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Williams's agent entered the manuscript in a national fiction contest sponsored by Macmillan. It won second prize, earning the author $2,500 and a book contract. Published in 1960, Butcher's Crossing sold fewer than 5,000 copies in hardcover. No one knew how to market it; the New York Times assigned it to a reviewer of pulp Westerns, which incensed Williams. A paperback house wanted to reissue it, but only if the label "A Western" appeared on the cover. Williams refused.

Along with Oakley Hall's Warlock, Butcher's Crossing was one of the first serious novels about the West. Within a few years, the groundbreaking work would have plenty of company, as writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry and filmmakers such as Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman began to reinvent the Western myth or peel it back to see what lurked beneath. But in Denver, Williams became known as a writer of "Westerns" — even though his story of ideals crashing on the killing floor of experience is about much more than a buffalo hunt, just as Moby-Dick is about much more than a whale hunt.

After his death, Williams's widow opened the book for the first time in years and looked again at the remarkable section dealing with the slaughter of the herd, which goes on for forty pages.

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.

"It struck me that the intensity of that passage comes from his own experience in World War II," Nancy Williams says. "He had seen so much death, so much senseless killing."

******

In the 1960s, DU's English department doubled in size, then doubled again. The growth was triggered by a surge in freshman composition classes, previously handled by a communications department, but it also signaled an explosion of baby boomers and older graduate students hitting college campuses, the soaring population of the region, and an increasing interest in advanced creative-writing programs.

When Gerald Chapman arrived as the new chair in the early 1960s, he became the eighth member of the department; there had been just four in 1959. By the time Chapman stepped down as chair eight years later, the full-time faculty had swelled to 28. "We had something very special going," Chapman says now, "an esprit de corps I've never seen anywhere else. John was part of making that happen."

In addition to teaching prosody, the modern novel and other English courses, Williams had built the writing program into one of the most academically demanding in the country, reasoning that most writers would have to find teaching jobs in order to support themselves. A doctoral candidate in creative writing was required to take the same load of courses as Ph.D. candidates in English literature, while producing a dissertation that might be a novel or a book of poetry.

"He'd say, 'It never did a writer any harm to be educated,'" recalls novelist David Milofsky, who taught at DU in the 1980s and is now at Colorado State University. "I wish more people felt the same way."

"It was one of the few departments in the country where the writers weren't at war with the academics all the time," says Bob Richardson, who arrived shortly after Chapman and stayed 27 years. "They tried to get writers who were open to the possibility that people who are scholars might also be smart, and scholars who respected writers. Because of John and his evenhandedness, it worked. It became certainly the most exciting and fulfilling department I've ever taught in."

The English profs were a tight-knit group, given to considerable socializing and parties. And alcohol was an essential lubricant of the gatherings, particularly if Williams was involved. When he first applied for a job at DU, Richardson was flown out for a "campus" interview that actually took place miles away. "The main part of the interview was being taken up to the mountains to a small cabin and made to drink too much," he recalls. "That way they very quickly found out who you are underneath. They weren't interested in prestige degrees. That's the great thing about Denver: What matters isn't where you're from, but whether you can do the job."

The camaraderie extended to graduate students, too, some of whom were as old or older than the youthful faculty. After lecturing in a fog of cigarette smoke through his allotted class time, Williams would adjourn to the Campus Inn with a gaggle of students in tow.

"John would buy the first pitcher, and then you'd talk literature for two or three hours," says Bill Zaranka, who arrived as a doctoral student in 1969, later headed the creative-writing program and is now provost emeritus at DU. "I remember being invited on numerous occasions to his house. He didn't hold forth; he'd talk about everything but his own work. But you never doubted where he stood."

Williams had high standards for his students. Some of his charges found him too brusque, too dismissive of writing that he didn't believe made the mark. He could be disorganized in his approach to paperwork and utterly disinterested in "fashionable" trends in literature or criticism. But others found him to be a generous friend and good listener, a brilliant and incisive critic — and a decided departure from a stereotypical professor.

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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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