TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Remember award winning Texas novelist John Williams

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat

There is a power in the written word that transports the reader from their living rooms, offices, or classrooms to a different place and time in their imaginations.  Writer John Williams, a noted Texas native and award-winning novelist, wove tales that created different lives but also led readers to think about their own lives.

John Williams

He was born John Edward Williams in Wichita Falls in August 1922, according to family records.  His father died when he was still quite young, and he and his mother moved to the Northeast Texas community of Clarksville.  It was mostly a farming community, and his grandparents had made a living working the soil on their own land in the area.  His mother As a young student, Williams showed a strong aptitude for literature and theater.  However, his mother died in 1940.  It was a crushing loss.  He graduated from high school that year and enrolled in a nearby junior college, but he was too distracted to be able to concentrate on his studies.  He took a series of jobs at newspapers and radio stations afterward.

            In October 1942, with the nation fighting World War II, Williams enlisted in the Army Air Force.  He was stationed at Allied posts in India and Burma and rose to the rank of sergeant.  It was during this time that he began writing his first novel.  After his honorable discharge, he used his benefits from the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of Denver to restart his education. 

            During his time at the University of Denver, he completed Nothing But the Night.  The 1948 novel depicted the harrowing life of a man haunted by the traumatic experiences of his youth.  He earned an English degree and married in 1949.  That year, Williams also published his first book of poetry, The Broken Landscape.  He earned a masters degree in 1950.  Afterward, he took a job as a professor at the University of Missouri where he also earned a doctorate. 

            After five years, he returned to Denver as director of the creative writing program.  He began a new literary journal, The Denver Quarterly, which was widely respected and gave a new outlet to aspiring writers.  While teaching his own students about the writing process, he continued to work on his own writing.  Butcher’s Crossing, was published in 1960, followed by a new collection of poetry, The Necessary Lie, in 1965. 

            One of his most noted novels, Stoner, was published in 1965.  The novel follows the fictional life of William Stoner, an English professor who had risen from an unremarkable childhood on a farm to a position of relative respect and comfort though not one of wide acclaim.  It follows his difficult marriage and travails through life and his own career.  Though respected by critics, it did not sell very well.  As Williams’s career progressed, he was fond of repeating a line from the novel: “You must remember what you are doing and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing.  There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not recorded in the annals of history.”

            His fourth novel, Augustus, was perhaps his most successful.  It was a fictional retelling of the life of the first Roman emperor, recounting his youth and rise to power and his lengthy political career, all cleverly told through letters and recollections of others.  The Romans were at the height of their power and their arrogance.  Octavian Caesar, who later renamed himself Augustus, or “the revered one,” swept aside the division and civil wars that beset Rome and set out to rid his society of the moral rot that he believed was destroying it.  In the process, Augustus had to destroy those same institutions he claimed to respect, leading Rome on a path away from a republic and toward dictatorship.  In many ways, it was a cautionary tale for the America of the 1970s, one beset by corruption and deep divisions but confident of its own future.

Augustus won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction for 1972.  For the first time, the award was shared with another novel, John Barth’s Chimera.

Williams retired from teaching in 1986.  He and his wife moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he settled into a quiet life of writing.   He began writing a new novel, but frustrations with his health delayed his writing.  He died of respiratory failure at his home in 1994.  The Sleep of Reason, his last work, was never completed, though portions of the work have been printed in short story form.  In the years after his death, the works of Williams have begun finding a new generation of readers.  Even when the writer is no more, the words remain and still speak to those who will hear.

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.

Ken Bridges