"He came up the hard way," says Phil Doe, who studied with Williams starting in 1968 and became a lifelong friend, often joining him to work the sprawling garden behind the professor's house on South Madison Street. "He was a grand admirer of Willa Cather and people who weren't in the mainstream, people from humble beginnings with great literary skill. He thought education was a pretty private business. He'd open the door for you, and the rest was up to you. Some people accused him of being lazy about teaching and being more interested in his writing, but I didn't see that in his classes."

A Williams writing workshop wasn't the sort of group therapy one finds in MFA programs these days — but it wasn't a ritual of humiliation, either. "He would criticize a story as being 'the great unwritten story' that was still in the writer's head — he didn't get it out on the page," says Joe Nigg, who went to DU in the 1970s and has since authored several books on mythical beasts. "He wasn't mean at all. It had nothing to do with the personality of the writer."

"He would talk for an hour and meticulously dissect a story in the nicest possible way," adds Milofsky. "Nobody else would speak. When he would finish, he would say, 'Now, is there anything else wrong with this?' And there was nothing more to say. It was amazing."

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.

Joanne Greenberg had such respect for Williams that she asked him to critique some of her work in progress — a rare leap of trust for an established author, and one she never regretted. "He was the consummate teacher," she says. "Ego and self-consciousness had no place. When you got his critiques, it was always about the work, and the work was important. I never came away from a session with him without being on a high."

Williams never coddled students, but he did take extra pains with those who he thought showed promise. Michelle Latiolais, now a published novelist and English professor at the University of California at Irvine, remembers her astonishment, back in her DU graduate days, when Williams descended on her after class with a stack of books and told her, "Ignore all of what you just heard. Read these authors."

"I had just withstood a very ugly workshop that he felt was off the mark," she says. "I was attempting a type of prose that John felt very strongly couldn't be taught, but he knew I would find all the tools I needed in the great writers."

Latiolais acknowledges that some students felt intimidated by Williams. Others were comfortable dropping in on him in his office, squeezing their way in among blizzards of paper and scattered books and knocking back a shot of Wild Turkey from the bottle Williams kept in his desk for rarefied conversations. But what he tried to impress on all his students, she says, was the high-stakes nature of their work: "John would point out the window at the 'real' world and say, 'Out there, that's an amateur performance.' The truth was on the page, through craft and artifice. He was very exacting, but he was never vicious, ever. It was just really serious, what we were doing."

Even as his real-world obligations multiplied, Williams was hard at work at his own high-stakes pursuit — a novel about the darker implications of a life devoted to study and teaching. It's the story of a farm boy, sent by his family to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, forty years before Williams arrived there; instead, he falls madly in love with literature.

William Stoner is a clumsy but earnest student. He marries badly, resulting in one of the bleakest honeymoons in fiction. He's an indifferent scholar, and it takes him years to figure out how to light a spark in the minds of his own benighted pupils. He has a doomed daughter, a doomed love affair with a graduate student, and a long-running feud with a colleague that cripples his career. The sacrifices he makes to hold on to what he loves most are horrific and ultimately futile. Yet in the end, Williams once noted, he has "more than most of us ever gain — his own identity."

He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and the figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.

Williams wrote the story longhand over a period of years, working from detailed notes and outlines. There are few revisions in what appears to be the original draft — an amazing feat for a book so careful in its language. Despite what sounds like dry and unpromising material, the novel is by turns engrossing, infuriating, painful and poignant. In one chapter, Williams wrings more genuine drama and suspense from an unscrupulous graduate student's oral exam than can be found in a stack of James Patterson potboilers.

« 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.