Back John Williams, “The ‘Western’: Definition of the Myth”

John Williams (1922–1994)
From John Williams: Collected Novels

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866). Oil on canvas by American artist Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902). (Wikimedia Commons)

The novelist John Edward Williams was born 100 years ago, on August 29, 1922.

During the last two decades, his posthumous reputation has skyrocketed, and his three great novels — Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing, and the National Book Award–winning Augustus — have received the kind of attention and readership Williams never experienced in his lifetime. Stoner alone has sold more than three million copies in America and Europe since its reissue by New York Review Books in 2003.

Williams published his debut novel, Nothing But the Night, six years before he became an instructor at the University of Denver, but he always urged colleagues and students to ignore the book. “Please don’t read it,” he told interviewer Dan Wakefield in 1981. “Well, it’s not that bad, but I’ve read many, many better first novels.”

The first of Williams’s masterpieces, Butcher’s Crossing, was published in 1960. “I loved to read the books of Zane Grey and the stories in the pulp fiction magazines,” he told Wakefield while recalling his childhood. Oakley Hall, the author of Warlock (1958), later told a student, “You studied with John Williams. He wrote the finest western ever written.” Yet the book wasn’t the kind of “Western” that readers usually associate with the term, and Williams took umbrage whenever reviewers and critics linked it with the pulps — an assumption that undercut the novel’s marketing and sales for decades. The book owes far more to Thoreau and Emerson than it does to Williams’s childhood reading.

The year after the publication of Butcher’s Crossing, Williams took to the pages of The Nation and dissected why writers had yet to produce a great novel of the American West. We’ve posted the essay (included in the LOA edition of Williams’s three novels) at our Story of the Week website, along with an introduction detailing the novel’s tortuous path to publication — and its mixed reception.

Read “The ‘Western’: Definition of the Myth” by John Williams

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