As we (or, at least, I) eagerly anticipate reading Charles J. Shields’ recently published The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel, the first biography of John Williams, it seems a propitious time to provide a brief précis of his major work; for Williams is the greatest American novelist you’ve never heard of.
What qualifications do I have for writing such a précis? None, really. I am not an English teacher, a professional literary critic, or a novelist. I am, instead, a devotee, having been an evangelist for Williams for several years. But this, perhaps, is just the sort of booster Williams would have wanted. As he said in an interview recounted in Ploughshares in 1981,
I write for the reader, more than I write for myself. The reader who puts down ten or twelve bucks for a book–really much more than that now–deserves some respect and consideration. We’re arrogant about this, and people are more intelligent than we think they are. The so-called ‘common reader’ is sometimes an ‘un-common reader’ and can click in and understand and like things more than most of us think they can.
Or, as Williams said on another occasion, “[T]o read without joy is stupid.” I consider myself, then, one of Williams’ “common readers”—one who stumbled across his works more or less by accident, thanks to the indispensable work of republication carried on by NYRB Classics; one who finds those works to be weighty meditations on human life and human suffering; and one who, besides all that, takes a low-grade hedonistic delight in Williams’ exquisitely understated prose.
Williams (1922-1994), who was born in Texas and died in Arkansas, taught creative writing at the University of Denver for three decades, where he had also received his B.A. and M.A. (his Ph.D. was from the University of Missouri, the setting for Stoner, his penultimate—and, in my view, best—novel). In addition to two volumes of poetry, Williams, all told, wrote only four novels, though his first, Nothing but the Night (1948), he later orphaned, repudiating the book for its perceived failures of immaturity. (Nevertheless, NYRB Classics has just reissued the book this month, and The Paris Review recently excerpted a fascinating interview with Williams’ widow from the back matter included in the new edition.) All are different in time-period and subject; and though they share significant thematic and ethical overlap, as well as an element of autobiography broadly construed, it is nevertheless remarkable that they all come from the same hand. Williams’ novels are works of penetrating, and uneasy, moral gravity, in some ways making him a man untimely born vis-à-vis the literary milieu in the 1960s and early 1970s. Already in 1974 Rexford Stamper had written in Mississippi Review that “John Williams is an anachronism, a significant contemporary novelist writing novels of high moral seriousness,” leading Stamper to place him in the company of George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad rather than in the company of his contemporaries.
Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Williams’ second novel (but the first he would claim) is about the American West in the second half of the nineteenth century. I would call it a “Western” (and it usually is so called) but for the fact that he refused on principle to have the words “A Western” printed on the book’s cover, thus losing an opportunity to have it published in paperback and therefore to reap the rewards that might have come from the novel’s wider availability. In Williams’ view, the book had little to do with the gunslingers of the world of, say, Louis L’Amour, and once one has read Butcher’s Crossing it is easy to see that it would have made little sense to class it with such books as though it belonged with them, despite the superficial similarities it shares with pulp Westerns.
Instead, the novel is about a young man named Will Andrews, the son of a lay Unitarian minister in Massachusetts, who, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, drops out of Harvard to go see the idealized West of the New England Transcendentalists. Williams describes his transformation thus:
Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King’s Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained. Through the trees and across the rolling landscape, he had been able to see a hint of the distant horizon to the west; and there, for an instant, he had beheld somewhat as beautiful as his own undiscovered nature.
With a zeal for “undiscovered nature”–both that of himself and of the still pristine continent–Andrews strikes out west, and arrives in the town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas.
There he joins a crew to hunt buffalo right at the end of the period in which American hunters were driving that animal to extinction. The small group is nearly snuffed from existence to a man when caught in a Colorado snowstorm, which they could have avoided if not for their greed for more hides–or, more precisely, if not for the greed of Miller, the leader of their hunting party and an emblem of the unconscious and animal side of man. Here is how Williams renders Andrews’ view of Miller as he becomes drunk with slaughter:
During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that toiled darkly within him–he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself.
This is a matter of principle for Miller; he later says of the buffalo, “You think about what they’re going to do, and you get yourself in trouble; all a man can do is not think about them, just plow into them, kill them when he can, and not try to figure anything out.” The last clause is a succinct summary of his philosophy of life.
Needless to say, Will’s (his name is not without significance: it is both an echo of Williams’ own name and a reminder that man’s will, be it over so strong, is often powerless in the face of nature) starry-eyed Transcendentalism does not survive this journey in any sort of straightforward way, and for a time Will becomes the absence of will, “an automaton” (Williams uses the moniker again) like Miller. Nature can be a harsh mistress, and might not want any harmony with man. If man is a transparent eyeball, nature might be just as happy to blind it with snow-glare as to illuminate it with insight—indeed, in the novel, that truth about nature is the insight. (The example I give is not fortuitous: the novel’s main character suffers just such a temporary blindness and, as Jack Brenner pointed out 45 years ago in Western American Literature, we are meant to think sardonically of Emerson: “[T]he incident is a solid symbolic hit at Emerson’s metaphor of the transparent eyeball. Those vast currents of being are dangerous, far more so than Emerson’s safe sense of mud puddles would allow.”)
Far from being no more than a tale about Western gunslingers, then, Butcher’s Crossing is a surprisingly philosophical novel, raising important questions about whether, and in what ways, man is a political animal—whether he needs civilization (and not, as Will initially posits, the state of nature) to preserve his humanity. Or, put another way, is civilization man’s true state of nature? The book raises other questions as well. For instance, it compels the reader to consider the extent to which man can exercise control over his natural environment, and to wonder at what point it becomes inevitable that nature will bite back. Nicholas Lezard has recently comparedButcher’s Crossing favorably (and correctly) to the Westerns of Cormac McCarthy: where McCarthy “overwrites horribly,” Williams “has produced something timeless and great.”
Williams’ third novel, Stoner (1965), is the academic novel par excellence, drawing frequent comparisons to Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. But, although it deals with an academic life, to call it an “academic novel” is misleading and unduly limits the scope of what the book is about. For Stoner is really more a prose portrait of what W.H. Auden means when he says, of Yeats, “Sing of human unsuccess / In a rapture of distress.”
The novel’s main character, once again named “William,” comes from nothing, in terms of money, opportunity, literature, learning, and the arts. His parents are taciturn subsistence farmers in rural Missouri who send their only son to college because the new agriculture school is sold to them by a “county agent” who promises the education will benefit the family business. That is to say, as farming becomes more complicated due to changing environmental factors, William is to learn the science of the soil in order to better aid his parents in scraping out a living.
But in his sophomore year, Stoner has to take a required survey of English literature. One day in class, his professor, Archer Sloane, recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”) and asks Stoner what it means. Sloane says, “Mr. Shakespeare speaks to you across three hundred years, Mr. Stoner; do you hear him?…What does he say to you, Mr. Stoner? What does his sonnet mean?” Stoner can only reply, “It means…It means,” and cannot finish. But something changes in Stoner at that moment, and it requires a re-ordering of his entire life. He decides to study literature and, foregoing service in World War I, he eventually determines to stay on at Missouri to pursue graduate work.
The latter is not a conclusion he has come to on his own. Instead, the same Professor Sloane whom he had previously disappointed by not being able to speak intelligently about Shakespeare (but compare what Williams has said earlier about Sloane himself: he taught “as if he perceived between his knowledge and what he could say a gulf so profound that he would make no effort to close it”) serves as midwife to Stoner’s realization of what his vocation must be. Near the end of his days as an undergraduate, Sloane calls Stoner, not only uncertain of his future but not even bothering to contemplate it at all, to his office and has him sit down. As Stoner articulates for the first time that he has no wish to return to his parents’ farm, the following exchange ensues:
“But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”
And it really is, for Stoner, as simple as that, despite life’s complications that follow. These include a failed marriage; a failed relationship with his daughter Grace, his only child, because of the scheming of her mother; a failed affair, the commencement of which was already a moral failure, though neither writer nor character seems to realize it as such and though it was borne of a desperation for human closeness stemming from his wife’s rejection and her refusal to allow Stoner to spend time with his child; and a failed career: Stoner writes one book that no one reads and is never promoted higher than assistant professor.
And in fact, life’s incessant filibustering of Stoner’s aspirations is made clear in the novel’s first paragraph: “He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library”—no doubt as a thoughtless and perfunctory exercise, like the gift of a wristwatch of middling quality on the occasion of one’s retirement. (There was to be a parallel in Williams’ own life two decades later: when he offered his papers to the University of Denver, where he had been a student and had taught since 1955, they said no.)
Was Stoner a failure, then? Dave Masters, one of his only friends in the book—if that’s the right word, and Williams notes that it really isn’t—tells him, while he is still a graduate student, that he is. Late on a Friday evening, during the weekly beer-swilling gathering of Masters, Stoner, and another acquaintance named Gordon Finch, Masters raises the question of “the true nature of the University.” For Masters, it is not for the dispassionate pursuit of truth or the cultivation of wisdom. It is a kind of sanitarium for those too feckless or out of step with the world—“like sweet bells jangled out of tune,” as Shakespeare’s Ophelia says—to succeed. Masters nonchalantly remarks to Stoner,
You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.
There is a superficial sense in which this is true: Masters is right that Stoner has no place else to go. And even within the University Stoner gets chewed up and spit out in any number of ways. But there is a deeper, and more significant, sense in which it is decidedly not true. For Stoner maintains a quiet dignity until the very end of his very unremarkable life, unswervingly dedicated to his students and his vocation, a vocation at once scholarly and pedagogical, both finding meaning in it and imparting that meaning–that love–to others as best he can by his own lights. Williams himself hoped that Stoner would be interpreted this way. In an essay of 1973, he describes Stoner as one
who out of one of those mysterious accidents of character and fate…became a teacher;…whose lifelong dedication was to his work, which he thought to be important; and who died, a failure in the eyes of the world but not in his own nor (I would hope) those of the reader.
Though the book only sold 2000 copies when it was published, critics since then seem to agree. Morris Dickstein, in a 2007 essay in the New York Times, commented that “John Williams’ ‘Stoner’ is something rarer than a great novel–it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”
So ubiquitous has that description become in advertisements for Stoner—it even provides the inspiration for the title of Shields’ book—that one might be tempted not to linger over it. Predictably, too, some critics have demurred from Dickstein’s description. But if his characterization is overstated, it is not, in my view, overstated by much; for the book is a miracle. The first time I read it it did, indeed, take my breath away, and left me in stunned silence.
And I am not the only one to find reading Stoner an emotionally taxing experience. In a 2010 “Revaluation” in The Sewanee Review, Mel Livatino claimed that, over five decades of reading fiction, he had “never encountered a more powerful novel—and not a syllable of it sentimental.” And yet, precisely because of its utter lack of sentimentality, it is wrenching; Livatino himself first learned of the book “through the tears of a rigorous literary critic,” a former teacher of his, who was left speechless by Stoner and “could only bring himself to say, ‘I hope you’ll read this novel.’” After reading it a fourth time, Livatino thought he may not read it a fifth time, “for I am not sure I can endure Stoner’s sorrow again.” Julian Barnes, writing in The Guardian, specifies more closely why the novel strikes so near to the human center, with a sadness “of its own particular kind. It is not, say, the operatic sadness of The Good Soldier, or the grindingly sociological sadness of New Grub Street. It feels a purer, less literary kind, closer to life’s true sadness.”
Williams’ final novel (he worked for years on another, The Sleep of Reason; he never completed it, though a couple of excerpts were published), Augustus, makes fewer demands on the emotions, but it is no less powerful—or not much less, at any rate—in its fashion. It is also the only work for which Williams received widespread critical acclaim in his lifetime, sharing the National Book Award for it in 1973 with John Barth’s Chimera. In terms of genre Augustus is a “historical novel,” a book about the life of Rome’s first emperor. The designation “historical novel” often means “not literary,” but that is not the case here: once again, Williams has written what seems to be a genre novel that transcends by several orders of magnitude the typical bounds of genre novels. And like his other works, Augustus again shows Williams’ attention to detail, to perfectly calibrated style. In this respect it stands in the tradition of literary renderings of antiquity as represented by such books as Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian and Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March.
Like both of the novels just mentioned, Augustus is an epistolary novel, though not in a narrow sense: it also includes purportedly original documents in the form of diaries and autobiographical fragments, for instance. (Incidentally, the imaginative reconstruction of the ancient world seems to exert a magnetic pull toward first-person accounts drawn from lost sources: for instance, Robert Harris’ wonderful trilogy of Cicero novels claims to be the account written by Cicero’s slave and secretary Tiro; Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, on the Battle of Thermopylae, claims to be the transcripts of interviews with the fictitious Greek soldier Xeones, who, it is alleged, survived the battle only to be captured by the Persians. It is an interesting question why this regularly seems the best way to write of Greece and Rome in a compelling manner.)
Like Harris’ trilogy, Augustus brings the ancient world vividly to life. Indeed, one of the chief delights of historical fiction is that it enables the reader, through slowing the tempo of our ancient sources and audaciously psychologizing their characters, to imagine himself into another, and alien, time and place—to get inside it, as it were. This can occur, moreover, precisely because of the stability of the human psyche in its passions and fears regardless of changes–even radical changes–in time and place, so that the most tendentious aspect of writing first-person historical fiction is paradoxically what makes it most believable.
Like an ancient work, Augustus is divided into “Books.” Book I treats Octavius’ rise to power and is mostly of a public nature (Atia, his mother, and Cleopatra are the only women whose records are included). Book II covers his consolidation of power, his running of the Roman Empire, certain, how does one say it, domestic difficulties (particularly the “stepping out” of his daughter Julia, which ended with her exile), and the way in which public concerns impinge on private affairs such as this last. In Book II one hears the voices of women and non-political figures to a much greater extent, though it is a mistake to think of anyone in the emperor’s family as strictly “non-political,” as much as some of them might have wished to be. In Book III, we hear Octavius speak in his own voice for the first time, in a letter written just before his death to the Jewish philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus.
For a classicist like me, there are a number of treats along the way: for instance, Williams has the poet Horace say in a letter, “I wrote once that Vergil was half my soul,” a quotation of Odes 1.3.8. But the real power of the book comes, again, from its astute analysis of human nature and human failure, especially when man is confronted with a seemingly intractable world. In Book II, Julia writes of her mother Scribonia, also in exile with her, that “she goes about setting in some peculiar order a world that has never pleased her.” This concern for setting the world in order echoes what Stoner tries to do in the small sphere of his private existence, and is picked up later in Augustus by the emperor himself. As he contemplates his affection for the poets of his day, he realizes that it is due to the desire he shares with them to impose order upon chaos. Octavius writes,
The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility–which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it. The fruits of that contemplation are the discovery, or the invention, of some small principle of harmony and order that may be isolated from that disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible.
Tragically, however, Octavius is wrong about his comparison, as he recognizes at the end of his life: “I was mistaken, of course; the world is not poem.” It cannot be so easily fashioned by man and made his instrument.
What does it all mean, then? Octavius knows that everything in the sublunary sphere must eventually decay. That includes his empire: “Time will destroy Rome.” That much, to Octavius, is certain, even if all else seems to be ruled by Accident (the capitalization is his). Might this make all seem futile? Indeed, it might; but it is also a means to self-knowledge. In an echo of a passage quoted above from Stoner, Octavius says:
I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself.
One must accustom himself to the way things are, and that is a kind of victory, even if it is one that provokes a chastened rather than a triumphalistic estimate. As the Psalmist says, “[L]et me know how fleeting I am!…Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil.” Or, as Octavius’ daughter Julia says in Book II, “I came to know that loss was the condition of our living,” in what is perhaps a slightly modified reflection upon Wallace Stevens’ line in “Sunday Morning” (a poem in provocative thematic sympathy with Augustus in a number of respects) that “[d]eath is the mother of beauty,” with death here transposed into the condition not of beauty, but of our understanding. One need not accept Octavius’—and Williams’?—view of an ultimately cold and empty cosmos (as it happens, I do not) to appreciate the profundity of his characters and their disappointments, and their consequent utility for reflection on the struggle, which is universal, to come to terms with what we are, with how we belong in the world, and with why it so often seems that we do not.
Not only so, but the fact of dissolution and decay does not, for Octavius, of itself render all action meaningless or superfluous. Octavius closes his life by reflecting as follows:
The despair that I have voiced seems to me now unworthy of what I have done. Rome is not eternal; it does not matter. Rome will fall; it does not matter. The barbarian will conquer; it does not matter. There was a moment of Rome, and it will not wholly die; the barbarian will become the Rome he conquers; the language will smooth his rough tongue; the vision of what he destroys will flow in his blood. And in time that is ceaseless as this salt sea upon which I am so frailly suspended, the cost is nothing, it is less than nothing.
How tenuous are our lives, and how relentless is time. “All things pass and nothing stays,” as Plato has Heraclitus say in the Cratylus. If time renders the cost of our efforts negligible, yet the gains themselves that are made, however piecemeal, are not nothing to succeeding generations. One learns from Williams’ portrayal of Octavius, just as one learns from his portrayal of William Stoner, that we all bear responsibility to the past, and also to the future. Because he strikes such notes, Williams should be classified—again—as a profoundly moral writer. Because he does so without sermonizing or hectoring, he should not be classified as a moralistic one.
But his writing is also beautiful, in the way that Shaker furniture is beautiful. It is plain; it is spare; it is modest; but it is sturdy, and it is noble. I have quoted him at length to put these qualities on display. And if this brief essay shows the union in Williams’ prose of moral intelligence and stylistic grace, and if it thereby suffices as a vade mecum to entice others to read his novels for themselves, it will have served its purpose. Such a union all the best books have; why else would people read them? For, as Williams said, “to read without joy is stupid.”
E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.