John Williams: Collected Novels
Daniel Mendelsohn, Editor
Library of America 2021
The Library of America has paid homage to John Williams, an American author whose works were repeatedly rejected but was ultimately recognized and awarded the National Book Award in 1973 for his book, “Augustus,” included in this collection.
The Library of America should be saluted for this timely collection, shining light on a little-known literary figure …
His two other major novels are also part of this offering, but “Augustus” is the gem. In this epistolary work, Williams relates the final days of the Roman Republic, and the beginning of the empire. From letters and journal writings by Augustus himself, his daughter Julia, and his friends and enemies, he gives an intimate view of Julius Caesar’s murder and the rise of Augustus. Williams demonstrates his writing skill in his ability to utilize his research to reveal real-life characters, and then relate their personal role in the translation of history. It’s almost like eavesdropping into a cache of letters and discovering who were the friends and foes of Augustus. The demise of Rome should be a lesson: The rich got richer, moved out of Rome to avoid paying takes, and the poorer got poorer. At the same time, Rome lacked funds to continue paying for the endless wars necessary to protect its boundaries.
Williams’s other novels in the collection are dramatically and literarily different. In the Wild West tale, “Butcher’s Crossing,” a Harvard law student wants to go on a buffalo hunt. He finances a group of three men who head off from Kansas to the Colorado Rockies. In this tragic tale, the hunters slaughter 3,000 buffalo for their hides. Williams, often accused of being wordy in his prose, extends this novel with dramatic and endless descriptions of the hunt, a winter storm and finally, the loss of many hides into a rushing river. The men plan to return for the remaining hides in the spring, except when they learn, “The bottom’s dropped out of the whole market; the hide business is finished.” Just like that, all was for nothing.
His novel “Stoner” can be described as a semi-biographical tale of Williams himself in academia, where he pursued a career as an educator. William Stoner is the son of poor Missouri farmers who enrolls at the University of Missouri in 1910 at the recommendation of a soil conservation agent. Stoner is supposed to return to enhance farming practices, but instead he falls in love with literature, and changes his major from agriculture to English. Stoner, like Willams, remains at the university where he studied and he becomes a professor of English but never quite fits in, or is academically promoted.
The Library of America should be saluted for this timely collection, shining light on a little-known literary figure whose novels gain some belated but well-deserved attention.
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