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Joan Williams dies at 75
(19 April 2004)
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Joan Williams

photo by Lisa C. Hickman   
Joan Williams
“I’m very moved emotionally by Mississippi and the hills and I write about that setting. It’s just something about the country and the landscape as a background that makes me want to write.”
—Joan Williams

Joan Williams’ wellspring of material always centered on the South, especially rural Mississippi, a place she mythologized, and in her later years, eulogized. By the 1990s, she bemoaned the loss of family-owned, small, Mississippi stores where the local gossip often fueled her imagination. Her childhood visits to relatives in Tate County dominated her literary terrain and the pull this area had for her surpassed growing up in Memphis and spending much of her adult life in the East. She once was asked after years of living in Connecticut when she would write a novel about Westport, she replied, “I’m never going to write about the East. And it’s not because there’s nothing to write about. It’s just the Southern flavor that—just simply moves me.”

Prompted to enter the Mademoiselle college fiction contest while a junior at Bard College, Williams wrote “Rain Later” — which captured the prize — in one inspired rush. Her maternal grandmother, Arvenia Moore of Arkabutla, Mississippi, decidedly influences this first significant work of short fiction. Williams’ mother, Maude Moore Williams (1903-1997), was born and reared in Arkabutla. Her father, Priestly Howard Williams (1895-1955), who later went by P.H., was born in Humboldt, Tennessee, though his family made several moves among small towns in northern Tennessee and eastern Arkansas. Eventually, Maude and P.H. settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where P.H., a dynamite broker, started the P. H. Williams Dynamite Company. His occupation and reputation flourished when he discovered the role of dynamite in the formation of levees. A larger-than-life figure who would light sticks of dynamite with the end of his cigarette, P.H. became the subject of Williams’ second novel, Old Powder Man.

Born September 26, 1928, Williams was an only child. Being bereft of siblings perhaps fostered her sense of loneliness that often serves as a revelatory force in her fiction. After the initial success of “Rain Later,” that also garnered an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories of 1949, Williams focused more on her writing. At that promising juncture of her life, after just reading The Sound and the Fury, she met William Faulkner in August 1949 during a spontaneous visit to his home, Rowan Oak. Their five-year relationship and long-term friendship intensified her commitment to becoming a writer. Not only was she getting published (a young editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Seymour Lawrence, accepted in 1952 her short story, “The Morning and the Evening”), but she also was exchanging hundreds of letters with Faulkner, the topic of which was often the role of the writer and the sacrifices of the artist.

Williams’ personal life shifted when she married Ezra Drinker Bowen, a writer for Sports Illustrated and son of biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen, on March 6, 1954, in Memphis. The couple moved to New York where their first son, Ezra Drinker Bowen, was born (October 1954); and after the birth of their second son, Matthew Williams Bowen (May 1956), they moved to Stamford, Connecticut.

Four years after the Atlantic Monthly publication, Williams sold another short story to Mademoiselle — a sequel to “The Morning and the Evening.” The idea of further expanding the two stories into a novel originated during the summer of 1958 while attending the writers conference, Breadloaf. When Atheneum published The Morning and the Evening in 1961, William Styron wrote, “It is a haunting and beautiful tale, richly infused with humor and sharp insights into the human predicament. Not the least of Miss Williams’ talents is her perfectly focused rendering of the Southern landscape, which comes through with the clear simplicity of Flaubert’s Normandy, and the sensuous feel of reality. A fine work.”

The novel, a finalist for the National Book Award, won the John P. Marquand Award for most distinguished first novel of the year and was recognized with a grant from the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962. (That same year the Institute awarded Faulkner a Gold Medal for Fiction.)

Old Powder Man (1966) received favorable reviews from many, including Doris Betts and Joyce Carol Oates. Robert Penn Warren, who provided a book-jacket blurb for William’s debut novel, wrote in his review of Old Powder Man, “Death of a Salesman — Southern Style” for Life, that: “My second observation has to do with the way Miss Williams regards her world. This is a Southern world, a part of the world immortalized by Wolfe, Welty, McCullers, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams. Irreconcilable differences are of course to be found among these writers, but there is one quality they all share — the need to seek intensifications, to lift life, to twist it, to shake it as a terrier shakes a rat, to make it reveal something beyond itself. Joan Williams asks only that it reveal itself.”

Williams’ marriage to Bowen ended in 1970 before publication of The Wintering, and on Oct. 29, 1970, she married John Fargason of Clover Hill Plantation in Coahoma County Mississippi.

Four books followed Old Powder Man: The Wintering (1971), a fictionalization of her friendship with Faulkner; County Woman (1982), praised by Anne Tyler, who noted Williams’ “faultless ear and eye” for rural community settings and characters, and who viewed the novel itself as a “wide, deep window upon a fascinating little world”; a short-story collection, Pariah and Other Stories (1983), whichTyler, in her second review of Williams’ work, noted “endurance [as] the thread running through the book”; and Pay the Piper (1988), for which Williams was a Guggenheim recipient. Her oeuvre also includes three uncollected stories published between 1989-1995 and an essay in memory of the poet Frank Stanford (1981).

In 1984, single again after two marriages (she and Fargason divorced in 1981), Williams rekindled her friendship with Seymour Lawrence who had his own imprint with Houghton Mifflin. They were together ten years until Lawrence’s death in 1994. In her memorial remarks, Williams said of their relationship, “After five years of loneliness, pain and hurt, it was wonderful again to have someone who needed me, someone to cook for, to have at home after that long, terrible time of opening the door in late afternoon, closing it, and going inside to the silence of four walls and knowing no one was ever going to come.”

The next decade of her life involved seeing two of her five novels reissued as part of Louisiana State University Press’s Voices of the South Series, and the publication of two novella-length stories in literary reviews. As she foretold in her remarks for Lawrence, “Sam was my last love … I can never feel as lost and lonely as I did when I re-met him. If I cannot love again as I did then, that is all right too. I have a belief in something else I never had before.”

Williams died on a cold, blustery Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004. She was 75 years old.

(Article first posted April 2005)

Lisa C. Hickman

Related Links & Info


Joan Williams was a panelist at the 2002 Key West Literary Seminar in a session titled “Spirit of Place: American Literary Landscapes.”

 

The Department of Special Collections at the University of Mississippi Library has uncorrected proofs of Joan Williams’ book County Woman.
County Woman (book cover)

 

Recognitions:

“Rain Later” (1949)

  • Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest Winner
  • Honorable Mention Best American Short Story 1949

The Morning and the Evening (1961)

  • John P. Marquand First Novel Award
  • Finalist for The National Book Award
  • Grant Recipient from the National Institute of Arts and Letters


Pay the Piper (1988)

  • Guggenheim Fellowship

Publications

Fiction: Novels:

  • The Morning and the Evening. New York: Atheneum, 1961. Reprint, Voices of the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
  • Old Powder Man. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
  • The Wintering. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971. Reprint, Voices of the South, with an afterword by Joan Williams, reprint, “ Twenty Will Not Come Again.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997, 371-389.
  • County Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
  • Pay the Piper. New York: Dutton, 1988.

Fiction: Short Story Collection

  • Pariah and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Teleplay

  • (Co-author with William Faulkner.) “The Graduation Dress,” General Electric Theatre, CBS, 30 October 1960.

Selected Short Story Publications:

  • “The Contest.” The Chattahoochee Review 15.4 (Summer 1995): 1-28.
  • “Daylight Comes.” Saturday Evening Post. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories.
  • “Going Ahead.” Saturday Evening Post (December 1964): 58-60. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories. Reprint, Southern Christmas Literary Classics of the Holidays. Eds. Judy Long and Thomas Payton. Athens, Georgia: Hill Street Press, 1998. 95-105.
  • “Happy Anniversary.” The Southern Review 31.4 (Autumn 1995): 907-934.
  • “Jesse.” Esquire (November 1969). Reprint in Pariah and Other Stories.
  • “The Morning and the Evening.” The Atlantic Monthly ( January 1952): 65-69. Reprint, Chapter One, The Morning and the Evening. New York: Atheneum, 1961.
  • “No Love for the Lonely.” Saturday Evening Post (19 January 1963): 48-51. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
  • “Pariah.” McCall’s (August 1967): 80-81, 121-126. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories.
  • “Rain Later.” Mademoiselle (August 1949): 331-338. College Fiction Award Winner, Mademoiselle, 1949. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories.
  • “Scoot.” Key West Review 3.1-2 (Fall and Winter 1989): 146-163. Reprint, Southern Reader 3.2 (September/October 1991): 16-17, 23+.
  • “Spring is Now.” The Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 1968): 626-640. Reprint, Pariah and Other Stories. Reprint, Crossing the Color Line. Ed. Suzanne W. Jones.. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. 97-107.
  • “Vistas.” Pariah and Other Stories.Reprint, Homeworks: A Book of Tennessee Writers. Eds. Phyllis Tickle and Alice Swanson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996. 35-38.

Nonfiction

  • “‘You-Are-Thereness’ in Fiction.” Writer (April 1967): 20-21, 72-73.
  • “Remembering.” Ironwood 17 (Spring 1981): 107-15.
  • “In Defense of Caroline Compson.” In Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. 402-07.
  • “Faulkner’s Advice to a Young Writer.” Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1990. Eds. Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. 253-62.
  • “Personal Sketch [William Faulkner].” The Bardian, Annandale-Hudson, NY (5 May 1951): 1, 4.
  • “Twenty Will Not Come Again.” The Atlantic Monthly (May 1980): 58-65.

Speeches and Addresses:

  • “Advice to a Young Writer.” Memphis Friends of the Library. Racquet Club, Memphis, Tennessee. 21 April 1996.
  • “Faulkner’s Advice to a Young Writer.” Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. July 29-August 3, 1990.
  • “The Purpose of the Novel.” A speech.
  • “The Southern Writer in the Vanishing South.” A speech.
  • “Waiting for Inspiration.” A speech.
  • “Writing Fiction as a Paradox.” A speech.
  • Memorial Remarks for Seymour Lawrence (1994).

Adaptations:

Dramatizations:

  • Odle, Jenny and Alice Berry. “Twenty Will Not Come Again.” Voices of the South. Circuit Playhouse, Memphis, Tennessee. 8-22 March 1997.
  • Odle, Jenny, Alice Berry, and Joan Williams. “The Contest.” Voices of the South. Circuit Playhouse, Memphis, Tennessee. 21 & 22 March 1997.
  • Odle, Jenny and Alice Berry “Twenty Will Not Come Again.” Voices of the South. Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference. Oxford, Mississippi. 27 July 1998.

Bibliography:

Critical Articles:

  • “Classic Revisited: Joan Williams.” The Double Dealer Redux 2.1 (1994): 10.
  • Gauch, Patricia Lee. “Faulkner and Beyond: A Biography of Joan Williams.” Ph.D. dissertation, Drew University, 1988.
  • Heirs, John T. “Joan Williams.” In Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Robert Bain, J. Flora, Lewis Rubin, 491-492. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
  • Morrison, Gail M. “Joan Williams.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 6: American Novelists Since World War II. Second Series. Edited by James E. Kibler Jr.. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. 367-70.
  • Scafidel, Beverly. “Biographical Sketch of Joan Williams.” In Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. Edited by James B. Lloyd.. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981. 470-71.
  • “Williams, Joan 1928-.” Contemporary Authors. First Rev. Vol. 1-VR. Edited by James M. Eldridge and B. Kapela. Detroit: Gale Research, 1967. 1006.
  • “Williams, Joan 1928-.” Contemporary Authors. New Rev. Series. Vol. 48. Edited by Pamela S. Dear. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995. 478-479.
  • Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “The Career of Joan Williams: Problems in Assessment.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. 273-82.
  • Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “Joan Williams: The Rebellious Heart.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. 97-113.

Reviews:

  • Betts, Doris. “There’s Power in Powder Man.” Review of Old Powder Man. Raleigh News and Observer. 19 June 1966.
  • Boozer, William. “Novel ‘Pay the Piper’ Is Proof Williams Learned Her Lesson Well.” Review of Pay the Piper. Nashville Banner. 14 May 1988.
  • Chappell, Fred. “Southern Protagonist Driven by Passion, Not by Intellect.” Review of Pay the Piper. Greensboro News and Record.
  • Douglas, Mary Stahlman. “Story of Dynamiting, Ditch-Digging Genius.” Review of Old Powder Man. Nashville Banner.
  • “Four of the Most Important New Books of the Spring Are by Southern Authors.” Review of The Wintering. Memphis Press-Scimitar. 11 June 1971.
  • Haslof, Nora. “A Feminist Eulogy to a Woman Out of Control.” Review of Pay the Piper. Fairfield Citizen-News. 12 May 1989.
  • Hicks, Granville. “Sorrow Without Horror.” Review of The Morning and the Evening. Saturday Review. 13 May 1961, 20.
  • Howard, Edwin. “Memphis’ Joan Williams Pens Touching, Unusual Novel.” Review of Old Powder Man. Memphis Press-Scimitar. 13 May 1966.
  • Lewis, Jim. “Joan Williams Pens Poignant Novel.” Review of Pay the Piper. Chattanooga News-Free Press. 6 May 1988.
  • Mathews, Jean. “Whine This Strong Can Drown Reader.” Review of Pay the Piper. Memphis Commercial Appeal. 12 June 1988.
  • Milton, Edith. Review of Pariah and Other Stories. New York Times Book Review. 18 September 1983, 14.
  • Morrice, Polly. Review of County Woman. Chicago Tribune. 9 May 1982, 2.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. “Novels by Joan Williams and Nabokow: Today’s Best and Yesterday’s Worst.” Review of Old Powder Man. Detroit Free Press. 15 May 1966.
  • Review of County Woman. Booklist. 15 February 1982, 746.
  • Review of County Woman. Kirkus Review. 1 December 1981, 1489.
  • Review of County Woman. Library Journal. 1 March 1982, 564.
  • Review of County Woman. National Review. 5 February 1982, 116.
  • Review of County Woman. New Yorker. 15 March 1982, 143.
  • Review of County Woman. Publishers Weekly. 18 December 1981, 58.
  • Review of County Woman. Village Voice Literary Supplement. February
    1982, 4.
  • Review of The Morning and the Evening. Booklist. 15 May 1961.
  • Review of The Morning and the Evening. Christian Science Monitor.
    18 May 1961.
  • Review of The Morning and the Evening. New York Times Book Review.
    21 May 1961.
  • Review of The Morning and the Evening. San Francisco Chronicle. 30
    May 1961.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Booklist. August 1983, 1450.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Kirkus Review. 1 June 1983, 638.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Library Journal. 14 June 1983, 1276.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. New Yorker. 10 October 1983, 167.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Publishers Weekly. 10 June 1983, 56.
  • Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Washington Post Book World. 7 August 1983, 8.
  • Review of Pay the Piper. Booklist. 15 May 1988, 1573.
  • Review of Pay the Piper. Kirkus Review. 15 March 1988, 407.
  • Review of Pay the Piper. Publishers Weekly. 25 March 1988, 52.
  • Review of The Wintering. Best Sellers. 15 June 1971, 138.
  • Review of The Wintering. Booklist. 1 September 1971, 39.
  • Review of The Wintering. Hudson Review. (Spring 1972), 166.
  • Review of The Wintering. Kirkus Review. 1 February 1971, 138.
  • Review of The Wintering. Library Journal. 15 March 1971, 978.
  • Review of The Wintering. Publishers Weekly. 25 January 1971, 260.
  • Review of The Wintering. Virginia Quarterly Review. (Summer 1971), 96.
  • Rubin, Louis B. “Life and Death of a Salesman.” Review of Old Powder Man. Saturday Review of Literature. 21 May 1966, 32-33.
  • Scholes, Robert. “Fictional Facts as Factual Fiction.” Review of Old Powder Man. New York Book Review. 15 May 1966, 40.
  • “A Southern Woman in the Northeast.” Review of Pay the Piper. Westport News. 11 May 1988.
  • Sparrow, Bonita. “‘The Wintering’: A Remarkable Book.” Review of The Wintering. Memphis Commercial Appeal. 16 May 1971.
  • “Two True Sounds from Dixie.” Review of The Morning and the Evening. Time. 19 May 1961, 105.
  • Tyler, Anne. Review of County Woman. Detroit News. 7 February 1982.
  • Tyler, Anne. Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Detroit News. 4 September 1983.
  • Warren, Robert Penn. “Death of a Salesman—Southern Style.” Review of Old Powder Man. Life. 20 May 1966, 10.
  • Wheeler, Elizabeth. Review of County Woman. Los Angeles Times Book
    Review
    . 15 September 1985, 8.
  • Yardley, Jonathan. Review of County Woman. Washington Post Book World. 7 February 1982, 3.
  • Yardley, Jonathan. “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten.” Review of Pay the Piper. Washington Post Book World. 29 May 1988.

Biographical Articles:

  • BeVier, Thomas. “Prison Proves No Bar When Love Walks In.” Memphis Commercial Appeal. 30 October 1971.
  • Bingham, Sally. “(Southern?) Women Writers.” Ms. 1, no. 6, May/June (1991): 68-70.
  • Elan, Susan. “Feet in the North, Head in the South.” Fairfield (Connecticut) County Advocate. 12 September 1988.
  • Herrick, Betty. “Joan Williams: William Faulkner’s Willing Ear.” Wilton (Connecticut) Bulletin. 10 February 1988.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “Dramatization of Joan Williams’ Essay on Faulkner Set for F &Y Conference.” The Faulkner Newsletter and Yoknapatawpha Review 18.3 (July-September 1998): 3.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “Headed South: Voices of the South Presents One Woman’s Memories of William Faulkner.” The Memphis Flyer. 16-22 March 1997, 24.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “In Orbit With William Faulkner: Part I.” Memphis Magazine July/August 2001: 64+.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “In Orbit With William Faulkner: Part II.” Memphis Magazine September 2001: 50+.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “Remembering Joan.” The Memphis Flyer: Southern Festival of Books Issue 7-13 October 2004, 17.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “The Teller’s Tale: An Afternoon on Faulkner’s Minmagary.” The Southern Quarterly 39.3 (2001): 151-161.
  • Hickman, Lisa C. “William Faulkner and A. E. Housman: Writer’s Poet.” Housman Society Journal 27 (2001): 23-35.
  • Howard, Edwin. “Burying ‘Mr. Bill’: Faulkner ‘Liked to Walk in the Dust of the Road.’” Memphis Business Journal. 22-26 September 1997, 27, 30.\
  • Howard, Edwin. “Faulkner Protege’s Memoir Gets a Second Life in Print.” Memphis Business Journal. 24-28 November 1997, 22.
  • Howard, Edwin. “Faulkner’s Friend and Confidante Ready to Tell Her Story.” Memphis Press-Scimitar. 7 June 1980, 6.
  • Howard, Edwin. “Joan Williams.” The Delta Review. November/December (1966): 34-35, 59.
  • Koeppel, Fredric. “To Be Remembered . . . Respected Southern Writer ‘Back Where I Belong.’” Memphis Commercial Appeal. 8 January 1995, sec. G, 1-2.
  • Mullener, Elizabeth. “Joan Williams and William Faulkner: A Romance Remembered.” Times Picayune, Dixie Magazine. 19 September 1982, 8-10, 12-14, 16, 18.
  • Maurer, David A. “Longtime Friendship Developed Through Sound and Fury.” Charlottesville Daily Progress. 23 January 2000, sec. E, 1, 3.
  • O’Dell, Steve. “Faulkner Protege Joan Williams Will Be Missed.” Memphis East Memphis Appeal. 29 April 2004, sec. EM, 1.
  • Quigley, Linda. “‘Pay the Piper’ Turning Point for Author.” Nashville Tennessean.
  • Siegel, Sylvia.”Joan Williams’ Life and Art: Faulkner’s Friend . . . but Her Own Writer.” The Hour (Norwalk, Connecticut). 8 August 1988, 13, 15.
  • “Southern Heritage Inspires Writer.” Senatobia (Mississippi) Tate County Democrat.
  • Thomas, William. “Literary Tale Will Be Tugged in Court: Protegee Seeks Faulkner Book.” Memphis Commercial Appeal. 2 November 1987,
    sec. B, 1, 2.
  • Thomas, William. “Young Friend of Faulkner Still Writing.” Memphis Commercial Appeal. 19 April 1988, sec. B.

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