"He had a private side that he kept plenty private," says Robert Richardson, the acclaimed Thoreau biographer who taught beside Williams at DU for nearly three decades, "without it affecting his friendliness or availability. He did not spend any time feeling sorry for himself, even when he was carrying around an oxygen tank. He was okay with who he was and where he was."

Yet a novelist of Williams's stature doesn't cut a swath through Denver without leaving some trace behind. Unlike Professor Stoner, he made a vivid impact on colleagues, friends and students, who credit him with shaping DU's writing program into one of the finest in the country. They remember a charming, irascible, hard-drinking and driven artist who cared far more about his own exacting standards than public expectations. A meticulous craftsman, he also left a revealing collection of personal correspondence, notes and drafts, all lovingly collected in a university library — although, curiously, not the university where he taught for thirty years.

The memories and papers tell a Williams kind of story — tough and unexpected and utterly without apology.

Williams served as an Army sergeant in World War II — an experience he rarely talked about but which became central to his final, unfinished novel.
special collections, university of arkansas libraries
Williams served as an Army sergeant in World War II — an experience he rarely talked about but which became central to his final, unfinished novel.

`"He was a plain guy," says Nancy Williams, his fourth and final wife, who was with him for close to 35 years. "He hated sentimentality or sugarcoating. He looked at writing as a job of work. He used to say that if he hadn't been a writer, he might have been a plumber."

But one hell of a plumber.

******

Whenever Williams discovered a novel he admired, he would announce that the writer was a "pro" — his most lavish literary laurel. But he had an even higher accolade for someone he found to be sincere and unaffected. Such a person "has no side," he said.

Williams grew up among people who had no side. He was born in 1922 in Clarksville, Texas, and raised in and around Wichita Falls. His grandparents were farmers; his parents knocked about during the Depression, sometimes a step ahead of the rent collector, until George Clinton Williams found a steady job as a janitor at the post office. John was eight or nine before he learned that George was actually his stepfather. He was told that his biological father had been murdered by a hitchhiker while John was still a baby.

By junior high, John had become a voracious reader, was working in a bookstore and dreamed of becoming a writer. A teacher's praise for an essay he wrote on the movie actor Ronald Colman all but sealed the deal. "It was one of the first compliments I ever had in my life about anything I'd done, and I said, 'My God, I've found my vocation,'" he recalled years later.

After high school, Williams enrolled in a junior college in Wichita Falls — and promptly flunked freshman English. He was too restless to study and eager to see the world. He had a deep, honeyed voice, and soon found work as a radio announcer. At nineteen he got married, then promptly joined the Army Air Force.

In 1942 he was shipped to India, where he served as a radio dispatcher on missions that flew over the Himalayas to supply troops deep in the jungles of Burma — "flying the hump," as it was called. After it was over, Williams rarely mentioned the two and a half years he spent in the China-Burma-India theater, other than to note that he used much of his tedious downtime to write and rewrite his first novel, Nothing but the Night, a murky psychological study of a troubled young dandy that he would later emphatically renounce. At some point he received a Dear John letter from the girl he'd married in haste before enlisting.

Decades later, asked by an interviewer if he ever saw combat, Williams acknowledged, "We were shot at occasionally" — then abruptly changed the subject. But his widow insists that the war burrowed into him much deeper than he liked to admit.

Nearly a thousand men and 600 transport planes were lost flying the hump — to enemy fire, deadly weather or treacherous landing strips hacked out of the jungle. Williams flew dozens of missions. He contracted malaria and saw the ravages of famine in India. Once, while lost with a volunteer squad sent to retrieve dog tags from bloated corpses in a downed plane, he was reduced to roasting monkeys on a spit. And while his C-47 wasn't equipped for combat, he later told his wife he was shot down while flying low over the treetops in Burma.

"He always thought it was a Japanese mortar that hit them," Nancy Williams says. "The trees broke their fall. He woke up outside the plane with two or three crushed ribs. The five guys in the back of the plane were killed, and the three in front lived. They had a compass, and they found the Burma Road and walked out.

"John had a bad case of survivor guilt for years after that. When he and I started living together, it was fifteen years after the war and he was still having nightmares. And guilt. And malaria. The war never went away."

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1 comments
bernardhighland
bernardhighland

This was a great piece, Alan - I really enjoyed it.  I just finished Stoner and was amazed by it, I ordered Butchers Crossing and Augustus before I was even halfway through finishing Stoner.  I couldn't find that much about Williams online, but this article was just what I was looking for; a well written, thorough and honest appraisal of a much neglected author.



 
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