John Edward Williams (1922–94) was a novelist and professor at the University of Denver, where he founded Denver Quarterly and helped build the school’s creative writing program. He is best known for his three major novels: Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a revisionist Western set partly in Colorado Territory, which helped pave the way for so-called anti-Westerns; Stoner (1965), about an English professor in Missouri, which is often described as a “perfect novel”; and Augustus (1972), about the start of the Roman Empire, which won the National Book Award for Fiction. Never a popular success during his lifetime, Williams developed a cult following in the 2010s thanks to reprints of his novels by New York Review Books (the book-publishing arm of the New York Review of Books).
John Williams was born on August 29, 1922, to John Edward Jewell and Amelia Walker in the northeast Texas town of Clarksville. Little is known about his father; he was raised by his mother and his stepfather, George Williams, in the Wichita Falls area, where Williams worked as a post office janitor. During junior high school, John got a job at a bookstore, developed a love of reading, and became a local curiosity because of how many books he checked out of the library. After high school, however, he dropped out of a local junior college after failing freshman English, which he later claimed to have ignored in favor of extracurricular activities because he had already read most of the books. He found a job as a radio announcer and married Alyeene Bryan at age nineteen.
In 1942 Williams joined the Army Air Corps. He served in Asia for the duration of World War II, working as a radio dispatcher on treacherous flights over the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. He later told a story of being shot down over Burma and losing five of his plane’s eight-person crew, but no military records support the tale. Instead, he got malaria, worked on a novel during his downtime, and learned via letter that his wife was leaving him. The war’s violence traumatized Williams, who continued to have nightmares about it for decades afterward.
Returning to the United States in 1945, Williams moved to Key West, where he operated a radio station and tried to sell his novel to publishers. Most wanted nothing to do with the book, called Nothing but the Night, about a man who suffered an early trauma. Williams finally sold it to Alan Swallow, who operated Swallow Press in Denver. Swallow also taught creative writing at the University of Denver (DU), and in addition to publishing the novel, he convinced Williams to enroll there on the GI Bill.
Nothing but the Night attracted no attention when it was published in 1948. Williams’s studies at DU fared better. He received a BA in English in 1949 and a master’s in 1950. Under Swallow’s influence, he became a convert to the critical doctrines of Yvor Winters, who maintained that English literature had reached a peak of clarity and rationalism during the Renaissance before declining into a murky swamp of emotionalism during the Romantic period. This led Williams to disown his first novel and had a major influence on his later writing, which is known for its spare, restrained prose. During these years he had a second marriage, to Yvonne Stone, which also ended quickly.
In 1950 Williams moved to the University of Missouri for his PhD. There he wrote a novel about American bohemians in Mexico, which was rejected by nearly two dozen publishers. He also finished his dissertation on English Renaissance poet Fulke Greville in 1954. Degree in hand, he returned to Denver to take over the DU creative writing program from Swallow. Over the next three decades, he helped make the program into one of the most rigorous and well regarded in the country, basically equivalent to an English PhD program but with a piece of creative writing in place of a scholarly dissertation. In 1963 he edited a collection of English Renaissance poetry, and in 1965 he founded the literary journal Denver Quarterly.
Meanwhile, Williams embarked on a third marriage, to Avalon Smith, in the 1950s, which resulted in three children, before meeting his fourth and final wife, Nancy Gardner, in 1959. They remained married for the rest of his life.
In his three decades at DU, Williams focused on teaching during the academic year and wrote fiction in the summer. He completed three novels.
The first was Butcher’s Crossing (1960), inspired by memories of wartime violence, experiences camping around Colorado, and disappointment with existing Westerns that mostly romanticized the region. Williams rejected that romanticism in favor of irony and brutality. His version of a Western, set in the 1870s, follows a young man who drops out of Harvard, heads west, and uses his wealth to fund the last big bison hunt. The hunters get carried away, end up stranded over the winter in Colorado Territory, and return to Kansas the next year to find that bison have gone out of style and their hides are worthless. The novel received little attention upon publication, but it is now recognized—along with Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958)—as one of the first revisionist Westerns, opening up the genre for later authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry.
Williams next turned his attention to a campus novel, Stoner (1965), about a young man from a farming family who goes to the state university to study agriculture. Instead, the protagonist named Stoner learns to love literature, goes on to become an English professor, and endures a variety of personal and professional disappointments before his death. Like all of Williams’s novels, the book was a commercial failure, selling fewer than 2,000 copies in hardcover and quickly going out of print. Nevertheless, it attracted a small but devoted following, with influential critics such as Irving Howe and C. P. Snow making the case for its significance.
Stoner also earned Williams greater professional recognition in the form of invitations and grants. He started spending summers at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, and he got money from the Rockefeller Foundation to scout locations in Italy for his next novel, Augustus (1972). An epistolary novel, Augustus uses letters to recreate the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire during the life of its title character. In 1973 the book won the National Book Award for Fiction (split with John Barth), with the award citation praising the way Williams “brings to life in very human dimensions the violent times of Augustus Caesar.” The book was, as usual, a commercial failure.
Despite Williams’s novels wildly varying subject matter, critic Morris Dickstein has noted, they are united by “a similar narrative arc: a young man’s initiation, vicious male rivalries, subtler tensions between men and women, fathers and daughters, and finally a bleak sense of disappointment, even futility.”
After Augustus, Williams’s lifelong habits of heavy drinking and smoking caused his health to decline. He started another novel, called The Sleep of Reason but lacked the energy to finish it. In the late 1970s, he was diagnosed with emphysema and started using an oxygen tank. Refusing to let his condition interfere with his usual habits, Williams continued to smoke in the classroom, only now with a hit of oxygen between draws on his cigarette. In 1985 he retired from teaching. Advised to move to a lower altitude, he and his wife went first to Key West before settling in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he had some writing friends who worked at the state university. He died there on March 3, 1994, of respiratory failure.
During his life and for more than a decade after his death, Williams’s novels had a strong following within creative writing programs (thanks in part to students of his who went on to teach around the country) but otherwise received little attention. That changed in the years after New York Review Books reprinted Stoner in 2006. Popular French novelist Anna Gavalda read about the book and secured translation rights, sparking sudden interest throughout Europe. By 2011 Stoner was a best seller in France, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands; British best-seller Waterstones named it book of the year. In the United States, Williams received high critical praise and a much larger readership as New York Review Books reprinted the rest of his novels as well as his English Renaissance Poetry collection. The title of a 2018 biography of Williams, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel, captured the general tone of the rediscovery.
In 2020 the University of Denver held a conference celebrating Williams’s work. He remains the only Colorado author to win the National Book Award for Fiction.