I can’t explain how I went so long without being aware of John Williams. But happily, one of my partners linked to an article about him as one of our PL Picks, and I was intrigued enough to start reading his books.
Williams was a college professor. He earned a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Missouri, and taught writing at the University of Denver for many years. He wrote only four novels, the first of which he later disowned. His third novel, Stoner, was the first one I read.
Stoner is about a Missouri farm boy who attends the University of Missouri intending to study agriculture, but falls in love with literature. Like Williams, he gets his Ph.D. there and spends his career teaching at Missouri. Stoner is a rather undistinguished academic who endures an unhappy marriage and family life. His career is blighted by a professional vendetta, and he doesn’t publish much of significance. He does, happily, experience romance, at least briefly. Despite that rather austere outline, Stoner is a wonderful book, affirming not just of the academic life, but of life in general. I recommend it highly.
Next I read Butcher’s Crossing, Williams’s second novel, which I enjoyed even more. Butcher’s Crossing is set in the 1870s. Its protagonist, Will Andrews, drops out of Harvard and goes West to the frontier, seeking adventure and a more authentic life. He washes up in a little town called Butcher’s Crossing, which Williams renders beautifully. Andrews wants to go on a buffalo hunt, and ultimately does. The hunt does not go as planned, but I won’t reveal any more of the plot than that. Andrews meets a woman, his first, and despite–or maybe because of–enduring considerable hardship, finds what he was looking for in the West.
Butcher’s Crossing is wildly entertaining. Wikipedia quotes this exchange from a 1985 interview:
[Williams] was asked, “And literature is written to be entertaining?” to which he replied emphatically, “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”
Some critics have purported to discover left-wing, anti-American themes in Butcher’s Crossing, but they are wrong.
I have not yet read Williams’s last novel, Augustus. It tells the story of Octavian, Caesar Augustus, in more or less epistolary form. Augustus won the National Book Award in 1973. The Washington Post described it as “The finest historical novel ever written by an American.” I look forward to reading it soon.
If, like me, you are always looking for new authors and have somehow missed John Williams, I could hardly recommend him more highly.