In the late 1970s, Williams was diagnosed with emphysema. He started showing up on campus tethered to an oxygen tank, but he refused to let it interfere with his long-established classroom routine. He'd take a puff of a cigarette, then a puff of oxygen, then resume his lecture.


Williams's last years at DU were marked by health troubles and rising grumpiness — about the state of education, the ugly new glass buildings downtown, the way Denver was starting to look as "fakey" as every other place. His doctors nagged him to move to a lower altitude, where he could breathe better.

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.

Creative-writing programs were exploding on campuses across the country. DU, still clinging to what Zaranka describes as a "conservative aesthetic," was struggling to catch up. Williams no longer directed the writing program, but some rifts with colleagues had developed over the years that probably made the place feel less like home than it once was.

"I loved John, but there were people there who didn't feel the same way," says Milofsky. "Some people felt John was acting like a big-shot writer. The fact is, he was a big-shot writer. It's remarkable that more fuss isn't made over him."

Williams retired in 1985. He and Nancy moved to Key West, home to literary friends such as Richard Wilbur and James Merrill, but found the hospital services too limited for their needs. They relocated to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where several former Bread Loaf companions taught at the state university.

Shortly after his departure, Robert Pawlowski, who succeeded Williams as director of the writing program, nominated him for an honorary degree from DU. "They wouldn't have anything to do with it," Pawlowski says. "There was some feeling against John among certain people in the upper administration, some petty issues, I guess. But he was the most distinguished person in that department."

A fuss was made, finally, on March 29, 1986, with a series of readings and panels at DU and the Denver Public Library focusing on Williams's work. The guest of honor drove out from Fayetteville and basked in the appreciation and opportunity to see old friends — in some cases, for the last time. A special issue of the Denver Quarterly, the literary journal that Williams had founded twenty years earlier, was devoted entirely to essays, interviews and his work.

The highlight of the issue was a long excerpt from The Sleep of Reason, a novel about war and art forgery that Williams had started after Augustus. In some respects, the new work suggested his most ambitious design to date. Although many of its scenes are set in Washington in the Watergate era, "the novel ranges in time and place from the Quattrocento to the Napoleonic invasion of Italy, and from the Berlin of the Thirties to World War II in both Italy and Burma," he noted in a grant application.

The book had its origins in a trip Williams took to Portugal with Nancy in 1976, during which he began a thinly fictional account of his own wartime misadventure of getting lost in the jungle with a small team. He abandoned the sketch after fifty pages, though. "It was too close to his own experience," Nancy says. "He said he bored himself."

Williams found a more promising approach in an article in Esquire, a memoir by an art curator who'd been captured and tortured by the Japanese and spent the next twenty years trying to come to terms with the ordeal. Williams saw the potential of the story to become an exploration of identity, the consolations of art and the aftershocks of war — what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

By 1980 he'd written a hundred pages, including some riveting scenes of the hero's capture by the Japanese. Then he went into the hospital for removal of part of a lung that turned out not to be cancerous at all. It took him months to recover from the operation. There's no indication that he ever wrote any more of The Sleep of Reason, or any other fiction, in the last decade of his life.

"He always hoped to get back to it, but cigarettes and alcohol took their toll," Nancy says. "I think that's the main reason we don't have that wonderful book."

After the move to Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas Press reissued all of his published fiction, and the university library acquired his manuscripts and papers. Williams taught one writing course there as a favor to friends but found it almost beyond his strength; at one point he asked Greenberg to take over for a week.

"What did I find? So much love from those students," Greenberg recalls. "They were from all over the country, and I asked them what they were doing in Fayetteville, and they said, 'John.'"

He stayed at home, mostly, receiving friends and watching with great interest the squirrels and birds vying for the feeder outside his office window. Every week he'd get tidied up for the arrival of the cleaning lady, a middle-aged country woman with no side that he could visit with for hours.

There was another trip to the hospital and nurses and hospice care. "He never expected to live as long as he did," Nancy says. "We said goodbye a hundred times. He'd be lying there, and it was so hard to breathe. He'd say it was almost not worth it. But I would hear that word 'almost.'"

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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.