Amelia Jewell and son, John Ed

Novelist John Williams, author of Stoner, was born John Edward Jewell in Clarksville, Texas in 1922. His mother, Amelia had not been married long to J.E. Jewell when he was either murdered, or ran off when John was still an infant. Amelia, given the position of most women of her day, had no option except to find herself another husband somehow. Here’s an excerpt from my biography The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: A Life of John Williams (Lewbowski Publishing, 2017).

Without a husband, Amelia listed herself in the Wichita Falls phone directory with “(wid)” after her name, indicating she was a widow. The suffix “(wid)” served to safeguard the reputation of an unmarried woman with a child. On the other hand, since the abbreviation was voluntary, it could also be interpreted as a kind of plea from an attractive woman possessing just a year of high school, and raising a small child alone. A studio photograph taken about that time shows Mrs. Jewell, quite lovely and dark-haired, gently balancing John Ed, a blond toddler who is demonstrating, with a slightly surprised look, that he can stand on his mother’s lap. Not long after that, Amelia received a gentleman caller— George Clinton Williams.

Ten years older than Amelia, George Williams hailed from Tyler, Texas. During the Great War he had served in the National Guard, claiming an exemption from the draft as the sole supporter of a wife and a daughter in Dallas. His people were in banking, but he had shunned the family’s expectations, preferring instead to get paid on Friday for shift work. He had driven a city bus, toted bricks in construction and picked crops. He was squat with a broad back and large hands. George proposed and Amelia accepted. For a woman not quite thirty, marriage meant a husband, a wage earner, and a father for her boy. Romance may have played a part too, but the reality is that Amelia’s options were few. Their wedding was another fresh beginning, like the kind her farmworker parents had counted on so many times in their lives.

But George, a heavy drinker, couldn’t make a go of it, not even with the Texas oil boom all around him. Several times, he and Amelia, with baby John in tow, jumped the rent in the middle of the night before the landlord came around in the morning with the sheriff. They didn’t last six months in Wichita Falls and arrived with their belongings at Grandfather Walker’s farm just as he was putting in the spring vegetables. By then, another hard-luck relative had joined the Walker household, as well: An elderly aunt who rocked all day in the parlor except to announce now and then, “Well, I believe I’ll go to the bathroom!” In May 1925, Amelia gave birth to John Ed’s sister, who was given a boy’s name, George Rae because her father would have preferred a son.

Defeat seemed to follow Amelia. When John was four, a terrible and touching image of his mother was impressed on his memory. He heard a sound coming from the hallway closet. Opening the door, he saw his mother kneeling behind a curtain of swaying coats and jackets, hiding like a child, her face in her hands, sobbing.

 

Charles J. Shields is the author of ‘John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel’ (Lewbowski Publishers, Amsterdam, 2017).