"He thought it was outré, amateur to talk about your writing," says Epstein, now 92 and still writing. "He never would have offered me the job if he hadn't read my work. But I don't remember him ever saying a word about my writing."

Epstein knew that his friend had invited him to join the program at DU in part to give himself more time for his own writing. But Williams scarcely talked about the work in progress, a novel as radically different from his earlier books as Stoner was from Butcher's Crossing. It was about a key moment in ancient history that had been explored by everyone from Shakespeare to MGM — the assassination of Julius Caesar and the rise of his nephew Octavius to power amid intrigues involving Cleopatra, Brutus, Cicero, Mark Antony and others.

Williams wasn't interested in writing a Cecil B. DeMille epic or imitating Robert Graves. He particularly wanted to avoid doing a "modern" interpretation of ancient Rome. ("Determined not have Henry Kissinger in a toga," reads one note.) But he was intrigued by the challenge of working from the fragmentary historical record in order to construct an imaginary but plausible account of how Octavius became the emperor Augustus while sacrificing friendship, youthful ideals — even his own daughter, whom he exiled for adultery.

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.

Largely on Irving Howe's recommendation, Williams obtained a Rockefeller grant that allowed him to visit Italy and scout the locations where it all happened. He also spent long hours scouring ancient texts in translation.

He wrote slowly and with great care, as always, working in an upstairs home office, writing longhand or typing on a Remington manual. "He'd start at eight, take his coffee up and write for maybe three hours," Nancy Williams says. "For him, a page was a good day. Two or three pages was a triumph. It didn't happen very often. Then he'd come down, have some lunch. Then he'd go upstairs and plan the next day's work for two or three hours."

The book emerged as a series of letters and journal entries from courtiers and spies, from Cicero and Marc Antony and the emperor's daughter Julia, and finally from Octavius Caesar himself. The mélange of numerous characters and voices became a stunning, polyphonous meditation on the elusiveness of power and the impermanence of empire. It's not Kissinger in a toga; in its tragic sweep, it's more like The Godfather in 3-D, but with one saving grace. Empires don't last, we learn, but the stories about them do.

With Augustus, Williams breathed new life into the epistolary novel and finally seized the attention of the literary establishment — or part of it, anyway. In 1973 the novel won the National Book Award, but Williams had to split the thousand-dollar prize with a co-winner, John Barth's Chimera. Some have argued that the award was an attempt to make amends for ignoring Stoner seven years earlier, but the tie also indicates the emerging schism in the book world between the experimental and the traditional, old forms and new.

Williams accepted the honor with grace and professed not to care if he had a thousand readers or a hundred thousand. He never expected to get rich off his work and treated every royalty check, no matter how modest, as an unexpected gift that must be spent immediately. He knew that his own versatility made it impossible for him to be what Greenberg calls a "dependable writer" — someone who, like Stephen King, delivers a reliable product for readers who just want more of the same — and thus he would never be a brand-name author.

Yet even the award failed to do much for sales of Augustus, and some friends detected a simmering resentment in Williams over the publishing business. "I thought he was one damn fine writer," Epstein says. "He treated the turndowns with contempt, and he should have. There wasn't a reason in the world why his books should have been rejected. You wonder how he could contain himself.

"But that's one of the interesting things about his drinking. All that rage was stored up, and it came out when he started his nightly booze — directed at the wrong targets. He could get very aggressive."

Williams's dependence on alcohol had gone largely unremarked amid free-wheeling faculty parties or in the boozy summers of Bread Loaf. ("Hope you are unlicensed, licentious, profligate, drunken, bloated, and happy, even though it be to your moral damnation," Ciardi wrote to him in 1971. "And more of the same to that damn metabolism of yours that need forego nothing.") But the effects became more pronounced as he got older, as did his chain-smoking. The drinking put a strain on his relationship with the Epsteins, and others as well.

"It hurt me badly," Greenberg says. "I told him, 'John, if I had your talent, I would take such good care of myself.' But he was great at waving things off."

"He could be a mean drunk verbally," Nancy says. "He could say some nasty things. He'd drink a little every day, too much on Saturday. Then he went to work and didn't work."

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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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