William Humphrey (writer)
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William Humphrey (June 18, 1924 – August 20, 1997) was an American novelist, memoirist, short story writer, and author of literary sporting and nature stories. His published works, while still available in French translation, have been largely out of print until recently. Home from the Hill and The Ordways are available from LSU Press. In 2015 Open Road Media published the complete works of William Humphrey in digital form.
Of significant interest to readers of Humphrey are Wakeful Anguish, A Literary Biography of William Humphrey by Ashby Bland Crowder as well as Far From Home, Selected Letters of William Humphrey edited by Crowder; both available from Louisiana State University Press.
William Humphrey was born on 18 June 1924 to Clarence and Nell (Varley) Humphrey in Clarksville, Texas, a region that is culturally southern rather than western. His parents were poor and uneducated, and they moved from house to house because they were unable to keep up with the rent. His father eventually owned and operated an auto repair shop in Clarksville. By the 1950s Humphrey had escaped his origins: he was thought of as a member of the glittering literati of the northeast, and Vogue magazine featured him in its “gallery of international charmers among men,” along with Marlon Brando, Sir Edmund Hillary, Leonard Bernstein, and John F. Kennedy. But Humphrey thought little of such “honors” and took no opportunity to capitalize on such chances at fame. He preferred to retreat to his desk and write, thinking any recognition should come from his writing. Unlike such celebrities seeking contemporary figures as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, and despite his profound desire to be remembered for his literary contributions, Humphrey made very little effort to promote himself. John Williams, born just two years earlier in the same Texas town, experienced the same neglect as Humphrey after the initial praise of his novels. Recently, however, the New York Review press republished Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, and his reputation has soared. Perhaps a similar renaissance awaits William Humphrey.
The central event in Humphrey’s childhood was the death of his father in a car wreck when the boy was thirteen. His memoir Farther Off from Heaven, published in 1977, is a moving account of this event’s effect on him. He and his mother, Nell Varley Humphrey, moved to Dallas because there was no work for her in Clarksville. Humphrey attended Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas (perhaps at the Austin campus since his papers are archived in their library), but was never graduated. He left Texas as soon as he could.
While John Williams joined the army and fought in World War II, Humphrey failed the eye test because of color blindness, left Texas first for Chicago and then for New York City with his play Ambassador Ben in hand to see if he could become a Broadway success. This was in 1945. The play was never performed and never published. But Humphrey did begin to write stories and left New York City to find a quieter place to write in Brewster, New York. There Humphrey worked on the farm belonging to Donald Peterson, the producer and director of The Ave Maria Hour on WMCA radio. Humphrey published his first book of stories, The Last Husband and Other Stories, in 1953.
Humphrey secured a teaching post at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1949, the same year he married Dorothy Feinman Cantine, a painter of considerable talent who had a daughter, Toni. He taught at Bard until 1958, when the success of his first novel, Home from the Hill (1958), and its 1960 film adaptation gave him enough money to quit teaching and devote himself to writing full-time.
The author of thirteen books, including five novels, collections of short stories and a memoir, Humphrey's first novel, Home from the Hill, was made into an 1960 MGM film, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Robert Mitchum and Eleanor Parker. While the movie betrays the original intent of the author and Humphrey claimed never to have seen it, the sale of the movie rights eneabled the struggling Humphrey family to pursue a literary life. His second novel, The Ordways, was reviewed by the New York Times as "Funny, vivid and moving, this is a fine piece of work and a delight to read," and was compared to the writings of William Faulkner and Mark Twain. His books received high praise when they were first published, even from fellow writers. He went on to publish a dozen more books, all listed in the bibliography below. Perhaps the best of them all is The Ordways. The Ordways is a comedy: it begins with tragedy but transforms itself into an unbridled comedy as Humphrey portrays the transformation of a man stuck in the past into one who is able to embrace the future. This novel was a surprising contrast to Home from the Hill, which is a tragedy in the true Aristotelian sense.
Humphrey’s character Tom Ordway provides perspective on present-day concerns about the Southern past. It is repeatedly said that Southern soldiers fought to preserve slavery. Humphrey’s narrator in The Ordways holds, the convictions of the politicians and the documents of secession to the contrary notwithstanding, that the individual Confederate soldier “did not go to war to defend slavery, no more than his opposite on the Union side went to war to end it” (The Ordways [New York: Knopf, 1965], 40).
What did he go to war for, then? Humphrey’s narrator provides a very plausible answer:
He went because he had a taste for violence, because in it he found release and serenity, because it was the one orgiastic outlet sanctioned by his Calvinist creed and peace had raged for as long as he could stand it; because he resented any interference by outsiders, even in reforms which he was ready and even eager to make on his own, because it promised comradeship and adventure, a holiday from cotton chopping and a chance to shine, because he believed he would come through it unhurt, and most of all because his family ghosts all urged him to it. As for ideology, good or bad, he went with about as much of that in his kit bag, or awareness of any on his enemy’s side, as most soldiers go off to fight most wars. He fought not out of conviction but out of pride. . . .
(The Ordways, 40-41)
Far from being a writer irrelevant to America’s present day, Humphrey wrote fiction that struggled with one of the most prominent issues that twenty-first-century America faces—how to think about the Southern past. Humphrey’s fiction, insofar as it argues a theme, seeks to dismantle the myth of the Lost Cause. He once asserted, “I am a destroyer of myths. My whole work has shown the danger and falseness of myths . . . –-[especially] the myth of the South” (“Notes on the Orestia,” 38; MS at Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin). His fiction does indeed demonstrate that living in the Southern past is not to live at all.
Home from the Hill (1958) is Humphrey’s first and most famous novel. It is the story of the aristocratic Hunnicutt family. Captain Wade Hunnicutt, though admirable in many ways, is a philanderer; and his wife, Hannah, encourages his affairs, even picking his partners, and she unwittingly becomes the catalyst for the catastrophic undoing of the family. The love between their son Theron and Libby Halstead ends when the captain is murdered by Libby’s father: Theron disappears into the Sulphur Bottom swamp as he pursues his father’s killer. Hannah lives another fifteen years in a mental asylum. The Hunnicutt family is a holdover from the Old South; the family is fated to end in destruction for the same reason that the Old South itself was destroyed—because of a moral corruption at its core.
The novel Hostages to Fortune (1985) represents a return to the tragic mode. Humphrey’s first novel set outside the South, it portrays a man named Ben Curtis on the day he reenters life after a two-year long descent into darkness resulting from his son’s suicide. His effort to understand why his son committed suicide leads to his own attempted suicide. Richard Lipez said of this novel:
To pick up Humphrey’s extraordinary new novel is to hold an embodiment of grief in your hands. The unrelenting anguish that suffuses this story . . . is almost unbearable to behold. It is possible to get through it because the stark poetry of Humphrey’s work is enthralling (Newsweek, 9 September 1918).
All of Humphrey’s fiction, whether the mode is tragedy or comedy, portrays fictive people who become very real to the reader as they face the pain of their lives, as they either succumb to it or overcome it. In some way his characters all have to face the fact that they must live with great loss, someone or something that they value greatly. Whatever the loss, “the grieving heart grieves all alone, in unbridgeable isolation,” as he says in Farther Off from Heaven.
His last book was a collection of short stories about old age—September Song (1992). These stories convey a range of attitudes towards the challenges and sorrows of agedness. Some are humorous, others full of sorrow and suffering. But, again, the author’s eloquence justifies every story. “The Dead Languages,” which is about deafness, ends as follows: “he would have dashed himself against the rocks happily to have heard the sirens sing.”
The collection of Humphrey’s letters, Far From Home (2008), provides evidence of a man of extraordinary intelligence and wit; some of his letters provide enlightening analysis of his own works. They also display his relationship with other writers, Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Weiss, Rust Hill, and others.
Jonathan Yardley, writing in The Washington Post (issue of 5 July 1992), remarked of Humphrey:
"Minor, but interesting and admirable. It has been a long time since Humphrey has enjoyed a commercial success, but he has dedicated his life to his writing with a fidelity all too rare in a culture that encourages facile success and empty honor."
Note: The titles are listed referencing the original hard cover publishers. All are now published in digital form by Open Road Media
The Last Husband and Other Stories. New York, Morrow, 1953.
Home from the Hill. New York: Knopf, 1958.
The Ordways. New York: Knopf, 1965.
A Time and a Place. New York: Knopf, 1968.
The Spawning Run. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Proud Flesh. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Farther Off From Heaven. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Ah, Wilderness! The Frontier in American Literature. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western University Press, 1977.
My Moby Dick. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Hostages to Fortune. New York: Delacorte / Seymour Lawrence, 1984.
- Mark Royden Winchell, William Humphrey, Boise State University, Boise, 1992.
- Bert Almon, William Humphrey: Destroyer of Myths, University of North Texas Press, Denton, 1998.
- Humphrey, William, 1924-1997 William Humphrey Papers 1932-1992, n.d. (bulk 1944-1992) 28 boxes, 1 oversize box, 1 oversize folder, 9 galley folders (11.86 linear feet) Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin These materials document the family, life, and work of the American writer William Humphrey. The papers contain manuscripts and notebooks covering most of his books and short stories. Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs. English, French, and Italian.
- AskArt: Dorothy Feinman Humphrey