Williams never doubted the necessity of the war. "But I finally think World War II brutalized this country," he said in an interview published in 1981. "People almost got used to people being killed."

In 1945 Williams returned to civilian life. He spent some time with his family, who had moved to California, then drifted to Key West, where he helped launch a radio station. He continued to tinker with his novel, sending drafts off to New York editors, who called it an overblown, overwritten short story. Discouraged but stubborn, Williams sent the manuscript to Alan Swallow.

It was a life-changing move. A Wyoming native, Swallow had founded a small press in Denver dedicated to bringing out serious new writers that mainstream publishers neglected. He was also in the process of launching a creative-writing doctorate program at the University of Denver that would be only the second of its kind in the country.

John Williams published three novels in twelve years. Each one struggled to find an audience at first, and has since been hailed as a classic.
special Collections, university of Arkansas Libraries
John Williams published three novels in twelve years. Each one struggled to find an audience at first, and has since been hailed as a classic.
Nancy Williams remembers her husband as a "plain guy" who loved to laugh and hated to revise.
Alan prendergast
Nancy Williams remembers her husband as a "plain guy" who loved to laugh and hated to revise.

Swallow found Nothing but the Night "rather dreary" and "somewhat overdone" — but not so terrible for a first novel. He told Williams he'd publish it under his own imprint, even though he would certainly lose money on the deal. "You may well be a writer who needs to throw away two or three novels before the thing starts clicking," he wrote to the jubilant author.

The book was published in 1948 and disappeared quickly. Swallow agreed to publish a volume of Williams's poetry, too. More important, he persuaded Williams to come to Denver and resume his education at DU. Williams got his bachelor's degree there in 1949 and his master's the following year, working with Swallow in the classroom and doing various chores at the press, including setting type. A second marriage came and went; he'd married "too soon" after the Army, he later said.

Williams took his doctorate at the University of Missouri. His dissertation, on the Elizabethan poet and dramatist Fulke Greville, fared better than a second novel he wrote during that period about American bohemians in Mexico, which was rejected by 22 publishers. "Just too long and too pretentious," one editor wrote.

Dr. Williams collected his degree in 1954 and headed back to Colorado, to accept the only teaching job he'd been offered. Swallow had stepped down at DU in order to pursue his publishing business, and Williams succeeded him as director of the university's budding writing program.

At the time, DU was a small, isolated, distinctly under-endowed institution, an obscure backwater in the currents of academe. Williams had a staggering load of undergraduate and graduate courses — and a third marriage, one that survived into the 1960s and produced three children — and little time for his own writing. Still, he was determined, like Swallow, to take the supposed obstacles of working far from the publishing establishment back East and turn them to his advantage.

Shortly after his return to Denver, he began reading widely in the literature of the West. What he found was a lot of cheap myth-making and silly shoot-em-ups and little that seemed to address how people actually lived and struggled in that narrow window of time we now associate with the Wild West. Even highbrow authors tended to romanticize the region. "The subject of the West has undergone a process of mindless stereotyping," Williams wrote in a personal manifesto in The Nation, "by a line of literary racketeers...men contemptuous of the stories they have to tell, of the people who animate them and of the settings upon which they are played."

Williams began to ponder how best to convey the authentic experience of the frontier, the harsh elements and terrifying vastness of the place. The story that emerged from these musings concerns one Will Andrews, a young man who drops out of Harvard in the 1870s and heads west, brimming with Emersonian ideas about Nature and eager for an adventure that will unlock "the Wildness" in himself. Shortly after his arrival in the desolate Kansas town of Butcher's Crossing, he decides to bankroll what promises to be one of the last great buffalo hunts, at a time when the animal had been all but annihilated by the hide trade. Miller, a seasoned hunter, leads the expedition to a herd of thousands in an isolated valley in the Colorado Territory. But Miller becomes obsessed with killing every last buffalo; the men are trapped by the sudden onset of winter in the Rockies, and Andrews soon learns more about Nature's indifference than he ever cared to know.

Butcher's Crossing is a quantum leap from Williams's turgid early work, in language as well as subject. Every aspect of Andrews's ordeal, from the tedium and agony of riding horseback for days across empty prairie to the mindless killing and skinning of thousands of buffalo to the struggle to survive for months in the high country, is presented in vivid, stunning detail. Yet the prose is austere and almost unbearably dispassionate, the tale told crisply and clear-eyed even as it descends into brute slaughter:

Miller shot, and reloaded, and shot, and loaded again. The acrid haze of gunsmoke thickened around them; Andrews coughed and breathed heavily and put his face near the ground where the smoke was thinner. When he lifted his head he could see the ground in front of him littered with the mounded corpses of buffalo, and the remaining herd — apparently little diminished — circling almost mechanically now, in a kind of dumb rhythm, as if impelled by the regular explosions of Miller's guns.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

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.