John Edward Williams

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John Williams
John Edward Williams.jpg
Born(1922-08-29)August 29, 1922
Clarksville, Texas, US
DiedMarch 3, 1994(1994-03-03) (aged 71)
Fayetteville, Arkansas
OccupationAuthor, editor, professor
Notable worksButcher's Crossing, Stoner, Augustus
Notable awardsNational Book Award
1973 Augustus

John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 – March 3, 1994) was an American author, editor and professor. He was best known for his novels Butcher's Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and Augustus (1972)[1], which won a U.S. National Book Award.[2]


Williams was raised in northeast Texas.[1] His grandparents were farmers; his stepfather was a janitor in a post office. Despite a talent for writing and acting, Williams flunked out of a local junior college after his first year. He worked with newspapers and radio stations in the Southwest for a year, then reluctantly joined the war effort[citation needed] by enlisting in the United States Army Air Force early in 1942, spending two and a half years as a sergeant in India and Burma. During his enlistment, he wrote a draft of his first novel, which was published in 1948.[citation needed]

At the end of the war, Williams moved to Denver, Colorado, and enrolled in the University of Denver, receiving Bachelor of Arts (1949) and Master of Arts (1950) degrees. During his time at the University of Denver, his first two books were published, Nothing But the Night (1948), a novel depicting the terror and waywardness resulting from an early traumatic experience, and The Broken Landscape (1949), a collection of poetry. Upon completing his MA, Williams enrolled at the University of Missouri, teaching and working on his Ph.D. in English literature, which he obtained in 1954. In the fall of 1955, Williams returned to the University of Denver as an assistant professor, becoming director of the creative-writing program. His second novel, Butcher's Crossing (Macmillan, 1960) depicts frontier life in 1870s Kansas.[3] He edited and wrote the introduction for the anthology English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson (Doubleday) in 1963. His second book of poems, The Necessary Lie (1965), was issued by Verb Publications. He was the founding editor of the University of Denver Quarterly[1] (later Denver Quarterly), which was first issued in 1965. He remained as editor until 1970.

Williams' third novel, Stoner, the fictional tale of a University of Missouri English professor, was published by Viking Press in 1965. His fourth novel, Augustus (Viking, 1972), a rendering of the violent times of Augustus Caesar in Rome, remains in print. It shared the National Book Award for Fiction with Chimera by John Barth, the first time that award was split.[2]

Williams retired from the University of Denver in 1985 and died of respiratory failure in 1994, at home in Fayetteville, Arkansas, survived by his wife and descendants.[1] A fifth novel, The Sleep of Reason, was unfinished at the time of his death, but two lengthy excerpts were published in Ploughshares and the Denver Quarterly in 1981 and 1986, respectively.

Williams loved the study of literature. In a 1986 interview, he was asked, "And literature is written to be entertaining?" to which he replied emphatically, "Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid."[4]


Critic Morris Dickstein noted that, while Butcher's Crossing, Stoner, and Augustus are "strikingly different in subject," they "show 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."[5] Dickstein called Stoner "something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away."

In his introduction to Stoner, author John McGahern wrote, "There is entertainment of a very high order to be found in Stoner, what Williams himself describes as 'an escape into reality' as well as pain and joy. The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy."[4]

Steve Almond praises Stoner in The New York Times Magazine, writing, "I had never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution."[6]

Williams's widow Nancy Gardner discussed his war service, working methods and alcoholism 20 Feb. 2019 in the Paris Review.[7]


  • The Broken Landscape: Poems (1949)
  • The Necessary Lie (1965)
Edited Anthology
  • English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson (1963)


  1. ^ a b c d "John Williams, 71, a Novelist, Editor and Professor of English", Wolfgang Saxon, The New York Times, March 5, 1994.
  2. ^ a b c "National Book Awards – 1973". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
    (An essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog. (from Internet Archive) The Williams essay includes Augenbraum's discussion of the split award.)
  3. ^ "Butcher’s Crossing: John Williams, introduction by Michelle Latiolais". Retail sales page for NYRB Classics. New York Review Books. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
  4. ^ a b Stoner: John Williams, introduction by John McGahern". Retail sales page for NYRB Classics. New York Review Books. Retrieved 2012-03-30.
  5. ^ "The Inner Lives of Men", Morris Dickstein, The New York Times, June 17, 2007.
  6. ^ "You Should Seriously Read ‘Stoner’ Right Now", Steve Almond, The New York Times Magazine, May 9, 2014.
  7. ^

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