Appointment in Samara: Author John Williams’ Father Met His Death Chasing ‘Black Gold’ in Texas

 John Williams, later the author of the cult-classic Stoner was born in 1922 in the little Texas town of Clarksville. But his father, who went by “J.E.” had big ideas about getting rich in oil speculation— a gamble that led to his murder.

A few years earlier, in 1918, a gusher had erupted near the edge of the Wichita Falls city limits. Fortune-seekers stampeded the boardinghouses, willing to pay ridiculous rates. If no rooms were available, newcomers slept in shacks, tents, and in cars and trucks, deluging the local schools with bewildered children. Bank deposits increased by four hundred percent. Street corners became outdoor exchanges where buyers and sellers wrangled over real estate, water permits, and deeds to mines. Companies that existed on paper only advertised themselves with come-and-get-it names like Over the Top, Sam’s Clover Leaf, Bit Hit, and O Boy!

J.E. decided that he and his wife and infant son should follow the flood. He found an apartment in Wichita Falls and got a job selling animal feed and agricultural supplies at Miracle Coal & Feed Store.

The work was steady, but J.E. wanted a better life. The Wichita Falls Times carried classified advertisements hinting that a clever man could climb higher, like the one promising, “An opportunity to make some real money. Quick action, too. If you have a few hundred dollars in cash, see Mr. McKinney at the Morgan Bldg.” The nature of the opportunity for “real money” didn’t need explaining. You’d have to be living on the moon not to know it had to do with oil.


Everything is big in Texas, including swindles: the notorious Wichita Falls ‘skyscraper’

But with opportunities for “quick action” also came frauds, double-talk, and the old switcheroo. The get-rich game was not for the credulous. One of the biggest scams in memory had turned the Wichita Fall city fathers into a laughingstock in 1919. A property title researcher named J. D. McMahon offered to answer the demand for office space by building the first skyscraper in Texas at the corner Seventh and La Salle streets. Local investors envisioned a business beehive, a tower of ringing phones and tickertape machines opposite the prestigious St. James Hotel. After eagerly inspecting the blueprints, they raised the equivalent of $2.7 million to build it. But the completed Newby-McMahon Building, though handsomely portioned, was only forty feet high, ten feet wide and eighteen feet deep. The staircase took up a quarter of the interior. Outraged, the investors sued McMahon, only to have the judge rule against them when it was pointed out that the blueprints clearly stated that the wonder of Wichita Falls would be four-hundred-eighty inches high, not feet.

'The Curb' where million-dollar deals where made on a handshake

‘The Curb’ where million-dollar deals were made on a handshake, and lives could be ruined

According to a story told in the family, J.E. made his move one day at one of the open-air exchanges downtown where transactions consisted of handshakes, wads of cash, and contracts signed on the spot. He purchased some land located outside the city, intending to turn it around for profit by selling it to another speculator. He found a prospective buyer, showed him the property, and got paid in cash. On the way home, he stopped at a gas station to fill up. It’s said that he mentioned his good luck. If he did, it marked him as a tinhorn who talked too much, like the hapless Swede in Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” who literally bragged himself to death. A hitchhiker approached and asked for a lift into town; J.E., maybe feeling magnanimous, told him to get in. At some point during the ride, the stranger stuck a gun in his ribs, forced him to pull over, and killed him. A roll of bills that had already changed hands once that day ended up in still another man’s pocket. The murderer continued off into the wilderness on foot.

His son John Williams, had no illusions about the silliness of Western movies about cowboys and Indians. The West, especially the Old West, could be in-the-bone mean. And in Butcher’s Crossing— published in 1959 before novels by Cormac McCarthy’s— he proved just that.

Charles J. Shields’ biography, John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be available in 2017 from Lebowski Publisher in the Netherlands.


The Split Decision that Nearly Wrecked the National Book Awards: Novelists from Two Schools Both Win

On April 11, 1973, the New York Times carried a story about controversy in the book world. “In an unprecedented display of public disagreement, the 1973 National Book Award judges announced yesterday that they had split the fiction prize between John Barth’s Chimera and John Williams’s Augustus.”

This had never happened before in the organization’s twenty-four-year existence. But lately, nothing seemed immune from dissent. The week before the announcement, the Saturday Review had predicted that literary politics would decide the fiction prize because the judges fell into two camps: postmodernists (literary critic and historian Leslie A. Fielder, and essayist and novelist William Gass); and traditionalists (Evan S. Connell, philosophical novelist Walker Percy, and book critic Jonathan Yardley).

John Williams

John Williams

The magazine was right about the likelihood of disagreement: the meeting was “noisy and argumentative.” The previous year, historian and journalist Garry Wills had walked out of his committee’s meeting when he refused to endorse his fellow judges’ choice of the hippie bible, The Whole Earth Catalog as the contemporary affairs winner. And now, as the judges in different categories adjourned, not only was the award for fiction split, but also the one for the best history, too. This had never happened, either.


John Barth

However, as Jonathan Yardley, a book reviewer and young courtly man from North Carolina, stepped up on the dais in the Biltmore Grand Ballroom in New York to announce the winners, he tried to convey that nothing could have been more natural than a tie. The novels, Barth’s experimental Chimera and Williams’ classically-styled Augustus were both books of “uncommon quality… similar in subject matter but which represent dissimilar approaches to the writing of fiction.” Chimera was about transforming myth into reality; Augustus brought to life the violent times of imperial Rome. Consequently, Barth and Williams would each get half the award money: $500 apiece (which wasn’t much more than each of the judges had been paid to read the books). No explanation was given as to why there were two history prizes.

The double deadlock wrecked the organization— not immediately, the big awards ceremony would still go forward— but in the coming weeks. With the publicity value of an author winning cut in half, publishers protested by withdrawing their financial support. No more free books for the judges to read, or luncheons, hotels, transportation, and all the rest of it. The National Book Committee was forced to disband, and it was not until 1975 when a caretaker administrator for the organization “begged” prospective judges not to split awards that the contest resumed.

Charles J. Shields’ John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will by published by Lebowski in the Netherlands next year.


Novelist John Williams’ Poem ‘An Old Actor’: The Artist, Late in Life, Bids Farewell to His Audience

John Williams, author of Stoner (1965) and the National Book Award-winning Augustus (1972), was like Thomas Hardy in one respect: Williams put as much effort into his poetry as his novel-writing. Below is one of Williams’ poems written late in life, inspired by his love of drama and acting as a young man. The poem is dedicated to Ford Maddox Ford because Williams admired Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and looked to it for inspiration while writing Stoner.


An Old Actor to His Audience

Ford Maddox Ford: 1873-1939

Sirs, I address you out of age, my voice

Gone slack and hoarse, who stood before you once

With some grace and carriage. Ah, time…

The face that once was marble now

Is flesh. Motion is impure, and we

Must move, although we break. The voice that was

Your master is your servant now, reminding you

Of its ancient art that once cast up

A substance that could move you out of time,

Our mortal blemish. And you— the wise and foolish

Who listen to an old man’s wheezing voice—

Suffered your destruction like a pleasure

Scarcely to be borne, desiring to be deceived

Out of the falsehood of your time and place.

But now I am old, am old, and suppliant

To your most gracious whim. We are the relics

Of our ruined past— although I see you now

As if you were not changed, as if you were

As I created you once long ago

Out of the pride and arrogance

Of my spent youth. To whom do I speak, if not

Myself? If not my own, whose faces stare

At me? Had you given me laurel once,

I would have worn it most carelessly

And spoken my echoing lines in its despite.

But now this pate is bald; bald pates have need

Of bay, for warmth and show. I ask

Your kindness now, and ask forbearance of

These loosening years; they make men foolish,

Who were never wise. I stand before you,

Stripped of years, a beggar.

And yet a supplicant,

I would remind you, who has given service

To you all. Out of these creaking boards

I once created worlds that you could not conceive

And peopled them with what you might have been,

Showing a fairer image of yourself

Than you would dare to dream, and given you

Some instant plucked from time that was your own.

From your deep heart’s most lonely need, I have

Dissembled shadows that became your selves

And let them stroll as if they were alive

In the Roman ruins of your northern fields.

John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be published by Lewbowski in the Netherlands in 2017.


Look for the Bucksnort Tavern— Near It is the Cabin Where Novelist John Williams Wrote ‘Augustus’

Follow the road into a cleft in the rocks made by the Little Elk Creek and you’ll reach Sphinx Park, Colorado where novelist John Williams owned a cabin he used for writing.

It’s easy to miss the turn that takes you up to Sphinx Park, an hour west of Denver, because first you have to go into the dog-eared town of Pine. If you get as far as Zoka’s restaurant, turn around — you’ve gone too far. Go back and take a hard right by the Pine Library (open 1 – 3 pm). You might think you’re pulling into a kind of dusty alley, but that’s the beginning of the road— keep going. Within a few minutes, you’ll begin seeing houses and cabins clinging to the rock faces high above, on both sides, and if it weren’t for the wide creek bubbling along beside you, you’d get the impression that you’re heading into a real tight spot where you won’t be able to turn around.

But keep going…

The Bucksnort Tavern

The Bucksnort Tavern

You’ll be able to turn around outside the Bucksnort Tavern— a favorite of bikers, families on vacation, and where Williams used to drink Coors beer (his brand), while smoking a cigarette and making small talk, just to interrupt the loneliness of writing.

Williams, a professor of English at the University of Denver began coming up to Sphinx Park in 1960s. He rented a place for fishing trips, sometimes bringing his son Jonathan. Then after the publication Stoner in 1965, he purchased a cabin for longer stays. “There was a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom,” Jonathan says, “and then there was kind of a porch along the whole thing, and then there’s two storage rooms, kind of a split-level. But you only lived on one level. You’d walk into the kitchen, then go to the living room and then there would be a back bedroom. And then on the very back of that, along the whole thing was a porch— built-in porch. And that’s where he did most of the writing.”

A cabin in Sphinx Park

A cabin in Sphinx Park

By then Williams was at work on Augustus, which covers the life of the Roman emperor, youth until death, through a series of letters and journal entries written by figures of the time: Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Strabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Augustus’s daughter Julia. The structure Williams was giving the novel he called “webbed… [it will] not be straightforwardly chronological, but will cut back and forth in time, getting at Augustus’s character from many different angles and points of view.”

He took the fall quarter off in 1967 from the University of Denver to work on the novel for days at a time. And as autumn turned to winter, he could imagine from the windows of the porch that the deep, snow-covered conifer forests cleaving to the slopes were the tree-covered Alban Hills south of Rome, or the Teutoburg Forest where the Gauls lay in ambush for the brutal commander Varus and his legions!

In 1973, Augustus won the National Book Award for fiction, splitting it with John Barth’s Chimera— a first in that category, which nearly put an end to the judging all together. But that’s another story.

John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Prefect Novel will be published by Lebowski in the Netherlands in 2017.

What a Town Without Pity Can Do

When I was researching the biography of Kurt Vonnegut, one of my stops was Northampton, Massachusetts where he lived for a time after his second wife, Jill Krementz, kicked him out. Smith College is there and the campus is militantly feminist and lesbian. Young women actually glared at me. My sin was being a white male.

Anyway, as I was leaving, I got into a fender bender with a young woman who was desperate to pick a fight. As we waited for the cop to make his report, she said to me, “What are you? Some kind of business man?”

Paraphrasing Vonnegut, I said, “I’m a lipstick salesman and I’m dyin’ in this town.”


The Last of the ‘Good Guys’ and the Overthrow of John Ciardi at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference

As long as poet John Ciardi was in charge of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the 1960s, John Williams and a dozen other regulars— almost entirely white male writers and poets—   had a pleasant gig to look forward to in Middlebury, Vermont every summer.

But then the counterculture caught up with Ciardi and his happy crew and a putsch by younger staff changed everything.

Ciardi had attended Bread Loaf before World War II and almost every year thereafter beginning in 1947, making him “the conferences anchor in teaching poetry as surely as his deep baritone found a place in the evening sing-alongs,” wrote Howard Bain in his history of Bread Loaf, Whose Woods Are These? Ciardi’s weakness however was an “utter (sometimes dismaying) lack of modesty” about his financial success, despite coming from a poor Italian neighborhood in Boston’s North End neighborhood. Now the poetry editor of the Saturday Review and host of Accent, a weekly television magazine program, his proudest possession— the first poet in America to own one, he said— was a pink Cadillac DeVille, parked outside the Bread Loaf Inn.


The 1970 staff of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Standing (left to right): Galway Kinnell, Judith Ciardi, Perry Knowlton, Miller Williams, Dan Wakefield, Sandy Martin, Harry Crews. Middle: John Frederick Nims, Maxine Kumin, William Sloane, John Ciardi, Joanna Foster. Front: John Williams, Shane Stevens. Photo by Alan Caruba.

Ciardi handpicked his faculty. He had definite ideas about who belonged at Bread Loaf: primarily middle-aged white males who were part of the literary establishment and given toGood Guys looking like Oxford dons with sports jackets and briar pipes. And among them was a subset of staffers who called themselves the Good Guys—  John Williams and fellow novelists Dan Wakefield and Harry Crews; poets Maxine Kumin, Miller Williams, and Robert Pack; and magazine journalist Brock Brower. They were a hard drinking clique and not everyone looked kindly on their revels, although the Beatnik-bohemian atmosphere at the conference had been growing stronger since the early 1960s.

The “torrid romance of 1963” was between forty-one-year-old novelist John Hawkes and twenty-eight-year-old Joan Didion, who had come to Bread Loaf on a fellowship. “‘They were like tragic teenagers,’ observed one Bread Loafer. ‘Two weeks left to live!’— before they had to go back to their respective lives.” A staff member suffered a nervous breakdown during Ciardi’s tenure as director. “God did not intend for all those writers to gather in one place at one time,” he warned from his hospital bed.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

By August 1968, Bread Loaf crackled with tension and dissent. The earlier part of the year had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; civil rights demonstrations overlapped with anti-Vietnam War protests. The little summer camp for writing was not immune to feelings of restless and impatience with authority. There was also a change in belief about fiction writing among young attendees coming to Bread Loaf.

Three weeks before the start of the 1968 conference, Williams had received a memo addressed to the staff from William Sloane in which he tried to prepare instructors for a change of attitude among their students. Beginning the conference with “the old [Bernard] De Voto approach” of delivering a lecture about theory, “no longer impresses the young who approach writing with the belief that the reader owes them a hearing and that the reader is supposed to absorb the story or the material in such a manner and way as the artistic sensibilities of the writer determine.” In other words, the reader should have to work harder to understand the author’s meaning, instead of the author trying to court or please the reader.

John Williams author photo credit, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries

John Williams. Photo from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries.

John Williams believed he knew exactly what the problem was, looking back. “Anyone who could afford a ballpoint pen or a typewriter was allowed to think of himself as a poet or a novelist; talent and craft were suspect, more often than not described as ‘elitist,’ a curse-word of the period; and literacy was thought by many to be a species of corruption, a loss of innocence or a kind of damnation.” Schooled as he was in New Criticism, which emphasized the formal properties of literature, the idea that self-expression automatically deserved respect, regardless of its merits, was absolutely anathema to him.

However, he was right that the term “elitist” was being used to object to many things perceived as undemocratic at the conference, including how the staff and attendees were treated as separate but equal. Complaints were lodged with Ciardi over delaying dinner until the staffers were ready to arrive from cocktails at Treman Cottage, and then they were seated at their own “high table.” Why were cliques tolerated? A reference perhaps to the Good Guys and their privileges.

Ciardi, in his sonorous, baritone voice— like a captain in command speaking to a wayward crew— made it plain he didn’t want to hear any more grumbling about differences in rank. In a photograph taken in 1970, Ciardi— large, graying, bespectacled— is seen arguing with a longhaired young man who looks resentful. The issue could have been the war in Vietnam, but actually there was no one on the faculty who was defending it. Instead, the “rabble-rousing,” as Ciardi called it, stemmed from differences of opinion about the relationship between politics and art, and the responsibility of an artist during an unjust war.

When the axe finally fell on Ciardi as director of the conference, there was an air of inevitability about it. Complaints from attendees and a few younger instructors continued to reach the Middlebury College administration. Defiantly, Ciardi typed a letter of resignation and submitted it, undated, to the president of the Middlebury, adding, “When you want it to be time, just fill in the date and I’ll be gone.” It was time. The president called his bluff and accepted his resignation. Ciardi would be given the 1972 session as his last to run.

The person long expected to take over one day was Miller Williams, who “with his beard and glowing eyes beneath a shiny scalp looked as much like a poet as he did a necromancer.” But the line of succession had faltered during a bibulous dinner among the Good Guys. Miller drank too much on top of pain pills he was taking for his back, and wandered alone into the cavernous Vermont woods at night. Hours passed, and the police were called. The episode ruined his chances of taking over the helm.

The new director would be Robert Pack, instead. Even though he was one of the Good Guys, Pack was determined to recruit fresh blood. The criteria for choosing the staff would not depend on personal friendship or amiability, or how long they had been “up on the hill.” They would have to be good teachers and demonstrate respect for beginning writers, both published and unpublished.

John Williams had the requisite qualifications. “I was very fond of John,” Pack said. “He was a good teacher, a good raconteur and charming, but he had a drinking problem.” And that was the deciding factor— he was not among those invited back after 1972 for what would have been his seventh year.

John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be published by Lebowski in the Netherlands in 2017.



Kurt Vonnegut and His Super-Duper Atomic Bowtie

Mark Vonnegut has said that the father he knew growing up wasn’t a famous author. He was a family man, a struggling freelance writer, who couldn’t get a job teaching English at the local community community college. And that’s not to mention his father’s disasterous foray into selling SAAB automobiles on Cape Cod, either— another of Kurt’s attempts to make money.

For almost twenty years before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, Vonnegut was broke most of the time. (Someone claiming to be his newsboy told me he was somehow never around at the end of the month to pay for delivery.)

The poignancy of how success and the comfort of money eluded him year after year can be summed up in a tale, here told for the first time: Kurt Vonnegut’s idea for an atomic bowtie (alas, another anecdote that didn’t make final draft of his biography). In 1950, Vonnegut was sure that a bowtie polka-dotted with the symbol for nuclear energy would be a big seller and bring him money he so desperately needed to keep writing and supporting his family.

Science to the rescue!

You might be tempted to scoff at the idea as unworthy of a writer who would later became famous for his earth-friendly pronouncements. “We could have saved the earth,” he fumed later in life, “but we were too damned cheap.” In 1950, however, like most Americans, Vonnegut was simultaneously awe-struck, intrigued and darkly humorous about anything atomic. To appreciate how that could be, you have to put on a pair of Eisenhower-era X-Ray Specs (if only they really worked!), as biographers often try to do, and peer into the past.

By the the mid-twentieth century, Americans had waded through the muck of the Great Depression and then World War II. In the early Fifties, a desire to be done with self-sacrifice and world war released a sense of fantastic acceleration. The word “super” captured the feeling of technology coupled with a better life.

“Super” suggested “modern,” “unstoppable” and somehow even “uniquely American.” New super highways tempted drivers to streak coast-to-coast in a matter of days. Supermarkets groaned with food choices while parts of the world were near-starvation; the United States became the first uncontested superpower; and when jets penetrated the invisible barrier of sound with a thunderous crack, Americans learned to say “supersonic.”

In fact, no development could have been more emblematic of this giddy and anxious era than the atomic bomb, the ripping apart of matter itself.

The atomic bomb had been dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force a Japanese surrender in 1945. Then in July 1946 the United States exploded two more at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, primarily as a warning to the Soviet Union to back-off. The word “atomic” became synonymous with supernatural, frightening, thrilling, and yet a full-bore, world-wide demonstration of American strength and know-how.

Popular culture and business tried to cash-in on the excitement. During the five years afteratomic-toy Hiroshima, a dozen songs on the radio used “atom” or “atomic” in the title including, “Jesus Hit Like the Atomic Bomb.” Toy manufacturers hustled to get plastic and tin atomic cannons, robots, guns, and submarines— many of them made in Japan— on department store shelves.

Vonnegut’s idea of selling bow ties occurred to him suddenly, judging from his correspondence. The inspiration came from noticing the ribbon used to mark off “hot areas” in radioactive sites. He got a few feet of it, priced out the cost (fifty cents apiece), made a sample bowtie, and mailed it to his friend from college, S. Miller Harris, whose family owned Eagle Shirt Company.

Quality, he assured Harris, wouldn’t be a concern— it wasn’t supposed to be a sartorial statement, just a fad. He sketched out a publicity campaign, calling into play his skills as a former public relations writer for General Electric.

First, they would give one of the bowties to every member of the Atomic Energy Commission (perfect photo op); then they would get a Hollywood high school cheerleading team to choose the teen idol they’d most like to be in a nuclear reactor with. They would send the heartthrob who won the vote a bowtie and take a picture of him wearing it, surrounded by the star-stuck girls. It would be called the Bobby Soxer Oscar.

Harris, who’s family had been in the shirt business for a long time, took a pass on the idea. Kurt dropped it too after that, but like Jimmy Durante said about his jokes, when it came to brainstorms, Vonnegut “had a million of ‘em.”

Fortunately, he put them in his fiction instead of trying to sell them, but the big payoff was a long time coming.