” and its projection of an individualism which could only be sought and found in the wild open spaces of the American Frontier. Therein also begins Williams’s goading of Emersonian Transcendentalism, its promise of the good and truth and beauty found only in nature. Even more deeply mordant is his examination of the intuitive spirituality thought to exist in nature, man’s soul in profound correspondence with a divine oversoul, with God. Will Andrews as the tenderfoot, a stock character in the western, is perfect for Williams’s purposes: a tenderfoot in search of what he has
about the wilderness. Irony in
is pervasive, but it is of the stinging variety, and not so very funny.
Andrews arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, and within hours has been talked into funding a hunting expedition into the Colorado Rockies. Miller, the experienced hunter and mountain man, has a few years earlier discovered a hidden valley with a tremendous herd of buffalo, and for some time now he has been trying to secure partners for an expedition which promises huge financial gain. There is a perfect glimmer of possibility in the novel that this hidden valley of buffalo bounty doesn’t really exist, and that Miller is telling a tall tale, taking Andrews for a ride, as the expression goes, but, alas, all Andrews really wants is the ride, the experience of the wilderness and what this promises him by way of self-discovery.
Miller sets off with Andrews’s money to Ellsworth, Kansas, meaning to hire a skinner, Fred Schneider, and to purchase provisions for the expedition. Left behind is the expectant Andrews and Miller’s sidekick, Charley Hoge, who is to be the expedition’s oxen drover and camp man. Hoge is a character replete with western cliché, except we understand in John Williams’s deft treatment that the characterization is an excavation
cliché and not a participation
cliché. Hoge is one-handed, alcoholic, and hasn’t a thing in the world to say and so spouts passages from the Bible and other common places ostensibly grounded in the Bible’s unassailable wisdom. This might matter if anyone around Hoge cared about the Bible, but no one does, not even the educated Will Andrews who reflects at one point that he has more familiarity with Emerson than with the Bible, which he realizes—realizes mildly, very mildly—he has never read. Andrews seeks the wilderness so that he can be “a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained”; what he will later encounter in nature is more akin to the malice of an Old Testament God. It is the marvelous wry wit of Williams’s writing that suggests Andrews would have been better served knowing—even if just from biblical verses—about floods and plagues and unleashed fury from above than this presumed benignity of oneness with God.
Andrews has a letter of introduction to a “hide man” in Butcher’s Crossing named J.D. McDonald, who had years earlier known Andrews’s father and attended his church in Boston. McDonald, reminded of this time by Andrews’s letter, says querulously, “Listen, boy. I went to your father’s church because I thought I might meet somebody that would give me a better job, and I started going to those little meetings your father had for the same reason. I never even knew what they were talking about, half the time.”
This is a small scene very early in the novel, before Andrews has met Miller and funded the expedition, and it simultaneously underscores Andrews’s discontent with formalized religious activity and what people seek from it as it presages Andrews’s own incomprehension in the wilderness, that other house of God.
As Andrews and Hoge wait for Miller’s return from Ellsworth, Andrews sits in the window of his hotel room as a child might, locked in his room, pining for the future, a time in which he can realize himself. Andrews may be Emersonian man, he may have set out seeking to know something profound, something spiritual, but the figurative language of the novel characterizes something far more fundamental, and that is a type of infancy or childhood from which Andrews must emerge, an infancy of mind. “In his mind were fragments of Miller’s talk about the mountain country to which they were going, and those fragments glittered and turned and fell softly in accidental and strange patterns. Like the loose stained bits of glass in a kaleidoscope, they augmented themselves with their turning and found light from irrelevant and accidental sources.” This is a mind filled with toys, John Williams might be saying, and later in the novel, after Miller has returned to Butcher’s Crossing with all the provisions the expedition will need, and they have set off, Williams writes this passage: