A pair of late, great American novelists who nearly fell into obscurity have made comebacks recently, thanks, in part, to new editions of their finest novels.
The two writers, Janet Lewis (1899–1998) and John Williams (1922–1994), had a lot in common. One might even say a ridiculous amount. They both made their livings by teaching; they both wrote verse in addition to fiction; and they both produced novels so wildly different from one another that they did not build up what would now be called a personal brand identity.
This story first appeared in the December 9, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Unlike many other 20th-century novelists, whose work, fairly or not, may be summed up in a phrase, Lewis and Williams defied categorization. Luckily for readers, Sparrow Press (on behalf of Lewis) and New York Review Books (for Williams) have overlooked this difficulty, releasing six handsome paperbacks.
Lewis was in the same high school class as Ernest Hemingway at the Oak Park High School in Illinois, but her literary output has little to do with the bare-bones existentialism associated with her classmate’s work. The Lewis books available are The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), a short novel set in the rural France of the late 1500s (it was made into a film starring Gérard Depardieu in 1982); The Trial of Sören Qvist (1947), the author’s favorite of her own novels, which is based on an old Danish legend; and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959), which takes us to the Paris of the 17th century.
Lewis’ champions include the novelists Larry McMurtry, Wallace Stegner, and Vikram Seth. She was nonchalant about her standing in American letters, saying, in a rare interview, “I’ve had as much recognition as I need, and probably as much as I deserve.”
Williams, who was born in Clarksville, Texas, also set his work in disparate times and places: Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is a revisionist western about a high-minded Harvard lad who seeks hard experience on the frontier; Stoner (1965) follows an English professor from his years as a student in 1910 through the aftermath of the Second World War; and Augustus (1971), a National Book Award winner, takes as its subject the founder of the Roman Empire. How’s that for range?
His noteworthy admirers include Tom Hanks, the novelist Nick Hornby, and the hard-to-please literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn. Williams’ take on the novel as a form was as matter-of-fact as the commonsense worldview that comes through in his fiction: “You know,” he said, “novels are useless, really. We don’t have to have them, like food or shelter, but we make them anyway, and making those useless things, that’s what separates us from the animals.”