by Barry Edelson


Realism Defined

The Novels of John Williams

If one of the hallmarks of great fiction is that it is difficult to categorize or to summarize neatly, then the novels of John Williams undeniably rise to that level of distinction. The three mature novels of this unjustly overlooked and largely forgotten American writer encompass an astonishingly broad spectrum of human experience, and in so doing display a depth of understanding that is exceedingly rare in literature. Like all truly original novelists, he does not merely depict man as he appears in nature or in his conflicts with his fellow man, but defines that appearance and those conflicts. In lucid, nearly flawless prose, Williams offers an unflinching view of humanity that stands in stark contrast to the pallid romanticism that infected much of the writing of his era, with its hollow promise of an alternative moral and material universe. He is decidedly more in the tradition of American realists like Wharton and Dreiser than Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who cast such an enormous shadow on Williams' generation of writers. In fact, he seems to have deliberately steered clear of their outsized influence. Neither sentimental nor cynical, idealistic nor hopeless, Williams' novels stare humanity squarely in the face and portray it as it is: in the great variety of its achievement and despair, and in full awareness of both its vast potential and the ultimate futility of its endeavors.

Butcher's Crossing

One would be hard pressed to think of three novels by another writer of Williams' considerable ability that are more starkly different in their settings and subject matter. The first is Butcher's Crossing, published in 1960, set nearly a century earlier in the 1870s. It is the story of four men on a buffalo hunt, told in such extraordinary detail that is at times difficult to read. Will Andrews, a young man from Boston, leaves his studies at Harvard to seek some sort of experience in the west that he can barely articulate. He is drawn to the small Kansas outpost of the book's title because of a man he remembered meeting as a boy in his father's house, the only person he knew who had been to the west. "I came out here—" he starts to explain when he arrives in Butcher's Crossing, but he cannot find the words to express what he is looking for:

"It was a feeling; it was an urge that he had to speak. But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought. It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year."

This vision does not long survive the reality. The expedition is led by an experienced hunter named Miller, and made possible by Will's money. At this time, buffalo hides were fashionable in the east and therefore highly sought, making it such a lucrative business that it nearly wiped out the great buffalo herds. The destination of the hunting party is a large, secluded valley in the Colorado Rockies that Miller once stumbled upon. Will and Miller and one other man, Schneider, ride horses while the fourth, Hoge, drives a team of oxen that pulls a large wooden cart intended to bring a bounty of hides back to Butcher's Crossing. Schneider is also an experienced hunter; he is acquainted with Miller but he is ornery and chafes at Miller's command. Hoge is a weak-minded older man, loyal to Miller who watches out for him; he functions as cook and general workhorse for the others.

The scarcity of water on the two-week trek in late summer across the flat, arid prairie nearly kills the men and the animals before they even reach the mountains. Williams' description of the barren landscape is breathtaking in its simplicity. "During the afternoon's drive he had seen no break in the flat country, neither tree, nor gully, nor rise in the land that might serve as a landmark to show Miller the way he went. They camped that night without water." At times, grown delirious from thirst, Will fixes his gaze on Miller's back as they ride, fearful of straying from the group and becoming lost on the featureless plain. By the time the mountains come into view, Will's innocence has already begun to disappear. The experience of near death has darkened his previously unsullied view of the unspoiled land.

"He raised his eyes, and followed the surface of the mountain as it jutted steeply upward. The images of the pines was lost, and the image of the denseness, and indeed even the image of the mountain itself. He saw only a deep green mat of needle and bough, which because in his gaze without identity or size, like a dry sea, frozen in a moment of calm, the billows regular and eternally still — upon which he might walk for a moment or so, only to sink as he moved upon it, slowly sink into its green mass, until he was in the very heart of the airless forest, a part of it, darkly alone."

This is as far from the idealized painted landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, or the cool majesty of Ansel Adams' photographs, as it is possible to get. There is an implicit regard for the power and beauty of the landscape, but no overlay of human emotion. The deserted plain and wall of mountains are shown in all their fury and indifference. Man's resourcefulness is his only defense against them.

The brutality of the hunt is described in excruciating detail. When they come upon the vast herds grazing on the summer grass of the high valley, Miller goes to work like a man possessed. He seems intent on killing every buffalo in his sights, shooting what seem like hundreds every day. The others work furiously to keep up with him, supplying him with ammunition and skinning the dead animals that soon litter the valley floor before they they can be picked apart by scavengers. Schneider teaches Will how to cut the hides from the hulking buffalo carcasses. Williams spares the reader no aspect of the filthy, stinking business. We share Will's initial revulsion and emerge eventually as he does, innocence washed away in blood.

Miller's obsession, untouched by greed or ambition, is their undoing. They stay too long at the high altitude of the valley, and are surprised by an early fall snowstorm that traps them for the duration of the winter. Their return journey, after months of loneliness and the daily struggle to survive, is more perilous even than their outbound one. The rivers are now swollen with winter runoff, claiming the life of one member of the party and destroying their entire summer's work. They find Butcher's Crossing a changed place; the market for buffalo hide has collapsed in their absence, so that even a successful hunt would have been profitless.

The futility of human activity is a theme that suffuses all of Williams' novels. But the overpowering truth of the book is in the pointlessness of man seeking some deeper meaning in nature. It is a direct rejection of the ethos of Faulkner's The Bear, which supposes that man loses part of his essential self when he is cut off from nature. Williams' view is more intellectually honest than Faulkner's: man is the same wherever he finds himself, capable of both compassion and cooperation on the one hand, and extreme selfishness and cruelty on the other. Butchers' Crossing is also a rebuke to the purported awakening reflected in books like Kerouac's On the Road, which came out just a few years before. Williams is too much of a realist to be taken in by the notion that man can create an alternative to existing society, one in which the depredations of his innermost nature can be magically dispelled. In so doing, Williams undercuts the aimless idealism of the 1960s before it has barely gotten started. Will's search for an immutable self is fruitless because there is no place to look for it outside of himself. Having been awakened to his own base instincts, and born witness to the raw power of a wilderness he had only worshipped from afar, he can neither return to the civilization he once knew, nor find solace in the wild. He is forced to find his own place, just as we all are. He finds that nature did not rob him of his tenderness any more than civilization had quenched his animal desires. He has come of age, not because of any lesson that nature has taught him, but by realizing that, in the intersection of nature and civilization, as represented by the town and its name, human nature reveals itself as incapable of fundamental change.


In Stoner, published in 1965, Williams presents a tableau that is as radically different from Butcher's Crossing as it is possible to imagine. It is ostenibly a novel about academic life, but, in simple but stunning prose, is actually a superlative, contemplative study of the depths of human thought and feeling. The title character, William Stoner, is an only child of a farming family in rural Missouri who goes to college to learn agriculture, but who unexpectedly discovers an abiding love of literature, which leads him instead to a career as a college professor. Stoner's upbringing is geographically and emotionally isolated, his parents taciturn to the point of agony, and his resulting social backwardness a weight that bears heavily on him throughout his life. He falls into teaching almost by accident, when the ranks of the faculty at the University of Missouri are depleted by volunteers rushing off to fight in World War I, and the English department is in need of staff. Stoner's two good friends, Gordon Finch and Dave Masters, expect him to enlist with them in the army, but he feels so remote from the world at large that he declines to join them. Masters is wiser than his years, and, in a telling conversation early in the novel, explains to them why none of them is ruthless enough to succeed outside the university, which he refers to as an "asylum":

"It's for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear. We give out the reasons, and we let a few of the ordinary ones in, those that would do in the world; but that's just protective coloration. Like the church in the Middle Ages, which didn't give a damn about the laity of even about God, we have our pretenses in order to survive."

Nonetheless, Masters goes off to war and is killed, while Finch returns and eventually becomes the dean of the college, in which capacity he remains Stoner's friend and protector throughout their careers.

Against the backdrop of his emotional deprivation, literature is a bright light, offering the possibility of luminous expression that is beyond his grasp. But from the outset, doubts overwhelm Stoner's ambitions:

"Sometimes, as he spoke to his students, it was as if he stood outside himself and observed a stranger speaking to a group assembled unwillingly; he heard his own flat voice reciting the materials he had prepared, and nothing of his own excitement came through that recitation."

While he does eventually find fulfillment in his teaching, the rest of his life is a series of profound disappointments. In his naivete, he hurriedly marries the first young woman to whom he is attracted, or even speaks to. The marriage is a disaster. His wife, Edith, is as emotionally underdeveloped as he is, and their life together devolves into an endless series of petty emotional battles which, his feelings buried in politeness, he invariably loses.

His inability to understand himself or his motivations leads to a professional conflict in the early years of his tenure which also has disastrous consequences. It has been said of academia that the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. And so, Stoner runs afoul of the incoming chairman of his department by refusing to pass a graduate student who is the chairman's protege. Bearing out his late friend Masters' attitude about the inviolable nature of the academy, he insists that the student is unfit for the classroom. He sticks to his ill-defined principles, and his reward is relegation to an inferior position in the college for many years: stripped of his graduate seminars and left to teach only freshman survey courses. He bears his unhappiness as he bears the burden of his marriage, with quiet acquiescence.

His only consolations through these long years of suffering are his daughter, Grace, and a brief but intensely happy love affair with a graduate student, Katherine. The affair succumbs to university politics, and Katherine is forced to leave in order to avoid a larger scandal. In this episode, we find that Masters' understanding of the world, which had guided Stoner through so much adversity, was in fact immature and incomplete. It never occurred to Stoner that his friend, had he lived, might have modified his opinion when confronted with actual experience. Much too late, Stoner says to Katherine at their last meeting, "So we are of the world, after all; we should have known that." As in Butcher's Crossing, the difference between the viciousness of the "outside" world and the tranquility represented by nature in the first instance, and the academy in the second, proves illusory.

Still, teaching is the only life he has ever known, and he is understandably reluctant to relinquish the illusion that it can shield him from life's misfortunes. When the Second World War intrudes upon his private world, he is much older and able to confront the loss of his friend in the first war in a way that he had not previously fathomed. Nonetheless, despite all of the ways in which he has been belittled and diminished as a colleague, husband, father and friend, he persists in holding on to the only part of his life in which he has found any fulfillment:

"He realized the futility and waste of committing one's self wholly to the irrational and dark forces that impelled the world towards its unknown end; ... Stoner withdrew a little distance to pity and love, so that he was not caught in the rushing that he observed. And as in other moments of crisis and despair, he looked again to the cautious faith that was embodied in the institution of the University."

Yet, on another level he knows perfectly well that there is no respite from the "real" world, even in the confines of the academy. Grace, whose own ill-considered marriage is ended by her husband's death in WWII, descends into a persistent unhappiness, manifested by alcoholism and the virtual abandonment of her own son. Stoner realizes that there is no refuge for her or, by extension, for himself:

"She of those rare and always lovely humans whose moral nature was so delicate that it must be nourished and cared for that it might be fulfilled. Alien to the world, it had to live where it could not be at home; avid for tenderness and quiet, it had to feed upon indifference and callousness and noise. It was a nature that, even in the strange and inimical place where it had to live, had not the savagery to fight off the brutal forces that opposed it and could only withdraw to a quietness where it was forlorn and small and gently still."


If Stoner opens a window on the petty politics of the university, Augustus thrusts us headlong into a brutal world in which political struggle is a matter of life and death. Once again, Williams sets a scene that is utterly different from those of his earlier novels, but which illuminates many of the themes of the first two. Augustus is a brilliant historical novel set during the reign of Augustus Caesar, born Octavius, told through the letters and diaries of its principal characters. It was published in 1973 and shared the National Book Award that year. As Butcher's Crossing shows man in the grip of pitiless nature, Augustus portrays him in the grip of a ruthless society. In a peculiar way, the book is reminiscent of Jane Austen, in that it weaves a social fabric of surpassing complexity, in which every action by a character is calibrated against the actions and reactions of everyone around him. The intricacies and intrigues of social intercourse swirl on every page, except that those who find themselves on the short end of an interpersonal battle in the imperial Rome of Octavius face a more serious fate than mere social disapprobation or even the loss of fortune.

The story begins with the murder of Julius Caesar and the ascension of his unlikely nephew, Octavius, who is considered too inexperienced and too frail to rule a great empire. He proves everyone wrong, displaying over the course of a long reign a level of fortitude and cunning of which few suspected him capable. He is torn from the tranquillity of his youthful studies — the academy here again a symbol of remove from the world — and finds himself engaged in an endless cycle of war, political treachery and family disturbance that occupies nearly every moment of more than 40 years of his rule. Like Stoner, Octavius gradually comes to understand the futility of his efforts. Despite his great success at quelling the internecine conflicts of his early years, and delivering to Rome a lengthy period of relative harmony and prosperity, he has little confidence in his long-term ability to hold the fractious empire and Roman civilization from coming apart at the seams. His life is consumed by the effort. He says, "I have given Rome a freedom that only I cannot enjoy."

As in Stoner, Augustus concerns itself to a large extent with the relationship of a man and his daughter, in this case that of the emperor and his beloved Julia. Her happiness, like that of Octavius himself, is sacrificed for the good of the country. She accepts her role obediently but bristles under its constraints. She is forced to marry more than once for purely political reasons, and finds contentment elusive. In the end, her rebellious behavior earns her a conviction on charges of adultery and exile on a barren island in the Mediterranean, a punishment engineered by her father to prevent an even more terrible punishment for treason.

The irony of Octavius' position is enormous: everyone near the center of the ruling elite competes to reach the pinnacle of power, while the supreme leader who sits atop the empire wishes profoundly to be rid of it. Octavius is profoundly alone. Nearly everyone around him, including his wife and close relatives, are continuously plotting against him in their own pursuit of power. There are only a few close friends in whom he can place his trust, and he eventually outlives all of them, compounding his loneliness. He is appalled by the behavior of his fellow Romans, amazed by their ability to be privately kind and loving but publicly bloodthirsty and heartless. He seeks refuge from his worldly concerns in learning, bemoans the ignorance of most of his citizens, and surrounds himself with scholars and great writers — Horace and Virgil among them — who offer him a glimpse into a more luminous vision of the world. He 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 the disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible."

But for all his appreciation of the pleasures and consolations of poetry, he remains to the end unconsoled. As Horace says of him, "He would have at once the responsibility of fame and pleasure of anonymity, a condition which is clearly impossible." For such a powerful figure, he has an uncommon understanding of the limits of his own power. Near the end of his life, he looks back ruefully upon the very efforts that ultimately estranged him from Julia and put an end to her public life:

"Thus those laws which I initiated were not intended so much to be obeyed as to be followed; I believe that there was no possibility of virtue without the idea of virtue, and no effective idea of virtue that was not encoded in the law itself.

"I was mistaken, of course; the world is not poem; and the laws did not accomplish the purpose for which they were intended."

In an encounter with an elderly woman who was his nurse as a boy, Octavius contemplates the life he might have led. The woman is accompanied by one of her sons, and tells her former charge about her other children and about her simple life in the country. Octavius tells her, "I think now I would have preferred to have had these sons, and to have lived for their honor." The woman, who loves and reveres the emperor, does not understand how the most powerful man in the world could wish to relinquish the throne to which all others aspire. We find out much later that this meeting happened on the very day that Octavius was on his way to the Forum to denounce his own daughter.

Williams the Wise

Williams is too good a writer to disregard the wisdom of his own experience. There isn't a shred of sentimentality on any page of these three novels. The ineluctable dualities of human nature — its self-regard and compassion, its ambition and surrender, its quest for dominance and love — are too present in every human thought and encounter to be wished away by fantasies of a different humanity. Whether in nature or civilization, the academy or the "real" world, embroiled in political struggles or retired to the countryside, we are, simply and unavoidably, what we are. There are precious few novels that speak so directly of man's essential nature, and explore so deeply and unreservedly what it means to live and die. One emerges from reading them with the feeling of having been enlightened by a unique vision of humanity. To write one such book is a signal achievement. To have written three is remarkable. This author is undeserving of the obscurity into which he has fallen.

July 17, 2011


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