by Lisa C. Hickman
“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’ 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
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.
posted April 2005)
Links & Info
Joan Williams was a panelist
at the 2002 Key West Literary Seminar in a session titled
“Spirit of Place: American Literary Landscapes.”
Department of Special Collections at the University of Mississippi
Library has uncorrected
proofs of Joan Williams book County Woman.
College Fiction Contest Winner
Mention Best American Short Story 1949
Morning and the Evening (1961)
P. Marquand First Novel Award
for The National Book Award
Recipient from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
the Piper (1988)
- The Morning and the Evening. New York: Atheneum, 1961.
Reprint, Voices of the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
- Old Powder Man. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World,
- 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.
- (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
- “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
- “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.” McCalls (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.
- “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,
- “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).
- Odle, Jenny and Alice Berry. “Twenty Will Not Come Again.”
Voices of the South. Circuit Playhouse, Memphis, Tennessee. 8-22 March
- 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.
- “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,
- 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,
- 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,
- 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.
- Betts, Doris. “Theres Power in Powder Man.” Review
of Old Powder Man. Raleigh News and Observer. 19 June
- 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
- 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,
- Review of County Woman. New Yorker. 15 March 1982, 143.
- Review of County Woman. Publishers Weekly. 18 December 1981,
- Review of County Woman. Village Voice Literary Supplement.
- 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.
- Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Booklist. August 1983,
- Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Kirkus Review. 1 June
- Review of Pariah and Other Stories. Library Journal. 14 June
- Review of Pariah and Other Stories. New Yorker. 10 October
- 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,
- 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,
- Review of The Wintering. Virginia Quarterly Review. (Summer
- Rubin, Louis B. “Life and Death of a Salesman.” Review
of Old Powder Man. Saturday Review of Literature. 21 May 1966,
- Scholes, Robert. “Fictional Facts as Factual Fiction.”
Review of Old Powder Man. New York Book Review. 15 May 1966,
- “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
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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
- Howard, Edwin. “Faulkner’s Friend and Confidante Ready
to Tell Her Story.” Memphis Press-Scimitar. 7 June 1980,
- 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.
- 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
sec. B, 1, 2.
- Thomas, William. “Young Friend of Faulkner Still Writing.”
Memphis Commercial Appeal. 19 April 1988, sec. B.
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