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It's tempting to see echoes of the author's personal turmoil in Stoner's disastrous journey. Williams's third marriage was falling apart as he wrote it; until he finally divorced, he spent part of each week with his family and part with Nancy, a teacher and former grad student with children of her own. But such a crude biographical interpretation diminishes the living, breathing character Williams created, a deeply flawed man the reader comes to know intimately and mourn. Stoner is "one of the few characters who really die in fiction," Harry Crews once wrote, a testament to the power of his creator's achievement.

It would be hard to conceive of a project more out of tune with the primal scream of the 1960s — the Age of Aquarius, Vietnam, psychedelia, James Bond, Mailer and Capote. Stoner was turned down by seven publishers. After the seventh rejection, Williams told Nancy, "Well, I don't have to write novels."

"That scared me to death," she says. "I knew how tough he was and that he meant it."

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.

On the eighth try, a young editor named Corlies Smith, who'd discovered neglected talents ranging from Jimmy Breslin to Thomas Pynchon, managed to persuade the higher-ups at Viking to take a chance on Stoner.

The book sold abysmally. But like its protagonist's life, it would in time prove to be a singular triumph, wrapped in the trappings of failure.

******

After Stoner, Williams found himself increasingly in demand as a visiting professor or a speaker at conferences. He was encouraged to apply for and received prestigious grants and awards. He didn't have many readers, but they were the right ones — the high princes and satraps of academia and the publishing industry.

A year after the novel's inauspicious debut, grand punjab Irving Howe tossed Stoner a belated bouquet in the pages of the New Republic, generating a flurry of new interest in the already out-of-print work. A cult began to develop among teaching assistants, who thrust scarce copies of the book on one another as if it held the key to their vocation. At DU, the library's copy developed a crack down the spine, as waves of grad students prepped for orals by pondering the central clash between Stoner (a classicist) and his intellectual nemesis (a romantic).

One of the book's fans was poet and Dante translator John Ciardi, who presided over the oldest and most hallowed writing workshop in the country: the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. Ciardi invited Williams to join the staff of the two-week gathering, and he became a regular for the next seven summers, until Ciardi's departure in 1972. For Williams, it was an intense and exhilarating escape from routine, a chance to connect with the literary world well beyond Denver. He formed close ties with many of the "pros" he met, including Ciardi, Dan Wakefield, Isaac Asimov, Diane Wakoski, Harry Crews and poet Miller Williams. In many cases, he persuaded them to come to DU to lecture.

"He was able to talk about writing fiction in a way that helped people learning to write better than anybody I knew," recalls Miller Williams. "A lot of writers talk about it, but you can't use anything they tell you."

In the Ciardi years, Bread Loaf was also a floating bar of literary bad boys. Bloody Marys were served before lunch, with the real drinking starting in the afternoon and continuing well into the night. Nancy thought the whole affair sounded entirely too wild and only joined her husband in Vermont once.

"I hadn't planned to go," she says. "I had young kids, and it was hard to get away. But his buddies called and said, 'Nancy, please come. John is so lonely, and he won't sleep with anybody else.'"

"It was a feast of vanity," says novelist Seymour Epstein, who met Williams in 1966, when they were both at Bread Loaf for the first time. "A lot of drinking and a lot of talking."

Both World War II vets, Epstein and Williams hit it off from the start. Williams invited Epstein, who'd published the well-received novel Leah in 1964 but had no college degree, to teach for a year at DU; he ended up joining the faculty and staying for twenty years. Sy and his wife, Miriam, became close to John and Nancy, and every summer, the two men would drive together from Denver to Vermont for Bread Loaf.

"It was quite an experience," Epstein says of those trips. "John wasn't an easy conversationalist. I would do most of the talking. Around three or four in the afternoon, it was as though a light had gone on. John was beginning to feel the need for a drink, and there was a change of personality. He would become even more reserved."

Drinking, Epstein notes, brought his friend out of his shell. But then it would go on too long: "He used to come to our house and stay until one, two, three in the morning. Both of us were bug-eyed listening to him."

Yet there were peculiar gaps in the conversation. Williams never talked about the war with Epstein. And he was not given to shop talk, not only about his own work but about that of other writers.

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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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