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  • John Williams and Stoner
  • Michael Mewshaw

No human heart changes half as fast as the fate of a writer. Even celebrated authors often suffer steep declines in reputation during their lifetime and utter oblivion after death. But there are exceptional cases, such as novelist John Williams who has emerged from obscurity and achieved posthumous acclaim and international best-sellerdom. On a recent trip from Key West, Florida, to New York to Rome to Paris and London I ran into countless readers of Williams’s third novel Stoner, now available in translation in multiple languages. The story of an academic with a harridan of a wife, a hateful child and a young mistress he honorably forsakes, the book was first published in 1965 and reissued to dithyrambic praise in 2003. Writing in the New York Times, Morris Dickstein hailed it as “a perfect novel.” Since then the encomiums and sales have kept on coming.

Whenever I mention that I knew Williams and spent two weeks with him at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, people react as if I had bunked with Elvis at Heartbreak Hotel. What was he like? they ask. What accounted for his anonymity? Why wasn’t Stoner recognized as a masterpiece during his lifetime?

The answer to these questions requires some familiarity with American literary culture of the late 60s and early 70s. And at this distance in time that’s a bit like looking at a prehistoric cave painting and trying to identify extinct flora and fauna. The Vietnam War and fevered debate about youths frolicking with drugs, sex and rock and roll dominated the political discourse, not to mention the content of many a poem and novel. This was the era of The Greening of America and other paeans to the counterculture, a time when writers were at the forefront of the march on the Pentagon.

At the age of 27 and just about to publish my first book, Man in Motion, a road novel in the vein of Easy Rider, I was invited to the 1970 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a Fellow, a status that set one apart from the paying clientele and allowed one to socialize with staff members. Founded in 1926, always under the sway of Robert Frost, first in the flesh, then in rustic spirit, it was the oldest conference of its kind in the United States. Compared to it Hay-on-Wye is a raw adolescent. [End Page 17] I showed up in the bucolic mountains of Vermont with sideburns down to my shoulder pads, a bristling moustache fit for a revolutionary and bellbottom jeans macramé with butterflies on the knees.

Although envied by the unanointed, we Fellows floated in an ether of anxiety as each of us waited to give a public reading from his work and to be assigned to an established author who would serve as a one-on-one tutor. I had hoped to be apprenticed to Harry Crews, an infamous hell raiser from Bacon, Georgia, who had a quote from E.E. Cummings tattooed on his arm. “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?” My second choice was Dan Wakefield whose audacious best-seller Going All the Way had splashed his picture over the pages of every slick magazine. Instead, I wound up with John Williams, a novelist I had then neither read nor heard of.

Almost as old as my father, Williams might have been described as out of step with the times—if, that is, I had ever seen him on his feet and stepping in any direction. Amid the frantic dancing and frenetic drinking, he was a rare still figure, a small man with horn-rimmed glasses and a melancholy goatee. As if in a last-ditch misdirected attempt to establish his bohemian credentials he sported an ascot, a gesture more likely to produce jeers than a sense of belonging. Was it any wonder why he and his work had been shunted into the shadows? How could this shy nondescript author compete with Mailer’s bravado, Tom Wolfe’s white suits and spats or Philip Roth’s bible of masturbation? A restrained, realistic academic novel like Stoner, no...


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pp. 17-20
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