Saturday, November 03, 2018

By a substantially good writer …

… A Substantially Good Book: On Charles J. Shields’s Life of John Williams - Los Angeles Review of Books. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

One of those high-low moments came for John Williams the day after the publication of Augustus, his epistolary novel of Ancient Rome. That morning he took a seat in the English Department lounge at Denver University, where he taught for more than 30 years, hoping to receive some admiration from his colleagues. And who could blame him? The novel had taken him seven years to complete, and The New York Times had just ran a rave review. But, as was the case with his earlier work, Williams sat all day waiting without anyone saying a word of praise to him about his recent success. Williams, who died in 1994, would never experience the kind of fame he dreamed about all his life. It was only after the resurgence of Stoner this past decade that he would find a prominent place in American letters as a forgotten master.


  1. Really? Accounts I have read say that many graduate students greatly admired Williams. The chairman of the department when I became aware of it, say late 1974, was a man of consistent, rather Southern, courtesy: I cannot imagine him snubbing even an enemy to that extent. (And what head of department would not see the value of having a professor with a National Book Award?)

  2. I wondered about that as well. But it seems at the time he was still teaching at the University of Denver. So maybe that explains it.

    1. John Williams taught at the University of Denver for many years--the "Denver University" of the review is a mistake, more pardonable I guess in that everybody calls it DU.

      Williams seems to have been very good at making enemies. A friend who took a class from him disliked him. But the one time I met him, over beer at a Stammtisch a couple of young philosophy instructors held on Friday afternoons, Williams was cordial and interesting to talk to.

  3. Sometimes students are not the best judges of teachers. When I was a freshman at St. Joe's many decades ago, my fellow freshman and I were warned that, because of the class we were in, we were sure, when we were seniors, to get the chairman of the department as our theology teacher, who was said to be especially tough. Turned out we did get him, and it turned out that most of us loved him. He wasn't tough at all, just very good, reasonably demanding, and very interesting (also very funny).